Awareness in Fuzzy Bodies

Awareness

I was at the creek the other day, a stream whose width and depth varies with the amount of rainfall that works its way down from the hills.  Rain has been scare here for a bit, and except in its deepest hollows and grooves, the creek was nearly dry.  I like it when that happens.  I can walk on the exposed slabs of shale out to center of its bed for a whole different view of the surroundings than I usually have.

Because of the dry weather, leaves have already been tumbling down and they blanketed the shale and floated in the water, their rusts and golds shining like coins.  I had to pick my way carefully to the center, watching where I stepped.  When I reached my destination, I stopped and looked around, enjoying the view and breathing in the fragrance of the autumn air.  Then, when I looked down again to take another step, I laughed in delight to discover a white, fuzzy caterpillar on one of the rocks.  What a long journey he had made to arrive there!

He seemed in no hurry.  He had paused at the rock’s edge and, like me, seemed to be taking in the view.

That’s what we’re here for, I thought.  Just that.  To take in the view.

If you let the events of the world be your focus, the view can look frightening.  We’re dealing with so much chaos on so many fronts right now.   I imagine the sudden heap of autumn leaves can look pretty chaotic to a caterpillar, too.  But here was this little one, peering at it all from his perch on the rock, seeing it from a higher point of view.  And I must say, he seemed quite at peace with it all, even though he was in the middle of a creek bed where water rushed in rivulets between the rocks and fallen leaves three times larger than he was challenged his path.

I think he was a teacher, a wise, enlightened being in caterpillar form.  Fear was alien to him.  From his point of view, everything was simply phenomena.  He didn’t label it good or bad, safe or dangerous, kind or cruel.  He didn’t tell himself stories about it, or try to figure out if he deserved it or not.  He simply took in the view and traveled on.  He was nothing but pure awareness in a fuzzy body, and he knew it.

We’re not our bodies, or our thoughts, or our feelings.  Those are just phenomena, too—things that we perceive.  We’re much larger than that.  We’re more spacious and free.  We’re the awareness itself, in fuzzy bodies, come for the joy of taking in the view, the kaleidoscopic dance of sacred energy.  No matter what the view is.  No matter how chaotic the moment may seem.

That’s what the caterpillar told me.  Take in the view, and travel on.

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The Parable of the Oyster: Compassion’s Power

Pearl of Compassion

Harry was an oyster who lived an ordinary oyster life.  He bobbed around the floor of the sea, pushed here and there by its currents, happily sucking phytoplankton and algae from the water as it passed over his gills.

One day, a tiny chunk of something hard and rough made it inside his shell.  Caught there, it was quite painful, given the softness of his interior.  If he had been a human, this irritating fleck might have been something like a cruel word hurled at him, or a wound caused by an accident or even by an unexpected change in circumstances.  But for Harry, it was a rock-hard particle and he didn’t like it at all.  It hurt.

He focused his attention on it, fully feeling the pain.  It was awful, with a sharp, burning quality.  and all he wanted was for it to stop.  While he focusing on it, he happened to think that this must happen to other oysters, too.  He was not alone in his suffering.  Many, perhaps thousands, of other oysters were feeling this exact pain.

That thought made his oyster-heart fill with compassion that such was the fate of so many of his kind. He breathed in the pain for all the oysters that were afflicted, and when he breathed out again, his breath carried his compassion to all the others, and his wishes for them for relief from their suffering.

In and out he breathed, taking in the shared pain of all the oysters, and breathing out compassion for them.  And as he did this, the pain he felt became more bearable somehow.

Several minutes (which is a long time in an oyster’s life) passed before he noticed that his oyster-body had responded to his compassion by wrapping the irritating chunk inside him in a smooth, lustrous coat.  He returned to his breathing, just in case his compassion was easing the pain of his fellow sufferers as well.

Weeks later, Harry shared the story of his experience with an oyster-friend of his.  “That explains it!” his friend exclaimed.  It turned out that he had ingested a painful particle as well.  He had struggled against it mightily, but it only dug more deeply into his soft oyster flesh.  Then one day, something in the water seemed to whisper to him, “You are not alone in this.  Be kind to yourself and patient with this irritation.”  It had seemed a great mystery to him, but now he realized he was receiving his friend Harry’s love.

“Knowing I wasn’t alone helped so much,” he told Harry.  “Somehow it made it all easier to bear.  And I felt so much love for all the other oysters who were suffering that it made me more patient with my own pain.”

Harry and his friend carried their little rocks inside them until the day they died.  And while they were never the same, their compassion coated their wounds with layers and layers of beautiful light.  Their suffering ceased, and they lived out their days in peace.

Much later, a young boy wandered along the shore and came across the shell that had held Harry’s body.  Out of curiosity, he pried it open and, to his great surprise and wonder, discovered it held a luminous pearl.  “Dad!” he cried.  “Look what I found!”   And his father burst into tears at the sight, for the treasure brought a solution to his own brand of pain.

We are never alone in our suffering.  And our compassion for those who suffer as well has more power than we will ever know.

*     *     *

Harry’s compassionate breathing is a practice called Tonglen.  Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron leads a guided meditation of it here, and describes it in some depth here.

 

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Dealing with Drastic Change

Change

Whether you’re in a natural disaster or facing a crisis of the personal kind, drastic change is tough.  Even changes we choose to make for ourselves bring discomfort.  But extreme and sudden changes win the prize for throwing us into shock.  We find ourselves in the midst of the Big Unknown, and feel disoriented, uncertain and insecure.  Our survival mechanisms flick on.  What’s happening?  What am I going to do?  How will I get through this?

Zen Philosopher Alan Watts says, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

“The dance!” you might say.  “Are you out of your mind?  This is no dance!  It’s a crisis, a disaster!.”

Yup.  That’s what it is alright.  The shock and fear and rage you feel is just the thunder of the drums as the dance begins.   And here’s the magic of it.  You get to choose its rhythms and its moods, its tempo  and all the steps and melodies.

First Steps

Life will, after all, go on.  Even when you can’t begin to fathom how.  And the only way to find out how it will go is to keep moving forward, one step at a time.

Let your first step be recognizing and respecting that you’re in crisis mode.  Our normal response to emotions is to generate stories or recall memories around them.   When you’re in shock and overwhelmed with strong emotion, it’s important to make stories that center around your values and strengths instead of painting the situation as an unrecoverable loss.  Yes, it may be a loss of huge, important parts.  But while the loss itself may be unrecoverable, you are capable of creating a new and positive version of your life as you go forward.

The old saying that every change has within it the seeds of opportunity is true.  Decide that you will adapt and overcome.  Consider the idea that you might not only overcome, but make something incredibly strong and beautiful from this experience in your life.

Instead of being overcome with sadness, let the heaviness of your grieving take the form of deeper, more grateful thought.  Experiment with looking at things from a different perspective.  Imagine you’re that guy over there, looking at you.  What would you want him to see?  Imagine looking back on this in time and feeling proud of how well you handled it.  Play with this as being a dramatic section of your life dance, or as an adventure or a grand exploration.  See what you find interesting about your current status.  Be curious about it and about what you might make of it.

American poet and educator Nikki Giovanni gives us this insight about change:

A lot of people resist transition and therefore never allow themselves to enjoy who they are.  Embrace the change no matter what it is; once you do, you can learn about the new world you’re in and take advantage of it

Isn’t that an extraordinary idea?  You can allow yourself to enjoy who are even in the midst of stepping from a familiar world into a brand new one.   It’s like stepping onto a new stage in this dance of your life and writing its music any way you want.  You decide.  What kind of soundtrack is playing?  How do you want to shape it from here?

It’s up to you.  Isn’t that wondrous?

*     *     *

You may also find these articles helpful:

How to Be Resilient When Crisis Strikes
When the Future Dies: Making a New Start After Tragedy and Disaster   When Happiness Goes Dark: How to Deal with Life’s Traumas 
When Things Go Wrong: 7 Steps to Regaining Balance

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When Sadness Strikes

When Sadness Strikes

One of the most helpful things I’ve learned from my studies in positive psychology is how to deal with sadness.  And this week, with its non-stop pictures of the devastation that Hurricane Harvey caused , has certainly provided me with an immense opportunity to practice.

The number one thing I know about dealing with sadness is not to fight it.  That holds true with a lot of painful emotions, by the way.  You let yourself tune right into the feeling, to be as fully aware of it as you can.  Where do you feel it in your body?  What’s it weight?  Does it have a shape?  A color?  Just feel it and accept its validity.  Ask it what it has to say to you, then listen for an answer.

My sadness was heavy and dark, a cloud-like thing wrapping around my heart.  It went beyond sadness, I realized.  It was sorrow, and grief, and anger that such suffering could befall so many.  It held a sense of helplessness because there was little I could to alleviate such a vast problem.

But as I sat with it, accepting it, listening to it, I realized it also contained compassion and love.  And as the week went on, the stories of the countless heroes who stepped out to rescue and serve the affected began to emerge.  And my cloud of emotion took on a wave of soaring pride in my fellow humans, who came from everywhere to do whatever they could do.  And then there was hope, as people started saying that every sense of division disappeared.  In the face of disaster, everyone was simply a human being.

It was mid-week before my attention broadened to encompass an awareness of the horrendous fires sweeping the western states.  And then I learned that another hurricane, even larger and more powerful, is threatening to sweep the east coast next week.

I thought about something Dr. Jordan Peterson said:  “Life is suffering.  The best you can do is pick it up and carry it with as much dignity as you can muster.”   To me that means staying present and attending to the work at hand, doing that work to the best of my ability—whatever the situation.

And then there’s Tara Brach’s admonition:  “This is suffering.  Everybody suffers.  May I be kind.”  Amen to that.  May we all be kind.

Listen, every September I inform my dear subscribers that it’s National Preparedness Month and I nag about taking time to ensure that you have adequate food and water on hand to get you by for a week, at the very least.  Have batteries on hand, and medications you and your family members may need.  Have a battery-powered or wind-up emergency radio.  Do that!  Especially if you live anywhere on the east coast.  Make yourself a little go-bag of things to take with you in case you suddenly have to evacuate.  Don’t let the gas tank in your car fall below half-full.  And here’s a good tip I read this week:  Take photos of important papers, like birth certificates, insurance information, deeds, important family contact information and such and put them on a thumb drive in your purse, go-bag, or wallet.

Consider yourself advised.  Consider attending to preparation today—because, really, you never know when tomorrow may be too late.

Meanwhile, cover those impacted by life’s tragedies with your compassionate thoughts and prayers.  Be kind—to yourself and to others.  Be present.   Then attend to the work at hand, with all the dignity and grace you can muster.

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Share the Light

Share the Light

The grocery store was crowded when I ran in for a few items yesterday, but I managed to find one fairly short checkout line.  In front of me, an older man sat in a motorized cart with a small pile of canned goods in its basket.  It looked to me like it would be an uncomfortable reach for him to lift his items onto the counter, so I walked to the side of his cart and stooped enough to be at face level with him.

“May I put your items on the belt for you?  Would that be a help?”

His lined face brightened into a smile.  “Oh, thank you!  Yes, that would be wonderful.  You’re an angel.”

As I transferred his items to the counter, he told me he had just been released from the hospital.  I saw that one arm had gauze taped to it and he still wore a hospital ID bracelet on his wrist.  “They said my heart was good.  They couldn’t tell me why I’m so tired,” he said.  When he got home, he intended to take a nap.

He told me that he’d lost his wife a year ago to cancer.  They had been together 43 years.  I told him I had lost a son in an auto accident, and I knew what grief was like.  “A man said something helpful to me while I was grieving,” I told him.  “He said that the pain never really goes away, but it finds a special place in your heart to dwell.”   He smiled and nodded.

He put out his hand, told me his name and asked mine.  Then, when I put my hand in his, he covered it with his other hand and said a quiet prayer of blessing for me, asking that I might be blessed with health and well-being and prosper in all my ways.

The glow of that encounter still flows through my heart and serves as a poignant reminder of the power of a moment of kindness.

As I write this, Hurricane Harvey is tearing up homes and towns and lives in Texas.  From the looks of things, the damage will be catastrophic and widespread.  And like most of you reading this, I wish I could offer more than a donation to relief funds.  I’m so tired of witnessing all the suffering in the world.

But my encounter at the grocery store reminded me that even small kindnesses can touch lives in meaningful ways.  And I think nothing is more needed right now than offerings of kindness, every day, at every opportunity.   What if we all looked for those opportunities?  What if we focused on that, instead of bristling with a willingness to take offense?

Who knows what a touch, a smile can do?  Hold a door.  Say hello.  Help carry a burden.  Take a neighbor a cookie or flower.  Say the magic words:  Please, and Thank You.  Tell the people that you care about that you love them.

We might not change the world.  But we can at least tip it a little more toward the light, hey?  I say we all put on our kindness hats and get out there and give it all we’ve got.

 

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