When Things Go Dark; Working With Difficulty on The Path of Mindfulness
One of the greatest challenges on this path of wanting to be present is how to stick with it when things get really tight inside the body, or when the mind narrows and fixates on a singular, painful issue. There are a few ways to go.
My teacher, Ken McLeod, proposes an interesting question we can ask ourselves:
Do I want to be present in this experience?
Sometimes, it’s just too much. And the truth is, we do not want to be here. It’s terribly uncomfortable, sometimes, it’s excruciating. We are filled with aversion. There is nowhere to go. We want Out. Or Through. Or Something, to make this End. We might even be willing to try to relate to what is going on for us, but we don’t have the slightest idea how to do it with stable attention.
Compassionate Abiding is one practice we can do when we cannot see the Way.
I learned Compassionate Abiding on retreat with dear Ani Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist Nun, a deeply wonderful teacher and a gift to this world. The practice is one of allowing for our full experience of Life in the moment to be here, as it is, as it happens to be (including the feelings of not wanting to be here), and being here for it, with heartful presence and softness. Holding space for ourselves, on-goingly, one breath at a time, as though we were taking care of a dear friend or loved one. With presence and love, we lean gently into what we are living moment by moment.
A Buddhist view of Compassion is being fully present within difficult circumstances, and not needing for anything to be different. Compassion is about Service. Really being there. That’s it.
A pat on the back or an explanation of Why things are going badly does not help us as much as really calling ourselves forward, and meeting what is here with presence and willingness. The full experience of another person being completely present for us, witnessing us, and allowing us to be just where we are, not needing a thing to be different, is so deeply healing, that actual transformation and freedom can take place.
But it starts here with us, in the thick of it, taking a radical position with ourselves in times of difficulty: dropping everything, for a couple of minutes, and just really showing up for ourselves. As though a child were crying, or we have found an injured bird on the ground; we stop. We just stop. There is nothing else to do but care for what is directly in front of us. Or in this case, within us.
I see this moment as needing to grab the mast of the sail and hold on with all my strength, while a storm threatens to capsize the whole boat. Finding steadiness, in the storm. Finding a way to peel back just enough from the total identification with the pain, to allow for the stress, fear, worry, or discomfort to happen, within the experience of Awareness.
Hand on the mast.
This decision to get still creates a crack in the clouds. A single stream of sunlight stretches down. In this light, we begin to see, and to feel the possibility of experiencing something other than horrible pain we are in.
Just stillness will create a container, perspective, possibility, space.
Start with the body.
Feel the points of contact with the ground. Feel the density of the body. Feel the uprightness of the spine. Open to the sensations that are present in the entire body.
Next: the Breath.
Feel the breath. Receive the breath, just as it is, just as it happens to be: it is the Perfect Elixir, the Antidote. It contains just exactly what we need right now. Drink from the Breath. Let the breath support you and nourish you.
Now: Just Receive.
Get the sacred download. Listen. What is here? What thoughts and storylines are talking? Hear them. Let them talk.
Give it all the Space and Love and Time in the World.
Dial the volume up or down. Play with what you can open to, in stable attention. Perhaps you relate to just one single sensation, and stay there, or just the train of thoughts.
Keep feeling the ground. Keep receiving the breath.
What am I carrying within my own heart? What is crying to be heard? What emotions are pulling, pushing, tugging, squeezing? No need to name, just Feel. Allow. What deep need is here?
Stay steady. Breathe. Receive. Feel the ground. Feel your hands, feel your feet. Feel the breath coming in, feel the breath going out.
The intense experience will move and be integrated, fairly swiftly, if we stick with it, ventilating it with our natural breathing, presence within the body, presence within the experience itself. If we stand with ourselves for the tiniest while, and breathe, things will change and open up. Let things be. Let things be allowed to be here. Care for what ever is present, whatever arises. Like a great friend.
Holding space allows for the natural fact of phenomena shifting to be experienced.
Living and witnessing simultaneously allows for breathing room within intense events in the mind or heart, or pain or discomfort in the body.
Another practice to work with intense events in body, mind, or heart, is to flash awareness way open. I learned this practice from Ken McLeod. Open to everything you can that is happening within you and around you. Stay with the breath, and rest. The fixed view can only shift in this kind of wide-open awareness.
Generally, any acute experience will not last very long. Things change.
With Mindfulness practice, we remember our desire for peace and equanimity: we let things shift as they do, as they would naturally, rather than holding one point of view strongly in place, or proliferating emotion. We try to be skillful and wise, and suffer the least amount possible.
Resting in awareness, the body settles, the breath evens out. Clarity emerges. Ease and lightness can be felt and known once again. We can know ourselves to be more than our thoughts, more than our pain, or our confusion. Beauty can be seen within ourselves and around us. We can remember who we truly are, and open to what goodness is here to experience right now.
Important note: If deep emotional material arises, and persists, and repeats, and seems hard to contain alone, it might be best in the thick of the moment to abort formal practice, and to engage other, more basic forms of self-care. Get quiet, have an herbal tea or a warm bath, take a walk in the sunshine, call or visit with a friend. If things feel too heavy or unmanageable in the heart or mind, do seek the assistance and support of a professional. There are extraordinarily gifted souls out there who can help you through tricky moments arising on your path.
Leah R Vineberg enseigne la pleine conscience en milieu de travail à Montréal, et facilite des retraites urbaines d’une journée, à chaque mois. La prochaine retraite aura lieu ce le samedi 23 avril 2016. Pour tout autre information, visitez www.landwithin.com, ou la page FaceBook: Land Within/ Atterrissage Interieur.