My Dharma teacher from our Plum Blossom Sangha invites everyone to sit or walk in a healing and appreciation meditation for our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. He has been seriously sick for three weeks and only started eating some yoghurt two days ago.
Tears spring in my eyes as I realize we might lose him. I feel sadness, fear, and grief about the anticipated loss. I decide to meditate outside on the deck, where the bougainvillea blooms abundantly. That will help me celebrate Thich Nhat Hanh’s contribution to the world, and understand and accept the impermanence of life.
As soon as I sit, it starts to rain, while the sun continues to shine exorbitantly. Cloud, rains, and sunshine at the same time. Just like I experience joy, sadness, and appreciation at the same time.
The Buddha taught his students one important question: “Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?”
I remembered that question when I felt angry and frustrated a few days ago. I went for a walk and told myself “I feel angry and frustrated”. Then it dawned on me, was I sure?
Sure, I still felt anger and frustration, I still had all these enemy images racing through my mind. I still felt adrenaline pumping through my hands.
And, I felt something else. A sadness about the conflict and disconnect. A joy about all the positive things in our relationship. An openness to and compassion for my partner.
Are you sure?
I feel sadness and fear with the thought of Thich Nhat Hanh dying. And I feel trust that his energy, presence, and teachings are always available to me. And gratitude and relief that I found him and my Sangha to support me on my path of mindfulness. And a solidity within myself that nothing is lost, nothing gained, that there is just a constant change in the manifestation of life.
Are you sure?
You might like to ask yourself that question once in a while.
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I always thought that retreats are peaceful, tranquil, and joyful.
How wrong can you can be? This retreat was unnerving, disquieting, and disorienting.
In these two days I realized how much of my life has been dominated by my fear that I won’t get the love, acceptance, and support that I so deeply long for. I am creating my own suffering by expecting the world not to meet my needs.
Many of my critical, judgmental, and evaluative voices are my way of keeping people at a distance to minimize the risk that I will feel hurt, lonely, and scared.
I breathe into that realization. I let it sink in. A second insight comes up. These voices don’t indicate that I am not a good person, that there is something wrong with me, that I should practice harder to be compassionate with everyone. They are just a cry for help to trust that I am good enough, that I do matter, and that my presence is indeed a present to the world.
Gosh. This is what I help my clients with. And here I am struggling with this deeply ingrained fear of rejection, ridicule, and abandonment. I am so scared that I interpret every absence of a smile, every lack of a hug, every non-response as proof that I am rejected, etc.
And that’s where my critical thoughts come in handy. They reassure me that there is nothing wrong with me, and everything with them. Another brick in the wall to guard my vulnerable heart.
I wonder “What if I open up to this raw pain of loneliness? What if I gently embrace this fear that my needs for acceptance, mattering, and belonging won’t be met? What if I step into the courage to share myself nakedly, trembling in this old, habitual fear of isolation and lack of support and understanding?
It sounds pretty unpleasant and unappealing. I like the safety of the wall around me. I don’t see much of life, of the real presence of people, and I’m not sure if I’m missing out. Maybe I just want to stay inside these walls of habitual thoughts and reassure myself that everything is okay. That life is really wonderful in this dark, stuffed cave.
And yet… How would life be if I step out into what’s truly alive in me? No evaluation, just owning my experience. How would life be if I am fully aware of and responsive to how I contribute to my own suffering? No judgment, just an observation. How would life be if I create some spaciousness for other ways of being? No force, just experimenting.
It sounds scary. It sounds appealing.
Let’s do that…My thoughts might not be right after all.
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I wake up and I feel heavy with fear. Literally heavy. It seems almost impossible to move this heavy weight out of bed.
I remember Pema Chodrön‘s invitation to lean into heavy feelings, to lean into the sharp points, and feel the groundlessness of our existence.
This seems a perfect moment to accept the invitation and lean into my fear.
I breathe in, and bring my attention to this dread, this apprehension, this fear. I let it cycle through me, and scrupulously observe it’s different aspects.
It turns into terror, then blind panic, then an overwhelming blackness and feverish nightmare. It grasps me, chokes me, I can’t wake up from it. I sweat and tremble.
Which idiot ever thought this was a good practice? Which imbecile ever thought that leaning into your fear was a good idea? Pema Chödron probably never experienced such consuming feelings. Never experienced the certainty of going crazy and lose your mind. Like forever. Like really forever being stuck in that nightmare.
I feel my breath go faster. I feel my body tighten. I am noticing I am bringing my attention to my breath. To my body. To my feelings. I feel into my experience. It doesn’t get much more comfortable, ànd it stabilizes. I’m getting calmer, more solid.
I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know how it’s happening. But after five minutes I get up. I feel light, relax, open. I made it. Leaning into your feelings might be a good idea after all.
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There is something about fear that I really appreciate. Something about the moment that fear turns into blind panic and terror. When this happens and it lasts long enough, it dissolves into surrender, softening, letting go.
I’m not talking about the fear that comes up when our live and safety is threatened in this moment. I’m not talking about the fear when bombs fall, someone is coming at us with a knife, we get into a car crash.
I’m talking about anticipating fear. The fear that something will happen in the future. The fear that we won’t create enough income, that our husband is gonna leave us, that we’ll get a disease and die, that we’ll lose connection when we express our authentic truth. Those scenarios our mind chooses from all the possible scenarios and believes to be true. Anticipating fear.
When that fear grasps you long enough, there comes a moment when you cannot sustain it anymore. Your system doesn’t have enough capacity to be and terrified and continue living. It collapses.
Thàt’s the moment to catch. Thàt’s the opportunity to wake up to this moment and realize that all you have is the present moment. That there is really nothing else but this moment. This waking up is not the result of a mental exercise, trying to convince yourself that the future has no reality. It is a visceral experience of understanding your future is beyond your control. You feel in your body that the only thing you can influence is your intention, thoughts, speech and action, right now.
Once that awareness sunk in with me, I completely relaxed. My fears dissipated. All that was left is gratitude. For my hands which are able to hold a pen and write. For the four walls that keep the cold outside, and the warmth in. For the faucet that gives me easy access to water. For the carpenter that made the chair that supports me. For my husband who works, holds me, appreciates me. For my family and friends who are willing to help.
The gratitude list is endless. I giggle. My experiences are faster than my gratitude. There is só much to be grateful for, that I can’t keep up with it.
Wangari Maathai shares a beautiful story about a hummingbird and the forest. The forest is on fire and all the animals flee away, terrified of the fire and immobilized by fear of what will happen to their sacred home.
The hummingbird flies off too. To the lake. He picks up one drop and flies back to the forest and drops it on the fire. Then he flies back to the lake as fast as he can and picks up another drop. And another. And another.
All the animals watch him and ask: “Why are you doing this? It’s not gonna help? Your beak is too small, the fire too big, and your wings too slow.” The hummingbird pauses a second, then replies “I’m doing the best I can.”
Sometimes we feel overwhelmed with our situation, the situation of our world. We see all the suffering, within ourselves, in other people, nearby, far away. The task is too heavy, the stakes too high. Something needs to be done, and it needs to be done now, but whatever we have to offer is nothing compared to the grief and suffering. There is too much to do, and we stand to lose it all. The situation seems overwhelming, and we get paralyzed.
Those are the moments that we can stop. We stop to appreciate everything we are doing. Every thought we create, every word we speak, every step we take. We appreciate how we contribute to more abundance in the world, more prosperity, more security, more love, connection, peace, joy, and harmony. We acknowledge how our efforts bring more loving-kindness, compassion, support and understanding into the world. We appreciate how we work to sustain ourselves, our loved ones, and those we don’t know yet. We might not create the results we want. But, we’re doing the best we can.