Learning from the Change, Challenges, and Pain of 2013

imageIt has been a year of unprecedented change, challenge, and pain for me. The toughest ever.

From January to March, I traveled to Mozambique, Africa to do volunteer work. I did not speak the language. I did not understand the culture. I was immersed in a completely strange world for two months.

In April, we put our house up for sale. The prospect of uprooting and moving is destabilizing, and one of life’s biggest stressors.

Then in May my marriage failed, and I separated from my wife. We had been together for almost nine years. I became well acquainted with pain beyond anything I had ever known.

In June I decided to pursue my lifelong dream of singing in a rock band—mid-life crisis or perhaps an awakening of sorts. Either way, it has been a whole lot of fun doing something I love to do.

In August my son left home for university. It was a very exciting and emotional time for all of us, the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Both sad and exciting, and I am incredibly proud of who he is and who he is becoming.

And in September my last remaining grandparent, my grandmother, died at the age of 97. She was an incredible woman who saw so much change, and packed a whole lot of life into her years.

In the past year, amidst all the turbulence, a few insights have gradually revealed themselves to me. Maybe they will resonate with you.

1. Nothing is permanent.

Yet we are programmed for the opposite. We want life to feel safe and secure. We want life to be predictable. Permanence gives us the illusion that it is.

But the reality is that nothing is permanent, and the only thing we know we can count on is change. The more we push for permanence in life, against the current, the more disappointed we become when we find it is not achievable to the extent we think it should be. But if we can accept the fluidity of life, our entire approach to it changes.

2. Give it time.

Why is it that life can look hopeful one day, and so very dark the next? Very little of my actual situation has changed from one day to the next. But my perception of it can change minute by minute based on how I am feeling in that moment—tired or rested, peaceful or angry, whole or damaged.

I am learning not to overreact in the moment, or make important decisions when I am feeling down. I am learning that painful and difficult things will pass. I am learning to allow time to heal.

3. Practice gratitude.

In the midst of difficult times, I have a strong tendency to dwell on the negative. And then everything looks dark, and it tends to snowball.

But there are always things to be grateful for in life—my friends, my health, my relationships, or even my next meal. I often think back to my time in Mozambique and remember the crippling poverty that most people live with every day. And yet they are, by and large, happy and grateful for what they do have.

We can make a huge difference in our state of mind by focusing more on what we do have, how lucky we are, and counting our blessings.

4. Be gentle with yourself.

I am my own worst critic, often focusing on my perceived failings and inadequacies. All this does is reinforce the bad. And by reinforcing it, that is the reality I create for myself. So I am slowly learning to cut myself some slack, and perhaps even start liking who I am. What a concept!

And I am starting to see is a direct correlation between how I treat myself, and how I am with others out in the world. By treating ourselves gently and with kindness, we treat others the same way. And maybe this is how we learn to love.

5. Be here, now.

I have a lifelong tendency to look back or forward—anything but being present. Guilt and shame looks back, worry and anxiety look ahead. In either case, it is wasted energy.

If I feel that I need to do something to set things right, I should simply do it, then let it go and not allow these feelings to linger. For me, engaging in activities that force me to stay present helps: skiing, surfing, and singing. It’s not easy, but I am trying to be present in all that I do, and recognize when I’m not.

6. Give up control.

The need for control is very deeply rooted, and comes from a place of fear and insecurity.

We can plan all we want, but there are much bigger forces at work out there. And the bigger plan for us may not coincide with what we think should happen or the planned timetable we have in our head.

I will have faith that the universe wants to help me. My job is to step out of the way and let it work its magic.

7. Be yourself.

I have been a people pleaser for most of my life. There all kinds of expectations out there about what I should do, how I should do it, who I should be, and how I should fit in. And it is impossible for me to keep up; to satisfy everyone else’s preferred version of me. I push my needs aside, and eventually that turns to anger, depression, and resentment. It’s far less stressful for me to just to be me, and to be comfortable with who that is.

We can give ourselves a powerful sense of peace by learning who we are and allowing ourselves to be that. And let the chips fall where they may.

8. Eat. Sleep. Exercise.

This may seem basic, but when my life is in turmoil, I find that basic self-care can be the first to go out the window. I skip meals, or eat badly. My sleep suffers, and when I am not rested, my whole perspective on life changes for the worse. That’s usually when I make bad decisions and think dark thoughts. I feel lethargic and tend to want to skip exercise.

But these three are all connected, and they are some of the few things we actually can control to some degree. And when we force ourselves to practice good self-care, we feel better, stronger, and life seems brighter.

9. Don’t fight the pain.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this one. And I have a history of doing or using anything I can to not feel the pain. I know this doesn’t work because when I mask the pain, it never leaves. It just gets stronger, and comes out in other ways.

Pain demands to be acknowledged. And by letting ourselves feel it, it loses its grip, and passes through us much more quickly.

I have certainly not mastered any of these insights, in fact I continue to struggle with all of them. But underpinning it all is a sense of heightened awareness about the feelings I have, and where these feelings come from.

This is the first step in learning, accepting, and rolling with the perpetual changes, challenges, and pain that life offers up. And perhaps this is how the healing begins.

I wish us all the very best for 2014.

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When Things Fall Apart (part 2)

Life continues to be in a tremendous state of flux on so many levels, and will likely continue to be for some time. More on that in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I continue to read Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. Central to this insightful and inspiring book are the ideas of impermanence and groundlessness. Boy does that hit home, especially now!

Maybe it’s time to stop fighting it, and maybe even begin to relax and lighten up a bit, as impossible as that may seem right now. Maybe that’s the lesson.

Here are a few more profound passages from the second half of that book.

“There are three truths–traditionally called three marks–of our existence: impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. Impermanence is the goodness of reality. Just as the four seasons are in continual flux, winter changing to spring and summer to autumn; just as day becomes night, light becoming dark becoming light again–in the same way everything is constantly evolving. Impermanence is the essence of everything. We regard it as pain, but impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality. When you fall in love, recognize it as impermanence, and let that intensify the preciousness. When we recognize impermanence, this is called mindfulness, awareness, curiosity, inquisitiveness, paying attention. Our suffering is based so much in our fear of impermanence. Whoever got the idea that we could have pleasure without pain? Pain and pleasure go together; they are inseparable. Ego could be defined as whatever covers up basic goodness. Ego covers up our experience of just being here, fully being who we are, so that we can relate with the immediacy of our experience. Egolessness is a state of mind that has complete confidence in the sacredness of the world. We experience egolessness when we’ve lost our reference point, when we get a shock and our mind is stopped.”

“What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck. Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, and manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality. The maras provide descriptions of some very familiar ways in which we try to avoid what is happening. There are four. The first Mara is called devaputra, and has to do with seeking pleasure, how we are addicted to avoiding pain. The second–skandha– has to do with how we always try to re-create ourselves, try to be who we think we are. Instead of struggling to regain our concept of who we are when the rug is pulled out from under us, we can touch into that mind of simply not knowing. The third Mara is klesha. It has to do with how we use our emotions to keep ourselves dumb or asleep. A simple feeling will arise, and we panic. We begin to weave our thoughts into a story line, which gives rise to bigger emotions. The fourth, yama, has to do with fear of death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self contained and comfortable, sits some kind of death. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have experience confirm, congratulate, and make you feel completely together. But the essence of life is that it’s challenging.”

“Whether we’re eating or working or meditating or listening or talking, the reason that we’re here in this world is to study ourselves. The challenge is how to develop compassion right along with clear seeing, how to train in lightening up and cheering up rather than becoming more guilt-ridden and miserable. Honesty without kindness, humour, and goodheartedness can be just mean. When we look into our hearts and begin to discover what is confused and what is brilliant, what is bitter and what is sweet, it isn’t just ourselves that we’re discovering. We’re discovering the universe. When we begin to just try to accept ourselves, that’s the beginning of growing up.”

“Everything is ambiguous; everything is always shifting and changing, and there are as many different takes on any given situation as there are people involved. The whole right and wrong business closes us down and makes our world smaller. The middle way involves not hanging on to our version so tightly. It involves keeping our hearts and minds open long enough to entertain the idea that when we make things wrong (or right), we do it out of a desire to obtain some kind of ground or security. Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and wrong?”

“When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found, in the tenderness of pain itself. We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole.”

“Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion an introduces us to a far bigger view of reality. This is the core of the practice: breathing in others’ pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open–breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever we feel would bring them relief and happiness.”

“Prajna is a way if seeing which continually dissolves any tendency to use things to get ground under our feet, a kind of bullshit detector that protects us from becoming righteous. There are no promises that everything will be OK. Instead we are encouraged to simply look at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. We learn that what truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.”

“The first paramita is generosity, the journey of learning how to give. When we feel inadequate and unworthy, we hoard things. We are so afraid–afraid of losing, afraid of feeling even more poverty stricken than we do already. We wish for comfort, but instead we reinforce aversion, the sense of sin, and the feeling that we are hopeless. The more we experience fundamental richness, the more we can loosen our grip. At the everyday, ordinary level, we experience it as flexibility and warmth.”

“The paramita of discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment….to find the balance between not too tight and not too loose, between not too laid back and not too rigid.”

The paramita of patience involves relaxing, opening to what’s happening, experiencing a sense of wonder.”

The paramita of exertion is touching in to our appetite for enlightenment. It allows us to act, to give, to work appreciatively with whatever comes our way.”

“The paramita of meditation allows us to continue the journey. It is the basis for an enlightened society that is not based on winning and losing, loss and gain. We connect with something unconditional–a state of mind, a basic environment that does not grasp or reject anything.”

“The sixth paramita is prajna, that which turns all actions into gold…it cuts through the whole thing. It makes us homeless. We have no place left to dwell on anything. When we work with generosity, we see our nostalgia for wanting to hold on. When we work with discipline, we see our nostalgia for wanting to zone out and not relate at all. As we work with patience, we discover our longing to speed. When we practice exertion, we realize our laziness. With mediation we see our endless discursiveness, our restlessness, and our attitude of couldn’t care less. We keep taking off the armour and stepping further into groundlessness.”

“You may have noticed that there is frequently an irritating, if not depressing, discrepancy between our ideas and good intentions and how we act when we are confronted with the nitty-gritty details of real-life situations. We continually find ourselves in that squeeze, where we look for alternatives to just being there. The place of the squeeze is the very point where we can really learn something. At that moment of hassle or bewilderment or embarrassment, our minds could become bigger. In that awkward, ambiguous moment is our own wisdom mind. Right here in the uncertainty of everyday chaos is our wisdom mind. We can move toward difficulties instead of backing away. Invite what scares us to introduce itself and hang around for awhile.”

image http://semmickphoto.com/image/conceptual-image-of-a-man-falling-apart/

When Things Fall Apart

IMG_5269It has been perhaps the toughest week yet, with separation emotions running very high. I have spent most of it at a very good friend’s cabin, allowing the painful reality to wash through me. I feel like I have been run over a few times by a train. The worst part is knowing how badly she is feeling and knowing that I am the cause, or at the very least, have contributed to it. And that I cannot fix it.

I drift in and out of sleep. I read. I cook. I work on my music. I exercise. I eat. I bounce around. I sleep some more. I hope that when I wake up it will be better.

I have not been very “up.” I thought of apologizing for the quality of my company, but there is no need with a good friend. He just gets it. Rather, I am very grateful for being given the space to just be. A gentle nudge now and then to get up and do something, but he never pushed me. Thank you Dan-o.

There is a small bookshelf at the foot of the bunk bed, and one book title jumps out at me, like a neon sign: “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron. Timely. And certainly not coincidental. Things seem to come to me when I need them most. When I allow them to come.

Here are a few passages that left a mark. Maybe they will resonate with you.

“When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on the brink and not concretize. Yet spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell. In fact that way of looking at things keeps us miserable. The very first noble truth of the Buddha points out that suffering is inevitable for human beings as long as we believe that things last–that they don’t disintegrate, that they can be counted on to satisfy our hunger for security. From this point of view, the only time we really know what’s going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. To stay with that shakiness–to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting revenge–that is the path of true awakening.”

“We regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors–people who have a certain hunger to know what is true–feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news. We don’t have to go hunting for anything. Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape–all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”

“We can learn to meet whatever arises with curiosity and not make it such a big deal. Instead of struggling against the force of confusion, we could meet it and relax. When we do that, we discover that clarity is always there. In the middle of the worst scenario with the worst person in the world, in the midst of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.”

“Our personal demons come in many guises. We experience them as shame, as jealousy, as abandonment, as rage. They are anything that makes us so uncomfortable that we continually run away. We do the big escape: we act out, say something, slam a door, hit someone, or throw a pot as a way of not facing what’s happening in our hearts. Or we shove the feelings under and somehow deaden the pain. We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters in our minds.”

“Underneath our ordinary lives, underneath all the talking we do, all the moving we do, all the thoughts in our minds, there’s a fundamental groundlessness. It’s there bubbling all the time. We experience it as restlessness and edginess. We experience it as fear. It motivates passion, aggression, ignorance, jealousy, and pride, but we never get down to the essence of it. Refraining–not habitually acting out impulsively–is a method for getting to know the nature of this restlessness and fear. It’s a method of setting into groundlessness. It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up space.”

“To think that we can finally get it all together is unrealistic. To seek for some lasting security is futile. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain–one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide. Hopelessness means that we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together.”

“In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “every day in every way I’m getting better and better.” Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something…from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.”

“Death in everyday life could also be defined as experiencing all the things that we don’t want. Our marriage isn’t working, our job isn’t coming together. Having a relationship with death in everyday life means that we begin to be able to wait, to relax with insecurity, with panic, with embarrassment, with things not working out. ”

“One of the classic Buddhist teachings on hope and fear concerns what are known as the eight worldly dharmas. These are four pairs of opposites–four things that we like and become attached to and four things that we don’t like and try to avoid. The basic message is that when we are caught up in the eight worldly dharmas, we suffer. Becoming immersed in these four pairs of opposites–pleasure and pain, loss and gain, fame and disgrace, and praise and blame–is what keeps us stuck in the pain of samsara.”

“Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a non-threatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”

“The experience of certain feelings can seem particularly pregnant with desire for resolution: loneliness, boredom, anxiety. Unless we can relax with these feelings, it’s very hard to stay in the middle when we experience them. We want victory or defeat, praise or blame. For example, if somebody abandons us, we don’t want to be with that raw discomfort. Instead, we conjure up familiar identity of ourselves as a hapless victim. We automatically want to cover over the pain in one way or another, identifying with victory or victimhood.”

“Not wandering in the world of desire is another way of describing cool loneliness. Wandering in the world of desire involves looking for alternatives, seeking something to comfort us–food, drink, people. The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things OK. That quality comes from never having grown up.”

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