We all have periods of pronounced transition in our lives: We suffer a loss of a loved one, abilities or possessions; or we make a change in our residence, work or relationship. How does it feel when you go through something like that? Do you feel suddenly weightless? As if the earth under your feet has disappeared?
When we have big changes in our lives, often nothing seems the way it is supposed to be. We may feel disoriented and we struggle to find solid ground. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s better to simply be present with the weightlessness. Awareness of the transitory nature of life is something to appreciate rather than escape. If you think about it, we are always in a moment of transition. Life is like this. Wherever we think we are, we delude ourselves if we think it is solid and unchanging. This moment is always full of infinite possible directions radiating out. In any moment we can decide to go this way rather than that, or the winds of circumstance change our direction. Most of us tend to trod a solid-seeming path. If a GPS tracked our movements we would make a pattern of thick dark lines from home to work to our regular stores, restaurants, paths and hangouts, with a few faint traces for occasional adventures and bigger trips. There is nothing wrong with this. There’s no virtue in ‘shaking it up’ just to be different. But there is value in noticing that we are making choices all the time. Every moment is a point of transition.
There was an image that came to me many years ago that helps me understand this idea of being present with weightlessness: Imagine a balloon. What we call ‘life’ is inside the balloon. What we call ‘death’ is that moment of transition when the balloon pops or deflates and the air is released into the infinite air. And where are we in all this? Well, many of us are clinging to the edge of the inside of the balloon, trying to stay steady on what we believe to be solid ground, clinging to the surface, afraid of falling off. But some of us let go, for varying periods of time or indefinitely. We find that floating is possible, that the air supports us. We see in multiple directions and can turn freely. We can ride the currents, buffeted by winds that, if we were clinging to the side, would have our face smashed up against that chalky latex. Gag. When we’re clinging to the side so tightly, we might poke a hole in the surface.
When the balloon of life pops or deflates, if we are floating in the balloon we are whooshed out. That may be quite a ride but we know how to fly. We are not gripping to or getting entangled in the detritus of the balloon. We are used to being weightless, so even in this vaster air we feel supported.
I recently heard Buddhist teacher Tempel Smith talk about the importance of living a weightless life, so I was reminded of my balloon metaphor. Much of what we learn in Buddhism ultimately prepares us for the greatest transition point of our life, our own death. But the practice of living in a more mindful way has immediate benefits as well. Recognizing the transitional nature of life and noticing how we are in relationship with transition is useful if we are to live with ease, peace, joy and clarity of understanding. In our meditation practice we are cultivating awareness and compassion. No, life is not always pleasant, transitions can be challenging, and that’s part of our experience too. But if we are not clinging to some false sense of solid ground, feeling betrayed by change itself, we can dance in the air of existence, in a state of awe and wonder, weightless!
Last week I had jury duty, so I made sure my calendar was clear in case I had to serve on a longish trial. It turned out that I didn't. But it gave me the opportunity to see how it felt to have a clear calendar, and wow, I have to say, it felt very very pleasant. That sense of ease and openness made me realize that in my inner landscape of mental activity, future events are sometimes like black holes that suck up a lot of energy. This goes beyond simple planning. Long after the planning is done, the mind might be drawn into that black hole, circling around the anticipated event -- a trip, a social gathering or something like jury duty -- pretty much anything that has unknown elements, which is everything in the future, isn't it? Being a woman, charged full of oxytocin, the 'bonding hormone', I also expend a lot of mental energy worrying about the well being of my loved ones. Sound familiar? Well, don't worry about it. It's part of the human condition. Over 2600 years ago, the Buddha identified worry as one of the Five Hindrances (Sensual Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor, and Doubt). Maybe for you, one of the other Hindrances is more a presence in your life. Most of us have all of them to varying degrees. But why did he call them 'hindrances'? What are they hindrances to? They can get in the way of opening to and receiving this moment fully. This doesn't mean we have to get rid of these hindrances. Good luck with that! But we benefit by noticing them when they arise in our awareness, seeing them for what they are. Simply noticing them in a spacious compassionate way weakens their power to hold us. I have written about all the hindrances in the past, and you are welcome to check out those posts, but let's stay with worry for now. You can see how worry gets in the way of being fully present. The mind is stuck circling that black hole of future event or the black hole of what someone we love is experiencing, and it keeps going there even when there is absolutely nothing more we can do about it now. When we meditate, we are practicing making ourselves fully available to the sensations of this moment. With openness to whatever arises in our experience and compassion for ourselves when we find we've gotten lost in thought, we return our attention to the breath or other physical sensation. In that moment we come to understand the way of things: We see that there is impermanence, so we know that this too shall pass. We see that we are all of a piece here, made of the same microscopic stuff as the air we breath the earth we walk on and each other. And we see how when we forget those two things - impermanence and no-separate self -- we suffer because we get caught up in grasping at lifesavers and clinging to cliffs, shoring up barriers, chasing after empty promises and running away from imagined monsters. All of which takes a whole lot of mental energy. So worry if you will, but be aware of the quality of worrying. Don't make an enemy of worry, but see it for what it is. Be compassionate with whatever arises. There's nothing wrong here.
Yesterday Will and I went on a hike on Hoo-Koo-e-Koo trail up in the hills of Kentfield, CA. Most of the trail is fairly level, following the contours of the mountain, in and out of canyons. In normal years there is at least a little waterfall running down each canyon, but now in early fall, after four years of drought, even the deepest cool dark canyon is dry. Standing there, surrounded by hillsides of bay trees, ferns and dried leaves and the boulders normally covered with a cascade, we stood still to listen to the absolute silence. The stillness I experienced there is akin to the stillness deep in a meditation. So peaceful. Accepting the moment as it is, not wishing the water was running; not worrying, in that moment, about whether there will be rain in our future: That is what we are learning to do with our practice.
At the autumnal equinox, the midway point on the earth's axis, night and day are the same length. It always makes me think of balance. But does that mean that the rest of the year the earth is out of balance? Of course not. And our lives don't have to be out of balance just because everything in them is not equal. One of the major life skills we learn through the practice of meditation is equanimity, the ability to hold whatever arises in life without getting out of balance.
'Where am I out of balance?' is a question I ask myself if I'm feeling disjointed. I might realize that I've been over-efforting, with my 'eye on the prize' instead of being present in the moment as I do the work at hand. Or I might find I've been too sedentary. I do love to lounge but too much lounging leads to lethargy. Getting out for hiking or dancing lets me feel more alive and balanced. Maybe I've been tightly-focused in my thinking, going around in circles, and find balance in opening to take in a broader view. I might feel maxed out on being super social and need some alone time. Or vice versa. Each of us has different set points for activity, social engagement, etc. Where our set point is may change over time, but it's useful to notice.
The body is attuned to balance and gives us lots of cues when it recognizes that our thought-emotion override button has been pushed once too often. What are some of the cues your body gives you? Aches? Illness? Restlessness? Tiredness? In mindfulness practice we are learning is to notice physical sensation. As we develop greater ability in this area, we can also develop better interpretive skills, and take the body's message to heart. We might go for a walk, go to bed earlier, say 'no' to an invitation if we want to. We might say 'yes' to something that is outside our normal routine but somehow feels very right, if a little scary. As a Toastmaster, I felt myself and have witnessed many others take that first brave step to overcome the fear of attending a meeting or give a speech. I remember transitioning from believing that I was just naturally shy to overcoming a fear that was keeping me from so much I wanted to do in life. Taking that step was part of bringing myself into balance.
As we develop our meditation practice we also may find that we are less victimized by circumstances and better able to find a quality of equanimity regardless of causes and conditions. There are times in life when conditions are not perfect, when extra energy or extra rest is required. You're up all night with a sick child, for example, and there's just no rest possible. Or you are ill and resting is enforced by the fact that you're too weak to rise. At these times it isn't useful to be attached to the idea that in order to be happy you need perfect amounts of sleep or activity. Life does not always conform to these needs, does it? Making our own happiness dependent on certain conditions makes us ping pong balls in the game of life. Whack! In fact most of us have more stamina and fortitude than we ever imagined to do what we need to do when there's no choice but to do it. If we lace our thoughts during this period with worry that we will suffer greatly from lack of rest or over-exertion, then we set ourselves up and fulfill our own expectations of doom. But, once that period is through, then we allow for a balancing rest instead of moving on immediately to the next crisis, making this frenzied way of being the norm in our lives.
We find a balance that is in tune with the body's messages, based on what we've found fosters wellbeing, AND we accept that there will be times when a perfectly balanced schedule is not possible.
Finding balance at work is a challenge when the lines between work-time and off-time are blurred by the ease with which we can be reached at any hour of the day. We each make our own choices as to how available we will be. No job requires that we be on call 24/7/365. If you dispute that, talk to your supervisor. If you are your own boss, hire someone to give yourself regular respite, or simply define 'off' periods for yourself. The refreshed quality you bring to your 'on' times will more than make up for any delayed response. In fact, it is a gift to others to model this kind of balanced living. My neighbor is an in-demand author, speaker and consultant to Fortune 500 companies. She is her own boss and has no assistance. But she always claims set times for herself to garden, hike, cook and socialize. She has a balanced life. I was amazed when she told me she never checks email on weekends. There's a big lesson in there: To be effective in our work role, we need to claim space that is totally free from it.
Meditation practice most definitely needs tech-free space. On retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, cell phones are left behind or deposited in a basket to be held by the retreat manager. There are no video or audio presentations, no radio or recorded music, only the pleasure of silence and the evening dharma talks of the teachers. The retreat experience helps us to refine our home practice because it shows us the value of silence. Perhaps one of the reasons meditation has become so popular is that people find it so difficult to justify turning off their gadgets for any other reason. Our agricultural ancestors in the course of a day spent extended periods of time alone in nature, working or walking or riding. Inside any sounds were not funneled in on wires from elsewhere. It was quiet or there were homemade sounds. It's in our genes to need that quiet downtime in our lives as well. We can enjoy our gadgets all the more when we give ourselves periods of time away from them.
One of the ways we enjoy our gadgets is through social media that our pioneer ancestors would certainly envy. We can stay in close touch with friends and family around the world. And we make new friends based on shared interests, finding communities of like-minded people with whom we can share ideas. It's very easy (believe me!) to get a bit addicted to that sense of connection. But there's another sense of connection that is worth noticing: When we open to the trees, the breeze, the birds, squirrels and lizards, the clouds, the creek, etc. all right there available to make us feel intrinsically a part of nature. Can we come fully present in the moment, whatever we are doing, bringing ourselves into balance by being here instead of mentally pulled all over the place? Finding balance is being skillful in how we use the technology we've been given, and knowing when to set it aside.
When we give ourselves space and time to be present and attuned to the body without distractions, we naturally come into balance. We come home to the joy that is inherent in being alive.
If you feel a little addicted to your phone or computer, claim some more space for yourself:
If possible, turn the phone or the ringer off and put it in another room when you are sleeping.
Check email and social media at a planned time once or twice a day rather than all day long.
Consider taking a day or two off from it on a weekly basis.
Take a trip into nature and leave your phone off.
Tell friends and family you text with not to take it personally or worry if you don't respond immediately.
If you never seem to have enough time to meditate or take a walk in nature or have lunch with a dear friend, maybe you are thinking of them as rewards, and that you don't deserve them until you've accomplished something. If that's the case then stop thinking of them as rewards. These are necessary. Claim time for them. Note them on your calendar, not as rare treats or defaults but as locked in and important.
Notice physical sensation, not just in meditation but always. Let the wise body guide you to balance.
Cultivate is a very accurate and satisfying word for what we do in meditation. We cultivate spaciousness. We cultivate ease. We cultivate kindness and compassion.
There is a quality of patience with cultivating. You plant a seed and trust that with regular watering something will happen. There is no immediate expectation. The process involves us but is not completely a product of our will. We are tapping into the nature of things. It is the nature of things to grow. It is within our nature to be peaceful, to have more clarity in our minds and more compassion in our hearts.
At the beginning of a sitting practice, it can be useful to identify this activity of 'cultivating spacious ease'. Yes, it is an activity. Meditation is not completely passive, although it may look that way, and sometimes it may feel that way. We actively develop wise intention: to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover we haven't been present at all. We develop wise effort: that easeful balance where we are relaxed but alert. We are alert but receptive. We open to the generous sunlight of awareness and allow it to grow wisdom within us.
I have been finding that the phrase 'cultivating spacious ease' helps me to develop balanced effort. Perhaps later in the meditation I might find myself lost in thought. If the thoughts are judgemental, I might use the phrase 'cultivating kindness' or 'cultivating compassion'. Notice how different these are from 'I should be kinder,' 'I should be more compassionate,' or 'What a mean rotten person I am.' Cultivating these qualities accepts that I am not necessarily being kind or compassionate right now, but I am cultivating those qualities and with steady attention and patience they may grow within me.
Cultivation also allows for the unknown to be present in our meditation. In the garden we may cultivate seeds of one flower only to discover later, after the leaves and petals show up, that it is another flower entirely. Can we have enough spacious ease to welcome the flowers that bloom within us, whatever kind they are? In our lives we may think we know what we need, what will make us happy, what will make us feel fulfilled, but the truth is we don't have all the answers. Can we live in the questions themselves? Can we dance in the mystery of life? Our desire to have everything locked down, named, numbered and filed alphabetically, doesn't really suit the natural way of things. We may think it makes us more secure, but it's a ruse. Believing ourselves to know anything for sure only guarantees a more painful falling apart when it turns out differently from what we so firmly believed.
Cultivating spacious ease makes room for wonder in our lives: Both the questioning kind of wonder and the awestruck kind of wonder. Cultivating spacious ease makes room for our buddha nature, our own access to universal wisdom, to whisper its truth to us in our most quiet, relaxed and attentive moments of meditation. In that moment it might name the seed we are planting in the nourishing space we have created through our practice.
We are always cultivating something in our lives, aren't we? It's useful when we are in distress to ask 'What am I cultivating here?' Sometimes we are cultivating fear. We are using that hoe to dig up a lot of dirt! In that realization we might take the time to pause, access compassion and awareness, and plant the seeds that will nourish us.