To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
Mary Oliver – In Blackwater Woods
I am currently in the middle of another period of great personal upheaval in my life. Family members are aging and unwell; relationships and situations that once felt strong, solid and unshakable are shifting and moving. Life is looking me squarely in the eye and saying: “Nothing remains the same.”
My natural inclination is to resist change. My tendency is to choose the familiar over the unfamiliar. I like to create systems, map things out and control my environment through order. This false sense of security works for me until the ground shakes and throws me off balance: revealing that everything is fluid and ever shifting. I am slowly realizing that my resistance is at the core of my discomfort: making a very difficult situation even harder to navigate.
The human brain is not comfortable with the unknown. It likes to create stories and imagine what will happen next, rather than sit in the vast and open discomfort of unknowing. The stories we create do not protect us from what is to come; they only result in generating unnecessary worry and anxiety. 99.9% of the time, what we imagine will happen is not anything close to what ends up taking place.
Almost 2600 years ago, the Buddha uncovered the root of human suffering; and he outlined his discovery in the four noble truths. Here is a brief summary of them, as summarized from this article by Ronald Alexander, and his book Wise Mind, Open Mind:
1st Noble Truth: In life, there is suffering, because of the impermanent nature of things.
Humans have developed great capacity for denying a simple truth: nothing stays the same. Even if we do everything “right” and exercise every precaution, we will still face unexpected loss. It is important to learn to let go, and try to create space for what is actually unfolding, however uncomfortable.
2nd Noble Truth: Suffering is due to attachments and expectations, to grasping and clinging.
Clinging to the past, or avoiding the process of grief or acceptance, creates suffering. Grasping for a future set of circumstances identical to the past holds you back from discovering what better roads lie ahead, outside of your sight. The desire to backtrack or reconstruct will likely result in your walking around in circles, lost in the dark woods, instead of peering around corners to find new paths. When we can completely let go and stop struggling against the reality of the current moment, it allows us to embrace the groundlessness of our situation, and relax into its dynamic quality.
3rd Noble Truth: It is possible to end suffering by giving up attachments (clinging) and expectations (grasping).
There is no such thing as a permanent sense of happiness. We must broaden our definition of what we need in order to be happy; this includes letting go of habits of clinging and grasping to the past and expectations for the future, as well as the need to control external circumstances.
4th Noble Truth: The way to end suffering due to clinging and grasping is through balance and living in the present.
It is important to balance a thirst for something better with an acceptance of what is taking place, right here, right now. Balance allows you to live in the present moment and trust that your acceptance will clear the way of confusion and distractions: showing you how to move forward into happiness again. The paradox of change is until you can accept what is, you cannot move into what might be.
There is much to be said about the power of gratitude. It helps to focus the mind on the tiny, beautiful things unfolding in front of you, rather than to allow it to jump into the unknown. Lately, when my thoughts start to rush ahead, I make a conscious effort to bring myself back to the present moment, and to really notice what is around me: the sound of birds calling outside of my window; the beauty of my sleeping child’s face; the enjoyment of walking my dog. I remind myself what I am grateful for in my life and what is working well. It does not take the fear away but it does help to anchor me in a groundless situation.
The one guarantee in this life is change. I cannot influence or control this reality; but I can determine my reaction to it. If I can begin to allow for the discomfort of not knowing what the future holds, it creates space for me to be present in the current moment. This opens up the possibility of discovering solutions and a path forward. Putting one foot in front of the other, I trust that this difficult period will eventually end, as everything eventually does; and I will emerge out the other side, back into the light.
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