Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Dealing with Setbacks and Frustration – The Path of the Warrior

This has been a tough week for me so far – and today has been a challenging day.  In just about every conceivable way, I have felt myself slipping back into old negative patterns and behaviors and losing ground in goals that I have set for myself.  

I haven’t been getting enough sleep – which has made me overtired, cranky, and more anxious than usual.  I haven’t written as much on this blog as I would like.  I haven’t meditated as much and managed to miss both my Mission Dharma meditation group and the Hip Hop class that I was aiming to try out this past Tuesday.  I’ve been stressed out and distracted at work – an inconvenient mind state to deal with when you are in the midst of a very busy time and have lots of tasks which need to get done right.   Today was one of those days where I was frantically running around like a crazy person trying to get ready for a big day of advising calls tomorrow and a flight out of town tomorrow night – and I am not fully done yet.

So, why am I taking the time to write about this in the midst of all this craziness?  Why am I writing about this when I’ve admittedly felt tons of anger and discouragement and aversion and doubt today?  Why am I sharing some of the very reasons why I am not an ideal model of enlightened behavior?

I’m writing about this right now because this is where the work comes inthis is the front line where the battle to awaken joy and foster peace in the world is fought.   If I am really sharing my journey of self-discovery with you, it is important that you not just see me when the view is breathtaking and I’ve reached the top of the next peak – it is important that you see the full range of the journey.   I make no promises to be perfect, but I promise you I will make every effort in this blog to be authentic – to be real.   Journeys and diets and any kind of “infomercial” type experience that you might see on TV – they all have ups and downs along the way. 

That previously 400-pound woman who is now 150 pounds and wearing a bikini on late night TV?  I guarantee you – somewhere along the way of her new workout regime and carefully crafted meal plan, there was at least one moment (and likely several) where she skipped exercise class and was sitting in Krispy Crème staring down at a half eaten box of donuts about to call it quits. 

It’s one thing to commit to a goal or try to live more healthfully or develop Zen habits when the sun is shining and you are observing forward progress in yourself.  It’s one thing to model positive behavior when people cheering you on surround you in spades. 

The real test comes when things don’t come so easily – when you’re overtired or you get a flat tire or you hit a stressful time at work or someone picks a bad moment to point out your flaws – or you observe yourself slipping back into dangerous ground. 

What do you do then?  Do you chuck it all to hell and give up the fight?  Do you blame the world or your partner or your boss or the guy who crashed into your car for making you give up your dreams?  Do you get angry and take out your bad feelings on someone else around you – ideally someone over whom you have power?

In her book When Things Fall Apart (Chapter 2 – When Things Fall Apart), Pema Chodron shares a story about taking on a new position as head teacher at an abbey and having to confront nasty truths about herself.   She says, “What happened to me when I got to the abbey was that everything fell apart.  All the ways I shield myself, all the ways I delude myself, all the ways I maintain my well-polished self image - all of it fell apart.” 

She says that around that time when she was really struggling with all of the negative feedback she was receiving about herself, her teacher visited and said, “When you have made good friends with yourself, your situation will be more friendly, too.”

Pema acknowledges that these moments…that I feel like I have been experiencing this week…these moments are “a kind of testing that spiritual warriors need in order to awaken their hearts.”  We can “shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.” 

I was so tempted today to be angry at my co-workers today, get mad at the person at Office Depot who kept me on hold for 12 minutes, and blame the day and the conditions around me for my unhappiness today.  Hell – I did feel those feelings – I did feel anger and resentment and aversion today.   I still feel some of those feelings now.

But – there were little snippets where I awakened – even just for a moment – and saw what I was doing.  There were moments when I took a deep breath and counted to 10 and was gracious and open-minded.  There were moments when I focused on things for which I am grateful today – for instance, I had a wonderful phone conversation with an old friend today, my Office Depot order came out perfectly, and I had a tasty dinner.  There was a moment this evening when I was walking from work to Office Depot to run an errand and I realized suddenly that it was a beautiful night – that the sky was still blue and it was still light out and there was a pleasant breeze – and I was happy.   There were little moments in there were I was happy in the midst of all the aggravation and frustration and “bad luck.”

Have you ever gotten into a “bad streak” and started to predict that the rest of your day was going to be awful?  I definitely have…I’ll notice it’s raining and miss the bus and walk in late to work and the next thing I know I’m predicting that the whole day is going to suck and the world has it in for me.  But – there’s no guarantee that that is the case – the next moment could be great. 

And – if you notice that you are getting angry or resentful or acting in a way that contradicts your values, don’t beat yourself up over it – rejoice in the fact that you noticed.  The very fact that you’ve noticed you are off track is a sign that you are awake.  Just like you send the distracting thought on its merry way and focus your attention back on the breath during meditation, in moments of struggle, you can send that negative behavior on its way and approach the next moment with compassion and understanding and vulnerability – with mindfulness of the present moment and the feelings that you are experiencing.  You can reconnect with your inner Buddha nature at any moment – it’s never too late.

Every moment is a new opportunity – a second chance to be peaceful and share your light with the world.  So we fell off the wagon and failed a little – so what?  What matters is what we are going to do in the next moment – are we going to give up horseback riding altogether or are we going to get back on the horse and keep going?

As Pema says (at the end of the earlier chapter 2):

“To stay with that shakiness-to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge – that is the path of true awakening.  Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic-that is the spiritual path.  Getting in the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior.   We catch ourselves one zillion times at once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation-harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.

Every day we could think about the aggression in the world, in New York, Los Angeles, Halifax, Taiwan, Beirut, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, everywhere.  All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever.  Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?’  Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?’”

That passage brings me a great deal of comfort and encouragement when I am struggling against the negative emotions in my head like I have been today – I hope it will bring you support as well.   I’m also including the link to a song that I discovered recently from an old Grey’s Anatomy episode – “Turn and Turn Again” by All Thieves – I listed to it several times today – and it has brought me much peace.  For those of you who don’t have access to audio right now, I’m including the lyrics below as well.  Enjoy!

“Turn and Turn Again” – All Thieves

Worn from walking this far
So worn from talking this much
And what we found and what we've seen
As the road curves down

And the lights come up to meet us
Silent for the evening
We enter this town
Like new born creatures

Those I know I see anew
And the space between us is reduced
For I am human
And you are human too

So turn and turn again
We are calling in all the ships
Every traveler, please come home
And tell us all that you have seen
Break every lock to every door
Return every gun to every drawer

So we can turn
And turn again

Only priests and clowns can save us now
Only a sign from God or a hurricane
Can bring about
The change we all want

And we've done it again
This trick we have
Of turning love to pain
And peace to war

We're just ash in a jar

So turn and turn again
We are calling in all the ships
Every traveler, please come home
And tell us all that you have seen

Break every lock to every door
Return every gun to every drawer
So we can turn and turn again (x2)

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