Resistance is futile

change-I’m about to ask you to do something really, really scary.  Ready?

Ok.  I want you to, just for a minute, let go of any preconceived notions that you actually have any control over the outcome of anything in your life.  Period.  Are you terrified yet?  At minimum you’re pretty uncomfortable.  But let’s keep going and I’ll explain.

What I’m talking about here isn’t little mundane choices we make daily.  For example, I know that if I choose to eat as much chocolate and drink as much wine as I can hold, no matter how bad the day was, the next day is going to feel like hell.  This is basic causation.  But this cause and effect doesn’t necessarily extrapolate to the larger world or to cosmic rationale.  There are people we all know who, despite having it all “together” and being “good people” have suffered the greatest heartache.  And still we know others who, to our minds, may be polar opposite of what we think of as a “good person” and skate through their lives with the greatest of ease.  There is no universal equality when it comes to security.  In fact, in her book “When Things Fall Apart,” Pema Chodron says, “To think that we can finally get it all together is unrealistic.  To seek for some lasting security is futile … One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction.”

Let me give you a personal example of this.  A few years ago, I was in a terrible relationship.  And yet I clung to it for security like it would feed me and keep me and protect me.  Instead it drained me, battered me and nearly killed me.  And yet I didn’t want to see what was happening.  I had planned, you see.  I had planned on a family and a marriage and a happily ever after. I was 32.  This was it, dammit.  But it wasn’t.  It fell apart, and rather dramatically, I might add.  The more desperately I clung on to try to control the inevitable outcome, the greater the lesson built up to show me that control was a moot point and my resistance was not only futile but making things a whole hell of a lot worse.  I resisted the truth and ultimately resisted my path and my own Truth (capital T, thank you).  You see, the “good” in my life fell apart and became “bad.”  At least that’s how I saw it.  Really, though, I was shedding a lot of “bad” and made room for the FABULOUS (all caps, thankyouverymuch).  But that’s not what I saw.  I just saw what was present and resisted any change.  I had the foolish notion that I was in control of everything and that if I just clung on to it hard enough, I could manifest the “correct” outcome.  It doesn’t work like that.

Nothing is constant.  Life is always changing.  The “good” will go “bad.”  But the good news in this is that the “bad” will also go “good.”  I was talking to my friend the other day in the midst of his most desperate hour in his atrocious divorce.  He said to me, “I think this might be the worst thing.” All I could think to say to him was, “Guess what?  That means the next thing automatically has to be better.  You got to the bottom; you’re only going up now.”  The amount of resistance that we feel from something is equal to the emotional energy that we put into the response.  So, if we label divorce or losing a job or moving as “really bad,” well, we’re automatically going to think it sucks.  Likewise, if we label marriage or getting a good job or even winning the lottery as “really good,” then we’re automatically going to be really freaking terrified.  It goes like this:  Big Emotion = Big Resistance = Ridiculous attempt to control our lives.  Does any of this seem like a good use of energy to you?  Me neither.

Am I saying don’t feel big emotion or have an emotional response to change?  Absolutely not.  I’m saying take a step back and look at change (ALL change) in the larger context of your life.  What response does this trigger?  Will a “loss” usher something else in?  Will a “gain” allow you to expand your magnanimity and share with others?  When something shows up to rock your world, let go of the good/bad dichotomy and see if there is a larger message in the change.  It is all change.  Yes, everything falls apart.  But at some point it comes back together, too.  It always has, and it always will.

Love, heather.

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The Art of Self-Compassion

blue.star.buddha.bigI thought it might be time to get away when I started having vivid and poignant escapist fantasies involving one-way tickets to Barbados.  I knew it was time to leave when I had a full-blown hissy-fit at my boss.  So, before he could call HR and write me up for insubordination, I hopped into my car and headed straight to my favorite Buddhist retreat center in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  I had booked myself into a three day meditation retreat; the topic? Compassion.  (Honestly, the topic could have been anything and I still would have gone.)  With the stressors literally piling up as I fled civilization, I arrived at the Center and started bawling.  I had gone and done it again – I had neglected my most basic needs.  My self-compassion had gone out the window.  The result was that everything in my life had begun to spiral out of control.  My emotions, my relationships, hell even my personal business, up to, and including, a small scuffle with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (“What do you mean you lost my proof of insurance and are about to terminate my registration?!?”).  To top it all off, I had a full-blown case of poison oak that was spreading alarmingly fast over most of my extremities (try meditating through that!).

I showed up at the Center very much looking and feeling like I had been dragged backwards through a knot-hole.  I don’t remember the evening meal, but I do remember my fellow retreaters looking at me rather alarmingly.  I was the personification of “basket case” – and I was in the right place.

That evening the first topic was – surprise – compassion, but more specifically, self-compassion.  And as I began to meditate on this I began to see and feel the threads of understanding wind through my consciousness.  One of the basic tenants of Buddhism is to have compassion for all sentient beings, including ourselves.  And for most of us (especially us Westerners), we can definitely get behind the idea of practicing compassion.  But we tend to do it for everyone except ourselves.  We dole it out all day long to those in need, to our families, to our co-workers or to our pets.  But when it comes to giving compassion to ourselves, we fall short.  We externalize the idea of compassion and happiness, forgetting that the first, last and only source of either of these things is internal.  The result of this neglect is a kind of quid-pro-quo relationship with others.  That is, we’ll do unto others, but when they fall short in reciprocating our efforts, we feel unloved and hurt.  This is an externalization of our own power and leads to dualistic and decidedly un-compassionate thoughts and actions (“He does’t love me back?!? I’ll show him!!”).  If the Buddha were alive today, he might tell us (if I may be so bold…) that this is a half-assed approach, and that certainly we are not practicing any real kind of compassion.  Even if we leave the Buddhist teachings and look at this holistically, it doesn’t take us long to work out that before we can even begin to practice loving kindness to any other creature on the planet, we must first do it for ourselves.  How can we give if the well is dry?  We must tend the inner well and inner light first.  Only then can we begin to truly have any idea what compassion and loving kindness really are.

I wish I could say that three days cured me of my chronic workaholism, and that I am now an expert on practicing compassion flawlessly.  Um, no.  That’s an awful lot of programming to undo in three days (and truth be told, I could have used at least another week to even completely relax…).  But I am more aware of myself and the symptomology of over-exertion.  I am now more compassionate with myself and understanding.  I know now that when I’m tired and cranky, instead of berating myself for being tired and cranky, I step back and unplug.  Instead of getting after myself for not being perfect enough, or smart enough, or skinny enough or enough of enough, I just need to take a step back and recognize that I am doing the very best that I can.  As long as I can honestly say, “Heather, you are doing your best,” that is enough.  It took the Buddha six years under that Bodhi tree to understand the true nature of reality.  I am ok with the fact that it will, undoubtedly, take me much longer.

Slowly, slowly.

Namaste.

–h

Staring down the Shenpa

“I am a train wreck,” I said to a friend of mine one day.  “What the hell?”

“You’re not a train wreck,” she said patiently.  But, as I felt she was biased, I didn’t believe her.  “What do you do when these things crop up?  How have you been handling it?”

“‘Handling it’ seems like kind of a pipe dream,” I countered. “I’m a basket case.”

“No you’re not,” she said calmly (again with the obligatory platitudes).  “You seem to have named these feelings.  That’s good.  You’re observing them.”

“Well then how come it’s not getting better?  It’s worse,” I said.  I was getting fairly desperate at this point.

“Because you’re just observing them,” she countered.

“Are you saying I’m copping out?”

“Yep.”

Dammit.

It seems like somewhere along the way from personal devastation to near-recovery, I had developed a few defense mechanisms to deal with the really deep and ugly stuff.  The stuff that we all have that’s lurking around in our depths; its been down there so long, it doesn’t have a name.  It’s just a bulky mass in the darkness.  And when it moves around, it knocks us off balance.

So what was I supposed to do about it?  I was effectively thrown sideways and felt as though I was watching my sanity slip.  Whatever I was doing wasn’t working.  It was the equivalent of a scared child trembling in bed, transfixed on the closet door, waiting – just waiting – for the monster to come crashing out.  I had to get out of bed and fling that door open, but I was just too damn scared of what was actually in there.

Luckily, I was not the first person to feel this way.  It turns out that Tibetan Buddhists are experts on this kind of thing, and have many practices that they teach to scared, half-crazed souls such as myself.  My friend told me about Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun who teaches meditation (among other things), and her recording “Getting Unstuck – Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.”  I was game to try anything, so I went home and downloaded it.

Even after years and years of mediation, I had never done a Buddhist meditation on mindfulness.  There are many significant differences from other practices, the biggest (for me) is that you do this practice with your eyes open.  You can’t run. You’re there. It’s intentional for many reasons, but for me it meant that I very literally had to stare down what was going on inside my head.

But what made this recording really resonate with me is the teaching on shenpa – or the things that hook us and drag us down or lure us off into fantasy so that we don’t deal with the issues at hand.  The things that are so painful, ugly or disconcerting that they start us on the downward spiral towards numbing the pain with defense mechanisms or addictions just to be able to escape from them for a little bit.  And I was staring down some big-time shenpa.  This was what was pulling me into insanity, making me feel frantic and out of control.  The source of the shenpa is irrelevant to this discussion, its the process of working through it that I want to share.

Coincidentally, shenpa is the exact same thing that sneaks up on you in meditation.  Sometimes it pokes you, sometimes it takes you by the hand and drags you down some fantasy road or another.  And sometimes it mauls you like a Bengal tiger. I fell into this last category.  So there I went, armed with Pema’s recording and a frantic mind, I decided to sit through the practice to see if it would make a big difference.  Immediately I hated it.  This is mostly because the second I sat down and tried to focus on my breath I began hyperventilating – not good.  But, as Pema teaches, you must stay.  As big and painful and horrible as it is, you must stay with it.  You can not name it, rationalize it, escape it or destroy it.  And so I stayed.  I sat  for many hours over the next few weeks and stared at this shenpa until I got to know every crevice of it.  Over time it began to soften and melt a little bit, as though my gaze were warming it.  Little by little, it faded into the background – not gone, not completely.  Just a more manageable piece and something that didn’t have power over me any more.

That was a significant event for me, but also a deeply hurtful shenpa.  I have more; so do you.  And that’s ok.  What is important is that it is very possible to move through it and, as Pema says, face “naked reality.” You need only have enough self love to recognize that you must face these fears head on.  Be brave.

Namaste.