How sad that most of us do not realize the little daily acts such as drinking coffee or picking up a piece of paper constitute the core of life
A crisis is a tender time. And we all endure trials of varying degrees–loss, pain, sickness, separation, birth, death, the ravages of war. A crisis can wake us out of our doldrums. Thrown into the depths of extreme pain or anxiety, our minds place our bodies on crisis alert: it’s time to defend and protect our territory. Hyper arousal here and now is normal and expected. We are programmed to make sure the present danger does not lead to more pain and anxiety, the amount and duration of which we believe is out of our control.
At the same time, hidden deep within the battlements of an acute crisis lies a gift if we choose to accept it, the opportunity to release the iron grip we have on our feelings, our need to control them. The gift of a crisis is insight. We can see how attached we are to controlling the outcome of any conflict. Exhausted by our ineffectual efforts to deny or control the pain, we may be temporarily unavailable to the gift. However, any given crisis may serve to reinforce its own special, inherent message. The message of the crisis of death, for example, is that life is precious. If we face the crisis head-on without indulging our opinions about it, we may feel more deeply alive even in our pain.
If we are willing to stop, breathe, and simply attend to our experience, something deep within us opens up. We discover our capacity to face these feelings just as they are. And that capacity has been with us all along. By attending to our feelings, we do not cling to ideas about them. Our fears begin to slip away into a new spaciousness. We find creative and practical solutions to these crises by dropping some of the age-old armor against fear.
How sad that most of us do not realize the little daily acts such as drinking coffee or picking up a piece of paper constitute the core of life. Each moment offers an opportunity for the complete expression of true nature, pervading past and future. Why can we not grasp this truth? Obviously we don’t get it because we are stuck in the past or trapped in the future. These are the two ways we avoid truly living. Instead, we do what we humans do best: we concoct schemes and strategies to bolster us against crises and numerous insecurities. We put so much energy into trying to protect our personal images as popular, agreeable, assertive, successful and secure, that in the end we are half dead.
As an integral part of our makeup, we are conditioned to develop these strategies early in life. The poet Wordsworth said that all too soon the prison house closes in on the child. Think of the little boy who postures like a man with a gun, or the little girl applying her mother’s lipstick. We grow up afraid to cope without artifice and imitation. Spiritual practice teaches us to step up and face avoidance patterns. Through mindfulness practice we learn to cultivate the willingness to peacefully abide right in the middle of them, which means in part directly looking at the ways we avoid life. This means facing our fears. The fear of a crisis can be said to be the fear of death–the death of control, of any idea of self or of the body. Beneath ideas of being a body/mind, fear is really fear of the great mystery.
We say people connect to a feeling of aliveness in the throes of a crisis. In emergency, our defenses against life in the present moment break down. Our sense of self is temporarily suspended, and there is absolutely nothing left to do except live fully this very second. This second is not about me: it’s just, Oh! Right here. Right now. The pain and anxiety do not necessarily abate, but without the burden of me, it matters not if negative feelings stay or go. This is waking up. And as soon as we flip back into our normal defensive state–which we invariably will–we can realize how much we really want to wake up.
Waking up infers that we see our situation as hopeless, hopeless in the sense of wanting the situation to be other than what it is. When we fully live this second, unfiltered by our opinions about it, we receive the raw sensations of the moment, no matter the circumstance.
Hope is something I would never want to take away from anyone. Yet at some point on the spiritual path we realize our hope to control outcomes prevents us from living in the present moment. Through this realization, often precipitated by a crisis, our perspective shifts. This shift is rarely permanent, but as we diligently attend to the moment, we let go of habitual avoidance strategies.
We cannot, nor do we want to, avoid the reality that we’re all moving toward death, toward the ultimate mystery. We can learn to appreciate the wonder of death to the extent that we let go of our notions and ideas about it. In one sense we’re always on the brink of crisis. Everything is always changing. But in another sense, when we see that death and crisis are basic ingredients for life, attachment to our desires and fears around them become no big deal. When we are willing to simply trust just this moment, we shift into reality, into living our life free of attachment to our defenses. This shift affects everyone we meet, and is perhaps the most profound way we can help change the world.