“…the future is not one thing. So many possibilities can arise as a result of intelligence, education, curiosity and hard work. No one ever told me that and I’m sorry it took this long for me to figure it out.” ~ Ann Patchett
“Now. That’s the key. Now, now, now. Mindfulness trains you to be awake and alive, fully curious, about what? Well, about now, right? You sit in meditation and the out-breath is now and waking up from your fantasies is now and even the fantasies are now, although they seem to take you into the past and into the future. The more you can be completely now, the more you realize that you’re in the center of the world, standing in the middle of a sacred circle.”
~ Excerpted from: Awakening Loving-Kindness, Pema Chödrön, page 57
|“Can you learn to surf the chaos and uncertainty that real life includes without falling into a trance of unworthiness? You can. A surfer is powerless to change the towering wave rushing toward her. But she doesn’t want to change it. She wants to surf it and she learns to feel safe in the immense ocean of being even when she falls. She confidently gets right back up to meet the next wave.”|
Excerpted from: Zen in the Age of Anxiety: Wisdom for Navigating Our Modern Lives, by Tim Burkett, page 31
If I could find the right words to soothe you,
to calm you and comfort you,
I would blanket them around you
with blessings and prayers
And remind you that you will make it through
No matter how dim and narrow and harrowing it looks
A golden thread extends forward into eternity
pulling you forth
A cord of light from your heart
that connects you to the great sea of Being
that is the whole of us
but do not doubt it,
for it is the very fabric of our Being
the hidden secret
that wells our eyes with tears
as we recognize ourselves
in each other.
“If you make happiness your primary goal, you might miss out on the challenges that give life meaning. ..Bringing good things into your life, whether love, career success, or something else, usually involves risk. Risk doesn’t necessarily make us happy, and a risky life is going to bring disappointment. But it can also bring bigger rewards than a life played safe, as the study of happiness, academic achievement, and income suggests. Those with the highest performance at work and school made decisions that were probably unpleasant at times, and even scary…
As with everything in life, happiness has its trade-offs. Pursuing happiness to the exclusion of other goals–known as psychological hedonism–is not only an exercise in futility. It may also give you a life that you find you don’t want, one in which you don’t reach your full potential, you’re reluctant to take risks, and you choose fleeting pleasures over challenging experiences that give life meaning.”
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
The full article can be read in the Atlantic:
“People often say, ‘Meditation is all very well, but what does it have to do with my life?’ What it has to do with your life is that perhaps through this simple practice of paying attention—giving loving-kindness to your speech and your actions and the movements of your mind—you begin to realize that you’re always standing in the middle of a sacred circle, and that’s your whole life. This room is not the sacred circle. Gampo Abbey is not the sacred circle. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’re always in the middle of the universe and the circle is always around you. Everyone who walks up to you has entered that sacred space, and it’s not an accident. Whatever comes into the space is there to teach you.”
by Pema Chödrön, page 54
“Someone once said, ‘Anxiety is excitement without the breath.’ What this means to me is that if I can breathe through the anxiety, I can recognize that it is a friend trying to warn me when it thinks I am in danger.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes the very traumatized friend—lingering anxiety in me, launched by something awful someone said or did—that is emerging at times when there is no immediate threat.
I learned if I could see free-floating anxiety as my traumatized friend who is always with me, I can learn to breathe through the terror I experience so viscerally and transform trepidation into curiosity. We can offer our traumatized friends within both consolation and encouragement using this affirmation:
Thank you, anxiety, for helping me stay alert to the multiple emotional, physical, and spiritual threats in the world. You can relax, as I am breathing through the worry.“
~ Excerpted from: “On Being Lailah’s Daughter” by Kamilah Majied in Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom.
Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot was inspired by an image taken by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. As the spacecraft was departing for the fringes of the solar system, it took a final photograph of the earth.
Voyager 1 was about 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away, and approximately 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane, when it captured a portrait of our planet. Caught in the centre of scattered light rays (a result of taking the picture so close to the Sun), it appears as a tiny point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
~ Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
“It is like this now.” ~ Ajahn Chah
I practice and study Buddhist Insight (Vipassana) meditation with a small local group of practitioners once a week. I discovered this form of Buddhism when my daughter was three years old and it has become an important anchor in my life. Vipassana can be translated as “insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. It is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness.
Through the process of mindfulness, you slowly becomes aware of what exists below the ego image. Vipassana is a form of mental training that teaches you to experience the world in an entirely new way. It is a process of self-discovery, an investigation in which you observe your own experiences, while participating in them as they occur.
Most of the members of my sangha are seasoned meditators, who have developed a committed and consistent daily practice over many years: sitting for lengthy periods of time, several times a day. They are all older than me, and they are either retired, single, or have grown children, so they are at a different stage and place in their lives. As an independent parent, working full-time, and caring for my aging parents, it can be challenging to fit in a formal sitting period once a day, let alone multiple times. It is easy to beat myself up about it and feel like a failure; or it is an invitation to recognize that this is the place I am at currently in my life. Mindfulness still provides me with refuge. It just shows up in a different form.
At the moment, I am allowed to visit my mom once a week in her assisted living facility. In addition her late stage Alzheimer’s Disease, we are also facing COVID-19 restrictions, so the visiting conditions are very limited. Our allotted half an hour is spent together in a small, boardroom with a large wooden table at its centre. I wear a surgical mask and I cannot hug my mom. We are allowed to hold hands, and as she needs to constantly move her body, we walk in circles around the perimeter of the table. My mom has lost her ability to use language. She talks with a nervous, non-stop energy, and the words tumbling out her mouth are mostly unrecognizable. We cannot carry on a conversation. She stoops and she cannot look me in the eyes. I listen and nod along to her monologue. I rub her back and I provide her with comforting responses and assurances when I think she needs them.
What I am noticing about our time together is that we are firmly rooted in the moment. There is no ability to escape and wander away from where we are with small talk or distractions. We are in this moment together, and then the next one, and the next, until the time in our proverbial hourglass elapses. It is a walking meditation, one which demands that I pay attention to my surroundings, and the subtle changes in my mother’s tone and demeanour. I notice the rhythm of my own breath and the pattern of our steps. We are learning relate to relate to one another in a new and unfamiliar way. There are no recognizable protocols. We make it up as we go. All that is constant is the love that connects us together.
As the parent of a young adolescent, I bear witness on a daily basis to the rapid physical and emotional changes taking place within my child. She is often flailing in deep waters of intense emotions and it is hard not to get pulled under with her. My daughter knows just what to say to evoke a response from me; she is smart and she never misses her target. It is easy to get caught up in an automatic response: a knee-jerk reaction, where I lose my temper and perspective, along with her. It is in these moments that I am being provided with an invitation to take a step back and pause for just a beat: to bear witness to the intense triggering that is occurring. To feel the anger and agitation that arises from deep inside and let it wash over me. To choose not to respond and instead take a moment to breathe in deeply and seek ways to regulate my own body. Once I find my centre, I can then try to locate my child, and pull her into shore. This is my practice in motion.
During a busy day, it is easy to feel like there is no time for meditation, and so rather than doing a little bit, I do nothing. One of the members of my group, who used to be an emergency room nurse, provided me with some good advice, which has helped me to find a path forward. She shared that when she was working full-time she would fit in her daily practice in five minute increments. Much like getting up from your desk and stretching, or taking a short walk, a five-minute meditation is a mental break which can be easily fit in almost anywhere. I do not need a cushion or a quiet space: I only need awareness, the ability to scan my body, and my breath. This can be done while driving, walking or washing dishes. It can be achieved through generating thoughts of love and gratitude. These moments of conscious reflection are like mini-calisthenics for the brain: every little one helps to make it stronger and more receptive. Slowly but surely my capacity for holding this mental space increases over time.
Although I still enjoy the idea of going on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, or finding a way to cultivate a solid daily practice, I also accept that this is where I am in my life at the moment. It is messy and unpredictable and I need to be flexible and adaptive in my approach. Mindfulness provides value in all of its many forms and holding on to a set idea of what it needs to look like, in order to be successful, is unhelpful. Providing myself with love and acceptance is part of my work, because without the ability to extend this to myself, I will not be able to offer it to others.
“Present moment, perfect moment.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
I have not been able to bring myself to post onto the blog for a month now. Every time I sit down to write, I have been at a loss for words. All I can think is: “What can I possibly contribute at this moment?” A virus threatens the health and security of millions of people across the globe. Many of us are quarantined at home and physically separated from one another, with no end in sight. The world is in turmoil. Why does my one little voice matter?
As I have struggled with these doubts, readers continue to visit my site, despite there being a lack of new content. I am humbled to imagine a person sitting in Australia, India, Russia and Israel taking the time to read my words; and it reminds me that love, community and connection are the lights that will guide us through this this dark time. It gives me the courage to show up again on the page. I want you to know that I am here for you. You are not alone.
As a naturally anxious person, the last few weeks have been difficult. The human brain is wired to project itself into the future; it prefers to imagine the worst case scenario, and anticipate what is coming, rather than sit with the discomfort of uncertainty. The truth is that I do not know what will happen next or when this current situation will end. I do not know what life will look like on the other side. All I know for sure is what I am experiencing in this very moment; and it is hard.
The child-like part of myself desperately wishes for things to be “fixed” and to go “back to normal”. The wise part knows that life is complex and messy: not just now, but always. It is important for me to meet life on its own terms. I must make space for the difficult and uncomfortable emotions that I feel about our new reality: grief, sadness, fear and anger. They are all valid and true. They each need the opportunity to show up and to be heard.
In her recent podcast, Brené Brown speaks to the damage caused by comparative suffering in a catastrophic situation such as COVID-19. This is the belief that you are not allowed to feel upset and afraid, when many others face much worse: the front line workers; marginalized and vulnerable populations; countries with no infrastructure. The reality is that pushing your own emotions away only results in guilt and shame. Shame is the opposite of empathy. It is constricted, self-focused and finite, whereas empathy is boundless. You can hold emphatic space for your own difficult emotions, as well as for the suffering of others; and it is important to create space for both. This provides us with the strength that we require to make it through a time of crisis: both as an individual and as a part of the collective.
Right now, my daily work is to bring my mind back into the present moment. The wonderful writer, Liz Gilbert, recently shared a technique that she uses to ground herself, and I am finding it to be very helpful. It is called Five, Four, Three, Two, One. First, you look around and identify five things that you can physically see in your immediate surroundings (e.g. green grass, street lamp, red shoes, mail box, flower pot). Then move onto identifying four things that you can hear (e.g. garbage truck, robin chirping, person talking on their phone, wind in the trees). Again, it can be even the smallest thing, but it needs to be something happening in the here and now. Then move onto naming three things that you can feel (e.g. woollen scarf, cold fingertips, watch). Follow it with two things that you can smell (e.g. fresh cut grass, a daffodil). And lastly, one thing you can taste (e.g. remnants of morning coffee).
In a time of great uncertainty, this simple exercise will help to ground you in your body, as it brings the mind back to the present moment. This is our work right now: to feel; to notice; to show up for ourselves and each other; to keep putting one foot in front of the other; to take it one day at a time. As a wise woman once said to me: “The only way out is through.” I have always held this close to my heart and it has served me well. Take my hand and let’s keep going. We can do hard things together.