Sunday, January 18, 2015

Be Hopeless...If That's What You Are

Warning, this post will unintentionally sound like it is romanticizing hopelessness. Whenever I read some wise words on a difficult state of being, it seems I so clearly identify with the path and the way through it that the actual struggle seems manageable or not so bad. I sympathize with the heroic nature of the struggle as I would with a character in a block buster drama or an action action adventure flick. It makes me think, "yes, that's how the struggle feels. I've been there and there is a way through; I am also wiser now and I will recall these teachings more quickly. Next time, I'll get through it like a true peaceful and brave warrior." In reading about it, it feels so easy to be removed from it because we usually are. There is some space between ourselves and the issue. The truth is that in the actual state, hopelessness, despair or depression feel awful. There is no space. I want to talk about hopelessness as it really is in the moment...dark. There is no film crew setting up a heroic scene, no book being written, no accolades being rendered. What we have is ourselves and a state of mind that can't see possibility. Sounds like an unsavory invitation, but would you stay with me in this darkness? Just for a few minutes?

I awoke one morning this week from a disturbing dream, starting my day on an "off" note. As the morning went on, I found myself sinking into increasing hopelessness. What it was about matters little. Hopelessness is a monster of an emotion that eats everything in its tracks. Still, I managed to get my reluctant body outside running, though I had as much desire to enter the cold as I had hope. Somewhere along the trails, I recognized my spinning mind finding all kinds of negative thoughts to reinforce my hopeless state because that is what it so cleverly knows how to do. This went on until suddenly there was another voice being piped in over a loudspeaker, as if making an announcement for everyone in the wintry woods to hear. I think even the deer stopped to listen. It said, "listen up! Everyone on board here...this is just what hopelessness feels like. Let it be! You don't need to add to it, fix it, find a reason for it, predict the future by it. Just feel hopeless." And then it was silent except for the crunching of the frozen leaves and earth underneath my sneakers. I did what I heard. I just felt hopeless. I ran and watched the negative thoughts run by me. And they did run by because they are faster than my physical body. Each time they would pass, I would say, "yup, that's hopelessness, too."  

Eventually, I was home, eating and showering and getting things done and, though I wasn't sparkling, I realized I was no longer hopeless. It came and went without me controlling it. I am convinced that it was because I allowed it to be that it was also allowed to leave. Of course, running helped, too.

If we find ourselves alone in this windowless, door-less, space of despair, what do we do? We often do what we think will stop the suffering, but tends to make it worse. We resist it by blaming ourselves or others for being here. We tell ourselves we will always be here, that we are more or less doomed to this place. We look for evidence from the past to explain why we got ourselves here, driving the nail deeper. And if we do seek help, we are often misguided and told why we shouldn't feel hopeless, which has a shaming effect in and of itself. What if instead, we felt the hopelessness and let it be? In doing that, we are taking care of our despair. In essence we can positively mother our pain and hold it. The thoughts that want to drive the blame inward can be cut short simply by saying, "all I need to do is feel hopeless and not think about it." We drop the thoughts around it and bring it into a bodily sensation. We create a space for it and tenderly hold it. In that process, I have found that it passes much more quickly and I am amazed, once again, that everything changes, even when we don't think it possibly can. It has no choice.

How do we learn to do this? We do some type of practice that teaches us to stay present with what is happening right now and to be less reactive. We do it when life feels good, when it feels neutral, and when we are suffering. The more we practice this kind of presence with ourselves and with others, the greater ability we have to tend to ourselves in these darkest moments that have no apparent redeeming scene about to take place. These temporary experiences are still as painful as ever, but they don't outstay their welcome.

No, there is no film crew setting up in our hopeless and depressed places. But maybe, if someone else brought in some lights, he/she could see the film playing out behind our darkness. Later on, it is true, we can see our lives as the movies they are and appreciate the courageous warrior that always emerges. But, there is no need to look for the film while it is being made. Instead, we simply need to live the scene out. When hopelessness strikes, as it may at different times throughout our lives, if we are living fully, we can hold it instead of run from it. It won't feel sexy. It isn't glamorous. It won't feel like a high spiritual road we are taking. It will feel awful. And then, it will change. Be hopeless, if that is what you are. I mean that in the kindest, most compassionate way possible. I send a bow to the courageous warrior in you, especially when you have no sense that this person resides inside.

Monday, January 5, 2015


When I lived in Florida, I remember waiting, as I often was, for my parents at their cafe so we could leave for the day. The largely outdoor restaurant was near the water so it was not uncommon for an egret to come walking by. I remember watching one move ever so slowly, placing each foot carefully down, eyes fixed. At just the right moment, it would dive its beak down in a pointed flash and capture its prey. If it missed, it didn't squawk around or stomp its webbed feet. It would simply resume its slow, calculated walking and try again. From my viewpoint, it seemed as though these birds were equipped with an extra dose of patience.

Patience. It is not a word I heard a lot of in my life, but the longer I am here, the more I am coming to see what a blessing it is to cultivate. If I had greater patience, I might not be so fearful. If I want something to happen or to pass in my life, I could remember patience and trust that what needs to happen will when the conditions are ripe. If I had greater patience, I might be at ease in my body as I wouldn't be clinging with tension in the desire to have something happen right now. I could soften in my musculature, loosen its grip around my bones, and surrender to time. With patience, I might actually receive more than I expected. By not striving so hard for some future happiness, we are inherently present to what is around us now. In the waiting, possibilities make themselves known as there is an openness to what may come. This is the recipe to receiving. If it is a truly important gift we want, we must be present and open to receive it first. When I look at patience this way, I enthusiastically think "yes, this is a quality I want to develop." I can keep calling upon that image of the egret and be reminded of what it looks like in living form.

What I do know is that to nurture patience, we have to start by noticing that we are clinging to something in the first place. Whether it is to an idea of how life should be, or to something or someone we want, a career move, a gaining of something, a pushing away of something. Once we notice what we are doing, the second step would be a deep bow of acknowledgment and of compassion to this longing place inside us. Without this loving presence with ourselves, we cannot genuinely go on. We can choose to be kind to our suffering and not brush it off as insignificant or give it tough love. Rather, we can hold the place of longing in our hands and breath in and out with a deep recognition of its value. It has something we need to know. From here, we can take the next step and have patience, knowing that our presence and compassion to the issue will allow for change. And change it will, because everything does. The practice I know that goes with developing patience is to be aware of my breathing. I can follow my inhale and exhale and stay put with whatever arises. This is having patience and we can nurture this ability by practicing it wherever we are. 

Of course, we won't always get it "right." Some days, we just need to stomp our feet and give that our full blessing. It is too bad our feet are not webbed like our feathered friends or we would make a nice clapping sound as we stomped. There is something calming about the word patience. It is not the kind of harsh parental heeding to be patient as we might have received as kids. When we can wish it for ourselves as adults, it has a positive mothering kindness to it. "May I have more patience for whatever arises." It seems like a warm wish to bestow on oneself. I am going to practice patience in 2015 and it could be that I will be at greater ease and my world will open up more than it already has. I can actually let go. Is there anything you could wish yourself patience with this New Year? I realize now that when I sat waiting outside that cafe as a teenager and watched the egrets go by, I actually did have patience. I was practicing even when I did not know it. Now, I can step it up to a new level where the issues seem more significant than waiting for parents. I wish us all greater patience this year. Gaining it could be our gift to the world.