Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lesson of the Week: Befriend the Tigers

Lessons are given to us all the time. Maybe it's just that I'm aware of some theme or issue and everything becomes relevant, but lately my lessons have been more of the hit-me-over-the-head kind. I know I can be rather dense at times, but honestly sometimes I think God or karma or the Universe or whatever has really got my number. This is good. I need to be called up on a regular basis and have things explained to me in the simplest terms possible.
   Recently, the lesson I received was "remain in the present."
   I'm on the list for several daily or weekly inspirational meditations and it's weeks like these when the messages from this disparate authors (a Catholic priest and a Buddhist nun) jive up as if they were conferring with one another. Then, as I need more affirmation, I turn to the pages of my three secular daily meditation books, I'll be damned if those books don't start in on staying present as well.
   So fine. I get it. I needed to remain in the present because my run-away thoughts keep making me miserable. And I have to admit that as soon as I redoubled my efforts to be happy with my life exactly as it is, I do feel happier.
   And although I know being anxious is borrowing from the future, I can't help it. I suppose most people feel that wave of uncertainty from time to time. But I am especially anxious when making decisions these days and that's odd for a woman who has been extraordinarily decisive for most of her life. Remaining in the present helps relieve the anxiety. But what helps me most to stay in the present is realizing that my feelings of anxiety are actually positive, not negative.

   Daniel Smith published an excellent opinion piece on anxiety in the New York Times recently. Its title: The Anxious Idiot. For him, anxiety is expressed as doing nothing to aid his afflictive, fearful feelings. He shuts down, finds himself stuck. And that is when self-awareness works best—when I'm stuck and I can no longer run away from whatever it is that's causing my discomfort. 

   Before you start thinking I've lost my PollyAnna mind, think about it. Anxiety, anger, fear and sorrow are signals that something in my life is out of balance. These adverse emotions are beacons—like the Bat Signal—that shine an irrefutable light on what's going on in my life. So when a feeling of uncertainty rises up inside,  instead of setting aside my anxiety by distracting myself with other thoughts or projects or people or a margarita sans salt, I need to sit and consider what it is that's actually making me anxious. Yes, easier said than done.
   For anyone who is interested in getting to the root of anxiety, Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh has some beautiful meditations on how to go about it. He is so gentle with these emotions that his words are like those we use to comfort a tiny infant. And indeed, these are childish emotions, emotions learned in childhood and bent out of the fears of childhood, fears such as abandonment, loss, neediness, lack of attention.
Jack befriends a baby tiger at the Little Zoo That Could
in Gulf Shores, Ala., July, 2011.

    I am trying to be more gentle with my fears and anxieties. Instead of sweeping them aside, I gather them up, swaddle them in the warmth of compassion by trying to remember back to the point in time when I first felt that same feeling (which by no small coincidence is most often during childhood.) Then I listen to what those feelings are trying to tell me. Usually it's some variation on the theme of, "I'm scared my life is not turning out as I planned." To which now—with the help of Buddhist practice and study—I can say, "Good! Because your plan pretty much sucked and there's something so much better out there than your pea brain could ever imagine—if you stop planning, let go of the future and just focus on making choices that are healthy for you."
   As I was writing this essay, I received another related message. This time it was my weekly email from the Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. Here's what she shared:

   "There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs, and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life, it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life."

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