Last night a swirl of smoke moved in from the east where forest fires are burning uncontained in multiple areas here in Northern California. The brown cloud covered the sun, turning it bright red. My mind filled with scenes of tinderbox forests and golden hillsides in towering flames as valiant firefighters work endless hours to protect whatever they can. I send them metta, loving- kindness: May they be well. May they be free from harm. I feel a welling up of gratitude for their efforts. Then I look out at the forest where we Iive and feel the fear I always feel in this dry season, but especially now after years of drought. I don’t want to think about the devastation that could happen before my eyes, taking away our home, our neighborhood, the glorious little eco-system on this hill, the restful green beauty that soothes me, but every time I hear sirens, I feel tension in my body as fear leaps into the foreground of my awareness.
What is the benefit of the regular practice of meditation, you might reasonably ask, if you still experience this kind of fear and worry? Shouldn’t I, a long-time practitioner and a teacher of meditation, be all blissed out? I remember Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman and his goofy grin saying ‘What me worry?’ I think of Janis Joplin singing ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ This is why theoretically monks have a better chance at a bliss state: They have given up all material incumbrances. But the human mind is funny. It quite naturally builds ‘something’ even out of what some might call nothing. And then it protects that something fiercely. Remember the Tassajara fire where Buddhist monks risked their lives to defend the monastery? Brave. Foolish. Those two words are so often entwined.
People who have lost their homes to tornados always thank God that the family survived. Their house and all those mementos now destroyed and scattered for miles will be missed, of course, but that force of nature that tore through the neighborhood left behind a harsh but valuable lesson on what really matters.
Whatever we lose we can always imagine something worse. That is the nature of the human mind. And when that worse thing happens — because we do lose family members, don’t we? — we amazingly find some way to live with that.
It is the nature of the human mind to care, and I for one appreciate that. We care deeply! Meditation practice doesn’t cause us not to care. It is not a drug to bring a state of oblivion. Instead it creates a compassionate spacious ease where we can see more clearly the activity of the mind and how we are in relationship to all aspects of our lives and the world around us. We can see how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away.
Meditation can’t stop the fires, of course. But the awareness that arises in meditation allows me to notice the tension in my body and the fear that causes it. I can pause and breathe into the tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree is possible in this moment. I can see how my childhood fears of fire are easily activated. I see that little girl I was being terrified by a TV movie about children trapped in an elevator with the orphanage on fire, and how my mother, knowing how fearful I was, always made sure my bedroom in all the homes we lived in had a fire escape. And how that fear also made me the most qualified candidate in my elementary school to be Fire Chief. I used to get to decide when we would have a fire drill, and I and my four (boy) deputies would stay in the building to monitor the drill and then go around and give reports to all the classrooms. All of these memories live inside me and contribute to what is happening here and now. I don’t need to get lost in them, but mindfulness practice helps me see not just what’s going on but its source as well.
As long as I know our emergency evacuation plan, I have no reason to live in future thoughts. I can practice being present in this moment with all that is happening here and now — the cool air coming in the screen door, the sunlight on the mountain, the sounds of birds, traffic, my husband doing Tai Chi on the deck, the feel of being supported by my seat, my fingers on the keyboard, my breath rising and falling. For many years I have been training my mind to come home to this moment. This moment fully sensed can hold all my fears and worries, acknowledged with compassion. This mindfulness practice is so spacious that the worries are like little threads traveling through. They haven’t disappeared, but I see them in context. I am not tangled up in them. They are not choking me. Quieting down and cultivating compassion and ease allows me to live with the vagaries of life and still fully experience the sweet gift of this moment.