The world as I have known it is changing in very fundamental ways. The changes I perceive and experience evoke unsettling feelings.
For me, the value of a regular meditation, pranayama and yoga practice is that whatever I may be experiencing, however difficult or painful, my practice gives me a way to touch into the peace, freedom, clarity, presence — whatever you might call it — that is the essence of this business of being human.
At this stage in my life, in my spiritual development, I feel very fortunate. It hasn’t always been like this, but now, living in the Bay Area, in California, I have a good home, I am healthy and I have the time to focus on the things that matter to me. Pretty much every day I experience spontaneous feelings of gratitude and appreciation. I don’t know how long this phase of life will last, but while it’s happening, I’m making best use of it, deepening into a sense of what I’m really here for, the purpose of existence, of my existence. I’m writing more and turning toward service.
To be clear, although everything is “good,” difficult feelings still arise — often unprompted and unbidden. I can attribute the eruption of painful emotion to various frustrations and inconveniences in my environment, but I am also aware that these eruptions likely have more to do with my choice to attend more deeply to my purpose, to writing and teaching . . . to risking being more fully myself. A growing willingness to be what I am without editing or altering for the sake of others is presenting a layer of challenges I have not faced before.
The genesis of any of my feelings is not as important as it used to be, really. Understanding the origin of feelings certainly helps in some cases. And I am aware that my gestation and early childhood have a direct impact on my adult perceptions and behaviors. But even including that knowledge, and accepting the roots in my early conditioning, I am still left with the challenge of meeting the feelings as they arise, regardless of their provenance.
How to be with what arises? How to be with the experience without resisting and blocking or being overwhelmed? When I suppress or repress feelings, it’s a short-term solution. The feelings usually cycle back repeatedly and tend to cause increasing havoc until attended. On the other hand, when I’m consumed by a feeling, I lose my objectivity. My perception of the world around me and everything I say or do is rooted in and projected from the limits of a kind of obsession.
An approach I have become more willing to take these days is to sit and do nothing — whatever I’m feeling, whatever is happening in my body or in the world around me. I wouldn’t say that I sit in awareness. That seems too advanced or grown up . . . but I do intend to sit and do nothing. Basically, I just sit there. I sit and do nothing.
Some spiritual teachings describe how anger can be transformed into a mirror-like timeless awareness, pride can be transformed into a timeless awareness of balance, etc. The danger is that such miraculous and transformative movement between states can be misinterpreted as the description of results of some effort or exercise . . . and some people, myself included, may try to transform emotions into experiences of timeless awareness. In my current practice, I am not waiting for the feelings to dissipate. Nor am I seeking to transform the feelings into their corresponding manifestations of awakening.
If I am waiting/wanting/watching for my feelings to dissipate, I’m doing something. If I try to transform the feelings into something else with breath or intensity of focus, I am also trying to do something, trying to change, harboring the thought or belief that the current experience is not as it should be . . . attachment to feeling good, resistance to feeling anything else but good.
The practice is REALLY doing nothing, to the extent that I am able. There is nothing outside me that can resolve the arising feelings I’m having. And the often-overlooked corollary is that there is nothing inside me that can resolve them, either.
I am left with the raw reality of whatever is emerging. It shows up as physical sensations in my body, sometimes surges of emotion and, often, a cascade of stories, images, memories or future scenarios. Painful emotions, fear or anxiety are usually connected with difficult bodily sensations: pain, tension, agitation, and other forms of discomfort. The stories or memories can be unpleasant, negative and catastrophic. I am the hero or the victim of my stories . . . and I often get caught up in one or the other of these identities in my mind, fall into confusion, and ultimately into a bad daydream. When I wake up, I come back to the raw reality of the feeling I sat down to be with and return to doing nothing.
Sometimes, not always, but every now and then, a clarity and peace are present and manifest in the very midst of whatever turmoil I’m experiencing. The feelings, along with the body sensations, stories, images and memories are still present . . . and at the same time, simultaneously, there is an absolute complete peace and clarity.
The blue expanse of the sky does not obstruct the floating white cloud.
The floating white cloud does not obstruct the blue expanse of the sky.
The thoughts, feelings and sensations do not disturb the peace. They do not dim the clarity. And the peace and clarity do not block the thoughts and feeling and physical sensations. And, as long as the clarity is there, the feelings and thoughts do not take over!
“When misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants
Make adversity the path of awakening.”
~ Chekawa Yeshe Dorje
This doesn’t mean working to remake the world in such a way that I feel good. It means that by engaging, by experiencing deeply whatever is arising, I may discover an awakening, a peace, a clarity that also exists — in or with the experience of the adversity itself. In the process, those difficult feelings may change. They may dissipate, they may transform or something else may happen. None of that is my business. My business is very simple: experience what is arising and experience it as completely as possible without getting lost in it.
Do I do anything to address the adversity? Well, as long as the reactive patterns are running, it’s generally better not to. If, in the process of practice, sitting silently, doing nothing, my relationship with the emotional reactions shift, then maybe I’ll be able to see more clearly what can or cannot be done. But I have learned that if I sit down with the intention of “working through the unwanted feelings,” then I am doing something — I am trying to control my experience and the feelings just laugh at me.
This is not a process I control. On more than one occasion, what seemed to be a relatively innocuous feeling has proven to be remarkably persistent. “Oh, I can deal with this, no problem!” I think, but there it is, quietly (or not so quietly) impervious to every effort I make. That is how I discover how I am trying to manipulate or control my experience once again. And it is how I come to the insight, and return to the understanding repeatedly, . . . I must give up any hope for results.
I remember . . . oh yeah . . . and oh yes . . . perhaps this is what they mean by surrender. And so . . . practice . . .