Category Archives: stressful times

Loss & Friendship: Spread like wildfire

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Mt Tamalpais, veiled with smoke for days

A series of natural disasters and senseless tragedies over the past month culminated this week in a firestorm in the counties north and east of us here in Northern California. So intertwined are the lives of people in these counties, that most of us in Marin have relatives and friends who have either lost their homes or have been evacuated and waiting to hear.

We have friends from downtown Sonoma who fled the fire and have been staying with us, so the anxiety is not just something we see on the news but an ongoing palpable presence in our home. Also my closest longtime friend and her husband were evacuated from their home of forty years in Santa Rosa, and my anxiety about them has been ongoing as communication has been difficult.

Yesterday at the end of class, I could hear my friend leaving a message on the answering machine. I did something I have never done before: I excused myself and ran across the house — so urgently did I just need to hear her voice. She told me that their home is safe but currently uninhabitable.

Even if we didn’t know anyone personally affected, the smoke fills our skies, eyes, throats and lungs, keeping us all indoors as much as possible, closing our schools and cancelling flights at the airport.  You can see from the photo our view of usually crystal clear Mt. Tam. And the sun when it sets looks more like a full moon, bright solid tangerine amidst the dusky smoke. How can we not hold those in danger in our thoughts and prayers?

In class I led a metta practice woven throughout the sitting, sending messages of wellness, ease, peace and happiness out to all who are suffering. As always we begin with ourselves, and at times of great stress this is especially important. I have been noticing that my personal practice is improved when I begin with sending metta to myself — ‘May I be well’ etc. — It is very grounding, centering and clears the mass of thoughts that can cloud my mind like smoke.

If you are affected by any of these scary and challenging events, or have any kind of anxiety or stress in your life, try metta practice to find solace and strength to carry on.

A few weeks ago I wrote about equanimity, the ability to hold all of what arises in a spacious balanced embrace. This unparalleled firestorm has delivered stories that remind me how often life offers up joy and sorrow in equal measure. I heard that a member of my high school gang lost his home to the fire just a few days before he will be walking his daughter down the aisle. Such a joyous moment for any father paired with great loss. A reminder of what’s precious and how fragile life is.

One of the friends staying with us had just days before been excitedly sharing the news on Facebook of the birth of her first grandson. Then she and her husband woke to discover their lives and home in grave danger of fire carried on high winds, encircling their town.

I remember one woman years ago asking how it was possible to hold simultaneous joy and sorrow. And now, having these two new examples, I wonder if maybe that’s why we are given two hands — to hold all that arises, whatever life brings.

I want to end with a story that my old friend shared on that phone call I raced to answer. She said that for a long time she had been asking her husband to go through all the accumulated stuff in the garage and get rid of whatever he didn’t want. They were his things so it wasn’t something she could take on. He procrastinated and procrastinated. And then for some reason, last Sunday he decided the time was right to go through it all. They packed the car up to the gills and drove down to their local Salvation Army. But it was closed. Oh well. No problem. They would just take it in on Monday. Then in the wee hours of Monday morning, they woke to the smell of smoke, alerts on their phones and had to rush to evacuate. They were lucky they were given more advance warning than some of their fellow citizens of Santa Rosa. But like many others they were driving a car filled with household possessions.The difference was that their car was filled not with the things they most cherished but all the things they never wanted to see again.

I have been honored to witness with both sets of friends the wisdom, compassion, resilience and willingness to let go that they exemplified. I am so very grateful for their friendship.

May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

Things Fall Apart

We develop a practice of meditation, finding the ways that work best for us: The perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect intention and the perfect way to bring ourselves into a state of spaciousness and ease.

And then causes and conditions change. The ‘seas’ that we talked about last week as a metaphor for the causes and conditions of life become rough. As sailors we learn quickly how to make course corrections, alter speed, trim the sails, or take out the bucket and start bailing. As meditators we need to develop that kind of readiness and flexibility as well.

Occasionally during meditation instruction I have talked about the importance of having a variety of meditation tools in our toolbox. But as life goes along smoothly, we can easily get complacent, relying on the one tool, the one meditation technique that seems to be most effective for us. Where else in life has that ever been a good idea? We eat a varied diet to assure not just balanced nourishment but the ability to draw nourishment from multiple sources. When we plant just one variety of potatoes and that variety succombs to a disease, we starve! When we must go on thinning ice, say to rescue someone, we lie down to spread the weight so we don’t rely too heavily on any one point. We prepare for emergencies by having multiple options, depending on circumstances. We develop a network of friends and family relationships in part so that we can all support each other when times get difficult. We see what happens when someone we know has relied too heavily on only one person for their needs. We are communal creatures and developing community is a basic skill of our survival in a world of impermanence. We acknowledge this when we create sangha, our community of meditation practitioners.

When we experience things falling apart, our meditation practice may feel like it is falling apart, too. “Just when we need it most!” we say, feeling bereft. But at these times if we pause, we can recognize that we are prepared for this, that we have multiple tools in our toolbox. And we also have the support of the sangha to remind us if we forget.

When things fall apart in a riveting way, as when we are suddenly launched into a heightened state of emotion due to startling circumstances, if we have been doing a regular practice of meditation, we may find that we are very much present with all that is going on, that this is in fact what we have been practicing for.

So the practice has not abandoned us at all. It is serving us in this moment, keeping us present, allowing us to notice our emotions and bring a full measure of compassion to ourselves and others. We might notice that things have fallen apart, but in fact we haven’t fallen apart, or at least not to the degree we might have done without the practice.

During this intense period we might not be able to practice meditation in the usual sense, but just as soon as things get a little more stable, we need to resume the practice, because without the natural inner replenishment of the practice we are running the risk of depletion. And then we do feel as if we are falling apart.

But the practice we have relied on most, the one that has been such a nurturing source, might suddenly seem difficult or uncomfortable. Why? Because we know it and we expect it to be as it was, so we get stuck in comparing mind. We may feel we have lost our ability to practice in addition to whatever other loses we may be experiencing, and this sense of loss underscores and amplifies the grief we may already be feeling. Perhaps there’s also a sense of betrayal, because we thought this practice was supposed to be our support, but it’s not there to support us when we most need it. This can set off a chain of memory-laden emotions that echo that sense of betrayal and things seem to unravel more and more. Maybe we become depressed and give up the practice all together.

But the practice is still there! The ability to practice is still within us. We simply need to correct our course, trim our sails or start bailing! What does this mean in meditation terms?

First we need to look at what happens when we try to meditate. Are we not able to release tension and relax? Are we not able to focus? Are we caught up in thoughts and can’t find inner silence?

Compassion is our best companion at these times. Instead of making demands that we meditate in a certain way, we can sense the support of the web of life holding us. Perhaps we experience that support as God, feeling ourselves cradled in his arms or resting in his heart.

Of course experiencing this loving-kindness and compassion is challenging if we are railing at God for creating the causes and conditions that are making us so miserable. This is the exact moment that people of faith are severely tested. By seeing God as separate instead of the whole of which we are a part, we can get into a blame game that exacerbates our misery and sense of isolation.

Feeling ourselves to be integral to the fabric of life both releases our sense of separation and empowers us to be the compassion we wish to receive. We do not have to sit around and wait for it, beg for it or look for it from any other source. We are by our very nature a conduit of universal compassion. We take a deep breath, sense in, let go of all the accumulated tension and release into our natural state of being. We are both held in a compassionate open embrace and we hold the world in a compassionate open embrace. We shift our awareness back and forth between those two focuses and we begin to really understand our role in the nature of things.

When I was a very small child I had a little mantra I would do when I was by myself. I don’t know how I came up with it, who might have taught it to me, but it felt very much my own discovery. I would say, “I am in God and God is in me, and I am in God and God is in me” over and over until that oxymoron made sense to me, at which point I would dissolve into delicious giggles and roll on the ground. As an adult, the word and concept of God are too culturally laden with all the personification and implied separateness that gets in my way of deep understanding. And now that we can see, through the use of lenses and through the research and insights of science, how we are embedded in the fabric of life, all of us made of the same stuff, the illusion of separateness is easier and easier for me to see through.

But for those of us who have a more straightforward relationship with God, who can experience union with God, who weren’t raised by what I affectionately call a ‘raving atheist’ and a ‘closet worshiper of Mother Nature,’ then Hallelujah! Rejoice in that sense of being supported and aspire to be the fullest expression of God’s love.

If the problem with trying to meditate when things are falling apart is a lack of focus, we can do more embodiment work such as mindful inner-directed yoga, slow walking meditation or active breath work. These are all forms of meditation, all valid for keeping us connected to our experience of the present moment. The senses are our anchor to the present moment, so whatever we can do to draw our awareness to sensation is useful. In any given moment we can simply rub our fingers together, or rub our hands on a piece of fabric, noting the texture. This brings us into the present moment.

If sensing in is alien for us, we might give ourselves more opportunities to be fully in the body. For example, we can have a massage but request silence instead of chatting with the massage therapist so that we can really experience the fullness of sensation.

If when we meditate we cannot seem to get free of words, we might visualize them growing, letting the words themselves get very large, so large they lose all meaning, until we can swim between the spaces in our large lettered universe. This is a creative way of being with what is arising in the moment.

If we have a whirlwind of things going on in our life, we can imagine that tornado whirling even faster, so fast all the individual aspects, all the worries and concerns, are a singular blur, as we sit in the calm center, the eye of the storm, at peace.

If we are fraught with worry for another person, we send them loving kindness. As with all metta meditations, we begin with sending metta to ourselves for we need to receive loving-kindness before we can share it, sense in to its infinite nature to be a conduit for its transmission.

Maybe we find we just don’t have the heart for meditation right now, as if it’s a selfish thing to simply sit when there are so many practical things that have to be done. We just don’t have the time!

Let’s remember that Gandhi is quoted as saying, “Today is going to be a particularly busy day, so I will meditate two hours instead of one.” Wait a minute! How can that make any sense? Taking two hours out of an already busy day is no way to get things done. Gandhi was clearly no efficiency expert. But since he accomplished more with his life than almost any other human in recent history by gaining Indian independence from the British Empire without loss of life, and further inspired other non-violent movements including the Civil Rights movement in the United States fifty years ago, and since he continues to be an inspiration to us today, perhaps we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he knew what he was talking about!

But how could giving more time to meditation make us more efficient? First we have to make sure we are doing mindfulness meditation, practicing being fully present, not escaping into a dream state. When we are practiced at being fully present, we are more efficient because we are seeing more clearly, we are more in touch with the flow and we are noticing when we are getting in our own way. We can prioritize, we can come to agreement with others, and we can let go of things that will resolve themselves without our involvement. We can recognize that very few things in our life are truly urgent, yet we habitually act as if they are and drive ourselves and perhaps others accordingly. We can see when those around us are caught up in circular thinking and we can choose not to waste our energy trying to guide a tornado onto a different course.

This is the kind of clarity that streamlines our ability to accomplish what needs accomplishing without wasting time on what doesn’t. Without meditation practice we can be undiscerning, become easily distracted and waste time focusing on things that won’t resolve the problem at hand. Our emotional aspects may run amok, setting a questionable agenda because we haven’t taken the time to access our inner wisdom, our Buddha nature. Without being fully present, we rely more heavily on our habitual nature, so that we keep doing the same thing in the same way, hoping for a different outcome.

Our habitual nature can also infect our meditation practice. When things fall apart we want the tried and true to pull us through. But when the tried and true falls through we are called upon to find another way. If we cannot find 30 to 40 minutes in our suddenly fallen apart day, we might experiment with a series of much shorter meditations throughout our day.

What? Didn’t I just say that Gandhi said two hours of meditation is better than one? Yes, and one minute of quality meditation is good as well if it means we will meditate rather than not meditate at all. In this as in so many areas of life we are not dealing with either/or but both/and. There are many ways to deal with a challenge. Discovering that we can actually change our experience, energy level, and our physical and emotional sense of well being quite dramatically by one minute of truly being present in meditation reminds us to do it, not to put it off. It makes us see that our statement that we don’t have time is clearly a lie. One minute? We all have one minute at many times during the day. One minute while we are put on hold, while we are waiting for a computer download, while we are on the toilet, while we are waiting for water to boil to cook pasta or make tea. One minute? This is never too much to ask! How liberating! But how can this be?

Well, let’s try it. Let’s set a timer for exactly one minute and then see how it affects us to meditate for that minute. We sense into our bodies, release tension, notice the breath rising and falling, and expand into spaciousness, finding a still point of center. We rest here or we continually cycle through this process, whatever works for us at this time.

Now how do you feel? Has there been a shift of energy? What do you notice? Is there perhaps a sense of replenishment? One minute well spent in meditation is a gift we can give ourselves at various times throughout our day. It helps us understand that meditation is not some separate experience, but a natural part of life, like the brief pause at the bottom of a released breath.

Why does the one minute meditation work? I think it is like the last couple of minutes in meditation when I say “In these last moments, really savor what is arising in this moment.” Knowing it will end so soon, we are suddenly able to really pay attention. It’s our deadline mentality! It’s based on the same principle as Stephen Levine’s teaching of A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last. With the thought that the end is so near, we stop squandering our time, we start noticing the beauty and the preciousness of life. When we think we have a lot of time, we feel free to waste it! Whether it’s a lifetime or forty minutes of just sitting, we perceive it as a lot of time, so we may go about it in a circuitous ramble instead of being clear in our intention to be present and compassionate.

The question for me is not how I feel after a minute of focused inner awareness, but how long do I feel that way? How often would I have to have these minutes in order to feel the sense of connection, aliveness and joy I experience as a result of a regular daily practice?

But when things are difficult and a regular practice feels out of reach, accessing these meditation minutes can help to keep our meditation practice alive.

So we can see that we have many means in our toolbox, a great variety of techniques at our service, to deal with whatever comes up. Yes, it is wonderful to have a good steady practice, but it is important to remember that we have much more than that. We can be flexible, creative, alive and resourceful, ready and fully equipped to sail upon the sea of causes and conditions, whatever they may bring.