Three Practices for a World in Turmoil

“Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad.” – Colonel Brandon, Sense and Sensibility

I think a lot of us are in that state, caught up in fear and grief, and the anticipation of more grief to come. We want to do something, but we are entangled in the emotions, and it is hard to know what actions to take.

Today, I want to introduce you to (or remind you of) three practices that can help you clear that grief so that you can find your way back to action. These are beyond self-care; they are ways to walk through the fire to get to the other side.

1. Metta – Loving Kindness meditation

Counter-intuitively, Metta, or the focus on loving-kindness, can be a very difficult practice. It involves cultivating a sense of love and kindness in your heart, and then giving it away. So far, so good. You start with yourself, and the people who are close to you, but as you practice, you move out to further and further removed people (and beings), to eventually encompass all sentient beings.

This means that, at some point, you have to pass a level of sending loving kindness to somebody with whom you have a conflicted or difficult relationship. In my experience, my mind often focuses on whoever is triggering the most pain for me… and you can probably guess who that is at the moment.

However, with regular incorporation, Metta can be a beautifully expansive practice that connects your senses to the entire community of sentient beings. And I’m not gonna lie – when you hit the stride, it really feels good. Bonus!

I recommend finding a recorded Metta meditation, as it can be difficult to sit through this practice without guidance. If you are having trouble finding one that works for you, let me know and I will see what I can do to help. I’ve been having good luck with the Insight Timer guided meditations recently, but Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield are particularly good teachers in this practice.

2. Tonglen – Sending and Receiving

Tonglen is an incredibly powerful practice for transforming the experience of suffering. The “receiving” part of this is a moment of allowing yourself to take in the pain (on the inhale) and exchange it, sending relief on the exhale.

Caution: One must not get lost in the pain! For me the practice of tonglen becomes one of balance, because for each in breath there is an out breath, so each experience is limited in time. I know I only have to endure this (whatever this is) until the change of the tide. At times that you are absorbed in the pain of the world, you may benefit from sending relief… because you, yourself, will have the opportunity to experience that relief.

Pema Chodron offers some of the best instruction in Tonglen, and has such a gentle and thorough approach. I would recommend listening to her instruction before trying this at all, as she also says that it might not be for everybody, and it might be something to set aside for another time. In this talk she calls our attention to our everyday experiences of relief, like putting on a sweater, and how much we can acknowledge and take inspiration from those moments… and then have the thought, “May others experience this.”

3. The Work that Reconnects

If you feel that you need a more comprehensive/intensive set of practices, Joanna Macy’s Active Hope book is very current.

Subtitled, “How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy,” it feels needful, in the face of the distress I’m seeing around me at the moment. If you’re not familiar with her work, she is an eco-philosopher who teaches from a position of “Engaged Buddhism.” She (along with others) proposes that we consider ourselves to in the midst of a “Great Turning” away from a destructive Industrial Growth Society and toward a life-sustaining society. If this is to come about each of us has a role to play.

Through these sets of practices (which are really meant to be done in community and connection), she talks about the need to come from gratitude, but also to face our despair head on before transforming it through engagement with others.

The overall body of work, including connections to facilitators and workshops, is available at “The Work that Reconnects“. There is also a series of 17 videos which walk through the entire process.

***

Those are some starting points. If you have any other suggestions, please add them in the comments below or join the conversation on The Art of Yearning’s FB page.

Holding onto your Dreams while Drowning

I was at an ocean beach a couple of summers ago. The waves were high and the drop off into the water was steep, but I’m a strong swimmer. There were families and kids all along the shore. It didn’t occur to me that I might get into trouble.

But somehow, I got knocked down by a wave getting out of the water. I came up gasping, started to get my feet underneath me, and another one got me from behind. I eventually staggered out, spluttering, after a few more attempts, knocked down again and again, wondering what I was doing wrong, how everybody else was getting in and out so effortlessly, increasingly feeling like I was going to spend the rest of my life on this edge… and that it might not be a very long time.

***

There are times in every life when it feels like you’re drowning.

The roof comes off the house and hits the car the same week that your kids start at a new school. You get a phone call from the teacher just before going into a big meeting. Six things break on the car in the same month, just when your job is under review.

You stagger to your feet and something else hits you. It feels relentless. There is no time for dreaming, no space for desire. There is barely time to breathe.

Yet you need a lifeline. If nothing else, you need a reason to keep getting back on your feet. 10 minutes here and there, carved out of a life which feels full to bursting, to remind yourself of why you are doing this in the first place.

This is the time of the oxygen mask.

1. Take a breath

 

Even though it feels like you don’t have time, this is the place where you need to take a break the most. Five minutes to start, even if that is just sitting in your car listening to music before you get onto the highway.

We cannot make good choices in a state of panic and anxiety. We make mistakes. We yell at the people we love most. We miss the most important meetings because we are distracted by the most urgent. When we are stressed beyond belief, that is the time that we most need to slow down.

 2. Be realistic about time

There are a limited number of hours in the day, the week, the year. Even with superhuman effort, we have edges beyond which we cannot pass. We have bodies which require sleep and food and exercise, relationships which require time and attention and presence, dreams which need to be nurtured and listened to.

Trees and children take time to grow. Books take time to write. Businesses take time to become self-sustaining.

Rome, I hear, was not built in a day.

 3. Engage in some triage

Does every single thing really need to get done? Is it even all yours?

I know it all feels urgent, but my experience playing entropy-whack-a-mole is that you can expend an enormous amount of energy on other people’s priorities simply because they are the loudest ones.

Once again, a moment of pause is in order. What are actually the priorities? What must be done. What can wait until next week? Next month? Never? Are there things that you are doing purely to look good?

Here’s a sneaky one: Are there things that you are doing to be able to keep doing something else that you really don’t want to be doing?

 4. Ask for help before you absolutely need it

I debated where to put this one.

So many of us resort to asking for help only after all other solutions have been exhausted… or, more to the point, refuse all offers of help until we are so exhausted we can’t resist any more. So I thought about putting it first.

But I still think that we should consider whether what we are doing really needs to get done before we ask for help in accomplishing it. There is a subtlety in knowing when to ask for childcare from your sister so you can sit on a board and when to ask for help to say, “No,” to yet another volunteer request. We don’t just want to recruit more people into doing too much. That’s no good.

So, yes, ask for help. But do take a couple of minutes to figure out what to ask for. Maybe what you really need is somebody to listen to you rant and remind you to take deep breaths. Maybe you need to hire somebody to clean your house. Maybe you need a friend, and maybe you need a professional. But when you are frayed to the breaking point, toughing it out and doing it on your own is not the best solution. That’s when we wind up collapsing… and then the chance to ask for help in a timely fashion is taken out of our hands.

 5. Don’t waste energy comparing yourself to others

One of the first guidelines in yoga is “Stay on your own mat.” The person next to you is inhabiting a different body, with different capacities. If you attention is over there, watching and comparing, it is not in your body, feeling the way into the pose.

It’s so hard to stay on your mat when people are doing things like this next to you!

When you’re being knocked down by waves, it is not the time to ask, “Why aren’t those other people being knocked down?” First, you need to get up. Then, once your feet are under you, there will be time to improve your balance, change your job, go back to school, paint your living room, negotiate a raise, or whatever it is that you feel like you need to do before the next batch comes along.

6. Create touchstones to remind you where you are going

When you have dreams that seem very far away and out of reach, it can feel like a waste of time to connect with them. But you need a north star, at least, if not a compass and map.

If, for example, you want to go to Italy but you can’t imagine getting there, carry a picture in your wallet. Put one on the wallpaper of your phone. Use the Duolingo app to learn Italian for fifteen minutes on the subway. Make a Pinterest board if that’s your jam.

Take some of the time that you are currently spending on Facebook, Netflix, or your distraction of choice (you know you are) and use it for something that gets your mind moving toward your dream. You might even make a jar (or a separate account) for savings just for that thing.

Redirect your energies, and eventually the things that you redirect them toward become a part of your life. The key part of that sentence, though, is “eventually”. There is effort involved, and sometimes if the goal is very large, that effort needs to be sustained over years. The key is holding onto things that are dear to your heart, even in the face of challenges.

Don’t Give People a Veto on your Peace of Mind

I’m sweeping my kitchen floor, spraying the bathroom with things, filling the sink, throwing laundry into the washing machine. My to-do list says that I’m writing at the moment, but my house has deteriorated while I’ve been working on big projects, and I really want it to be tidy. I even have, “House beautiful” down as one of my four priorities for this month… so I’m cleaning the house and writing a blog post in my mind. Contemplating actually adding four hours a week during the day to do house work – especially since large parts of my writing are about engaging directly in systems of support.

In the middle, I pause to listen to my inner dialogue. There’s a little niggling bit at the back of my mind saying, “I shouldn’t have to do this. I have a family. They have all their limbs. Why doesn’t anybody else see this?” This could totally turn into anger and resentment.

Stop. Label it thinking. Come back to the broom.

This is my priority. This is where I want our collective energies to be directed. I know enough about boundaries, constructions of reality, and communication to know that our inner worlds are not aligned.

This is where the rubber hits the road, meditationally speaking : Am I going to let other people’s action/non-action dictate my state of mind?

Seriously.

If I am cut off in traffic, and I find myself yelling and waving my arms… who’s suffering here? The other driver is long gone. It doesn’t matter whether they were in the wrong in the first place; I am now doing it to myself.

My boss is a jerk! Changed the deadline, changed the scope, yelled at me in front of my co-workers, sat on a completed project for six weeks before signing off on it and then complained about my productivity!

All of those things can be true. And if you go home at the end of the day and stew upon them, miss your evening with your friends and family, ruminate, fantasize, or just plain worry, you’ve carried the boss’s energy with you and taken it into your body. Now you’re being a jerk to yourself.

Now, stay with me here. Because I’m not suggesting that it’s just fine that your boss is a Big Jerk. I’m not suggesting that the balm of meditation should be applied and you should just get back in that ring. This is a level of self-control that is absurd, and it transfers all the boss’s emotional labour onto you. Sure. Boss needs to learn to communicate clearly, find their own inner peace, and recognize the experiences of frustration and anxiety without discharging them onto everybody surrounding them. HOWEVER!!! If you wait for Boss to do that before you’re going to let yourself be calm, you’re probably gonna be waiting a long, long… looooooooonnng time.

There are actions that must be taken. Skillful means. There may be a change of venue in your future.

In the meantime, though, I offer this possibility: you can take back that power. It’s a learnable skill. Ten deep breaths and a choice not to bite the hook (as Pema Chodron puts it), and you can have your afternoon back. In principle.

This is why we practice: so that, in the moment, we can remember.

“Ah, yes. I’ve done this before. I may have had this exact conversation (in my mind, in the moments of not attending the breath.) I know how to come back.” The more we do it, the more it becomes second nature.

And on that note, I’m going to go clean the bathroom and put the laundry in the drier, because I would rather spend the evening playing board games than snarling at my kids.