I’ve often turned to spiritual teachers during difficult times in my life, and most often I’ve found them in a book passed into my hands by a friend. One such book was given to me by a friend of my mother’s who dropped by one evening three years ago. She said as she was leaving, “Oh, by the way, I think you’ll like this.”
The book was When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun. I had never heard of her, but the book became a constant companion that I referred to almost every day to guide me through the ups and downs of coming back to live with my mother and sister.
I bought and read a second book by Pema, The Places that Scare You, A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, which I’ve just picked up again and begun to re-read now, as I face another challenging time in my life. This is the page I want to share with you today. It’s from the chapter about the ‘in-between state.’
“We are told about the pain of chasing after pleasure and the futility of running from pain. We hear also about the joy of awakening, of realizing our interconnectedness, of trusting the openness of our hearts and minds. But we aren’t told all that much about this state of being in-between, no longer able to get our old comfort from the outside but not yet dwelling in a continual sense of equanimity and warmth.
Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than buy into struggle and complaint. The challenge is to let it soften us rather than make us more rigid and afraid. Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously. By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.
Yet it seems reasonable to want some kind of relief. If we can make the situation right or wrong, if we can pin it down in any way, then we are on familiar ground. But something has shaken up our habitual patterns and frequently they no longer work. Staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it. This open-ended tender place is called bodhichitta. Staying with it is what heals. It allows us to let go of our self-importance. It’s how the warrior learns to love.
This is exactly how we’re training every time we sit in meditation. We see what comes up, acknowledge that with kindness, and let go. Thoughts and emotions rise and fall. Some are more convincing than others. Habitually we are so uncomfortable with that churned-up feeling that we’d do anything to make it go away. Instead we kindly encourage ourselves to stay with our agitated energy by returning to our breath. This is the basic training in maitri that we need to just keep going forward, to just keep opening our heart.” (p 120-121)
This has been the focus of my recent practice: finding the in-between state commonly referred to as ‘the middle way.’ I’ve been anxious and finding myself more frequently at either extreme – aggressively fighting uncomfortable challenges, or running away from them altogether (denial). I learned the old fight or flight thing by watching my parents. Dad was into taking the fight into the arena, Big Time. He burned some bridges in the process, and a lot of calories on our bare bottoms. Mom spent her time avoiding conflict, and pretending that everything was just hunky-dory, even when we all knew it wasn’t. ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ was her frequent rhetorical question. Nobody ever answered. No one knew how.
I’m an excellent learner, and have both dad’s and mom’s method down perfectly, but I find myself not happy about either. There must be a better way. So I’ve turned to spiritual teachers and people who seem to have a spirit of equanimity and joy as my guides. How do they do that? I want to be like them!
My most recent guide, other than Pema, is the lead character in the movie, Legally Blonde. Surprised? Spiritual teacher?? Elle is friendly, honest, AND firm. She knows what she wants, and goes out to get it without stepping on other people or pushing them out of the way. She keeps her heart open even when she is judged unfairly and treated despicably. And she makes friends with the impossibly cold-hearted just by being an example of goodness. I call that a pretty good model to follow.
Role models help me. They provide the words and actions to help me out of my box of fixated responses. They give me a new script, a new way of seeing and behaving, that is far more effective. I’m not blonde, but I AM beautiful, and I can be kind AND firm, with practice.
The holiday’s are over. It’s mid-January, and the new year is already a living, breathing presence. The year behind me was Full. And the closing days of 2017 were in many ways the most lovely of any in my recent memory. The shortening days led to a winter solstice celebration with friends, and I took a deep breath and dared to look around and back: So many people I care about, so much growth in the face of unbelievable challenge, so much quiet calmness as I see my heart has been steadily learning to trust the timing of events in my life. I found myself enjoying every little celebration as it came along. And the extra weight? I’ve already lost it.
Fuller disclosure: it’s not like there hasn’t been a shit-load of stressors. Life is a dangerous endeavor, after all, and there’s always something threatening to knock me out of my comfort zone. And it usually does, but I’m navigating those blessings better than I used to. Facing down fear has been a theme not just for me this past year. And fear – F.E.A.R. – can be So. Debilitating. What I want to do when it starts to circle ominously around me – drooling, snarling, and closing in – is go hide, tune it out, eat another bowl of pop-corn, pull the wool up over my head and watch another episode of Transparent. Yes, but I’ve seen all the seasons. I also know from experience that avoidance only works temporarily. And usually not well.
So, what to do when I’m feeling afraid, desperately uncomfortable, helpless, and hopeless? Not to mention angry at the injustice of being caught in the crossfire between BAD and WORSE.
Step willingly into the discomfort? Yes. Don’t be afraid, or if I am afraid, do what I need to do to show up anyway. Go ahead and take the Alprozolam, strike a power pose, do some deep breathing. But go! Something good might come out of it. It usually does.
Some strategies I’ve identified for stepping into deep discomfort, an act of courage worth honing:
- Meditation – it’s hard to do, right? There’s something about it that makes it look uncomfortable. But, after pushing myself to stop running around in a panic and just sit, I find the screaming mind has become quieter, and a deeper awareness has taken its place.
- Study the guides, spiritual and practical: Ignorance is NOT a blissful place to be.
- Write it down: What you know, what you want to say, what you want to ask – digging into a pile of shit is a very nasty prospect. But it begins to lose its power when offered up to the light of day.
- Talk to people – Find out what other people are thinking and doing; how they view a fearful situation, for example. Communication can be scary, but coming out of isolation is a big part of dealing with fear.
- Make Music! By myself or with others. Get out there and give ’em what you got.
- Lifting weights, going for a walk, cooking a healthy meal, getting a good night’s sleep – these are all part of the necessary training for a warrior in the making. I’m congratulating myself on every little baby step taken. You’re badass, girl!
Hello 2018! I’m fearful and I’m fearless, and just like you, I’m coming as I am.
This part of the bike path along the Sound at Seaside Park always gives me a rush. It feels like I’m riding out into the sea until I make the sharp right and follow the sidewalk all the way to the point. This spot was my inspiration for the latest piece below.
I joined the Milford Arts Council this year, and submitted two pieces to the Firehouse Gallery Exhibit this month. The theme: Visual Music. As I had made nothing with that theme in mind, I decided to take another look and found two projects that could fit, especially if I named them something musical. The name adds a new dimension to the way I look at them.
I was under the influence of Matisse when I started out on this one. It didn’t come out as easily as some of the previous pieces. I had to leave it out on my living room floor for days as I kept working on it, wondering where it was going. Of all my work, I think it most fits the theme of the show. After giving it a name, I started liking it more.
This is my favorite piece, so it’s not for sale. I need to get a better photo of it to post. It came together in just a few hours. I had the idea from a wall of photos I had seen at a friend’s house (below). I liked the overall shape and wanted to use it for my colored paper squares. Suddenly it became floating houses in the clouds. It reminds me of apartments by the sea in Portugal, or somewhere on the Mediterranean, or my own tiny apartment next to Seaside Park on the Sound.
As I’m getting back into making art, I’m learning many new things. I’ve always been a creator, not much concerned with the details of framing, printing, promoting, etc. Naming and framing the piece, dragging it to a show, figuring out what it’s about so I can answer the inevitable questions…lot of new stuff to think about. Next step is to ditch all those reflections!
When I look again at the original I can see the depth of color that I wasn’t able to catch. But I learned a lot making this image. I’m not afraid of drawing clouds anymore, for one. And I notice them in the sky a lot more now.
Below is another O’Keefe that Emilie and I saw when we visited her museum in Santa Fe. We loved it and I wanted to try copying it.
My Wonder Woman is an embellished copy of one of Matisse’s cut-outs:
Below is a copy of a Pucci scarf design. Crazy about his designs!
I got the idea for Mountain Fade from a DIY video online. My daughter wanted something on her wall, and found a model she liked online. Doing this project got me started and gave me confidence to approach a big blank wall with a lot less fear.
My bedroom clouds!