During a long retreat, I had what seemed to me the earthshaking revelation that we cannot be in the the present and run our story lines at the same time! –Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart
I have mentioned, here, that I am recovering from a chronic autoimmune disease. I say “recovering,” because why on earth would I want to say I won’t recover, even with the use of words such as chronic? If you are reading this and you happen to have such a disease yourself, you no doubt know that these things progress in weird fits and starts, with flares and periods when one feels almost completely well, with long phases in between these extremes when one simply…manages. Over the recent holiday period, I had a major flare-up of pain and inflammation, which I blamed on the several small indiscretions I committed with food: I follow a strict vegan eating plan with vast quantities of green vegetables and legumes, and it helps–quite a bit. But during holidays, of course, we are all inclined to stray from our various paths, and food, of course, is an intrinsic part of celebration among the human family. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but I am sure that this is so. Food and drink are the ways we connect with our other parts, whether or not we think it is okay to do so.
In any event, the point is that I was blaming myself pretty heavily for the chocolate and the wine and the ice cream and the meat and the various other “bad” things I indulged in, and it suddenly occurred to me that this is just another one of my many stories, most of which state “this happened because I am a bad person,” in some form or another.
Now, I have been working with this idea about “stories” for a year or more; I find it incredibly helpful, and it is particularly liberating for me, a committed Jungian, because I have long looked at the world through the various lenses of the myths I’ve created to get me through life. It was an amazing revelation to me to see that these myths–stories– really, really limit me and keep me from seeing things clearly, in addition to curtailing any attempts I might make at true mindfulness. If I look at phenomena in terms of the story I’ve attached to it–“I can’t get the window unstuck because I am a weakling, just as my mother and father said I was,” for instance–I lose the moment and the opportunity to really inquire into the events that come my way.
So there I was, beating myself up for eating chocolate, and I thought, “what if I just ate chocolate, not ate chocolate because I am a glutton” (word used by my father when I was small and wanted to feel satisfied)? Ahhhhh. Fresh influx of energy and inspiration, weight lifts from shoulders, I am free. I am here. The pain lifts–or, rather, I look at it differently, and it isn’t quite so miserable. What a blessing. The air is clearer. I notice the beauty around me. I feel blessed and grateful.
I am a person who struggles with depression. The years have taught me that much of my depression is connected with the interpretations I give my feelings; in other words, the stories I tell myself to explain why this or that is happening, or why I feel the way I do. Looking at what is taking place without attaching a story to it–or at least releasing the one I am compelled to attach–has the effect of making the feelings of sadness or desperation or resentment…nonexistent. I have learned, through years of struggle, that usually, just waiting it out is the best way to deal with any of these painful feelings, and the wait is far shorter when I get my mind off the stories attached to the feelings and onto the present moment, which is quite often very beautiful. Even if it weren’t–and obviously, much of life is not for many people–being fully present means I live life in increments and each one, in and of itself, is really pretty much okay, until the next, and often it is, as well.
This is not an easy pattern to break, but after all: nothing worth having is easy, and this is very much worth it to me, this relinquishing of my stories to be present to what is, this very moment. Last week, in much pain and exhaustion and the overall malaise that tends to accompany autoimmune disease, I woke up after one of those miserable nights of sleeplessness and despair, and as I noticed the sun coming through the window, I suddenly realized I felt…taken care of. In that moment, I felt loved and at peace and accepting of myself. I felt grateful.
It occurred to me that the reason I was feeling these good things was that I was there, not running some story from the past or connected with fear of the future. Here was a sunny morning and a down comforter and the thought of a cup of Darjeeling tea and the opportunity to stay here, right here, not go somewhere else in my mind or my car, and in this moment was pure gratitude. I blessed the cup of tea and I’ve continued to bless everything I can think of since, to give thanks, to be present and most of all, not to worry. If I worry, I am running my stories again, and it’s not worth it, doesn’t change a thing, in fact: it only makes things worse.
It occurs to me, as I think about all this, that many of us–perhaps most of us–are not quite ready to give up our stories yet. If we do, we get ourselves free, and there is the feeling of a death-wish in that prospect. I think I’m ready. I remember my beloved teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan once saying that if we think, in reaching the higher realms of the psyche, that we are going to somehow float off like a balloon into the blue, become nonexistent, die, etc., etc. (all the fears that cause us to continue to use our egos as ballast for our fears), we are mistaken. He laughed when he mentioned this, and said, “don’t worry, it absolutely will NOT happen. You will come back.” What we are all talking about, here, is awakening, and our fear of it, because we tend to be stuck–purposefully stuck–in the ultimate story: if I die, awaken, become free, relinquish my concepts of reality, whatever form the story takes for each of us as individuals, I will become nonexistent.
It’s not going to happen. He was right. Instead of death, the opportunity is offered to us with every breath, to take up an enhanced, enriched, meaningful, awakened existence. Going beyond my stories doesn’t mean death, it means I’m adding immeasurably to all of life. Instead of looking at the trees I see sitting in the rocking chair on my front porch while trying to think how to write that next chapter or pay this month’s bills or get my hair to go in the direction I want it to go in–yes, I really am that shallow sometimes!–I am…looking at trees. Noticing how the bare branches of winter look against the pale blue cold-weather sky. Listening to them murmur about way more important things than I can hear in people’s voices. Really, really hearing the sound of trucks going by on this farm road we live on. Hearing the Sound within the sound they make. Noticing the squirrels attempting to get into the bird feeder, and wondering why we feed the birds but not them. Being here. In that moment, if I am truly in that moment, the chattering in my mind ceases, and when the moment comes that whatever those voices were chattering about must be dealt with, it is never quite what my stories warned me of.
Between birth and death,
Three in ten are followers of life,
Three in ten are followers of death,
And men just passing from birth to death also number three in ten.
Why is this so?
Because they live their lives on the gross level.
He who knows how to live can walk abroad
Without fear of rhinoceros or tiger.
He will not be wounded in battle.
For in him rhinoceroses can find no place to thrust their horn,
Tigers no place to use their claws,
And weapons no place to pierce.
Why is this so?
Because he has no place for death to enter. —Tao te Ching, 50, Gia Fu Feng and Jane English, trans.
Pardon my levity, but is this what they really mean by “the Teflon [hu]man?” Well, it works for me.