Sunday, June 5, 2011

On Doubt, Anxiety, and Life's Great Adventure

This evening at our weekly SF Insight Meditation and Dharma Talk, I met some really nice new people and accessed some powerful insights related to doubt, anxiety, and life's great adventure, which I would like to share on this blog.   

Several weeks ago, while in the midst of moving out of the apartment that I shared with my boyfriend, I attended our weekly sangha meeting and listened to a talk that Eugene Cash gave on Doubt.   In that talk, Eugene mentioned that as with the other hindrances (Desire, Aversion, Restlessness, and Sloth/Torpor), if you pay mindful attention to them as they emerge in your mind and body and simply accept that they are there with you, something happens – they lose their hold on you and become less powerful.  

Since that talk, I have had many opportunities over the past few weeks to have doubts about these new steps that I am taking in my life – I’ve wondered if I could really pack up all of my stuff and move it across town; I’ve wondered if I can really end a relationship that has been a big part of my life for the past 2 years; I’ve wondered it was appropriate to sign a one-year lease and stay here in San Francisco for another 12 months; I've wondered if I could leave behind our cat;  I’ve wondered if I could really handle living alone – you name it, I’ve encountered doubt about it in the past few weeks. 

These experiences have provided me with a golden opportunity to really study and explore doubt as it manifests in my life – and what I’ve discovered is just what Eugene shared.  As I’ve been able to observe and label moments when I've been doubting or worrying by just saying, “Oh, right, there’s doubt,” the charge in the doubt itself has released, and I’ve been able to sit with the feeling much more easily and let it pass on its own time.  Try it yourself – see if it works for you as well.  Identifying and labeling a feeling or hindrance can been a very useful tool.

I also discovered something else very meaningful for me just as we sat for tonight’s talk.   I started to reflect on the more wholesome and solitary lifestyle that I’ve adopted in recent weeks and started to wonder if I would really be able to sustain it in the same fashion for weeks…months…years…at a time.  In other words, will I eventually get to a point where I feel lonely for human connection, for friends, for partners and not be able to find them?  Will I eventually tire of meditation and yoga and reflection and yearn for more fun activities and parties in my life (again, assuming that for some reason I wouldn't be able to find them at that point)?  Have I bitten off more than I can chew with these new steps in my life?

I started to observe my mind running off like a runaway train on this trail of worry and doubt…and all of a sudden,  I heard a voice saying…whoa…wait a minute…don’t get ahead of yourself – just focus on the present.  It was probably Eugene’s voice…or the voice of one of the guest teachers that we’ve had recently or my Awakening Joy teacher, James Baraz.  Either way, I suddenly remembered to focus only on the present – i.e. how am I doing right now?  What am I experiencing right now – and can I handle it in this moment?   This is a very powerful technique – and stopped this runaway train of thoughts right in its tracks.   After all, none of us knows what is going to happen in the future – all we have to handle in any given moment is right now – because that is all we have.  Moment by moment, as I observe my experience and ask myself if I can handle it, I am discovering the self-affirming truth that, “Yes, I can!” 

This just reminded me of the movie What About Bob from a few years back where Bill Murray was a patient of a psychiatrist with significant anxiety and obsessive compulsiveness about everything in daily life – and his psychiatrist kept telling him, “Baby steps, just take baby steps,” and this worked really well for him – i.e. baby steps out to the lobby, baby steps to the elevator, baby steps out the door…you get the picture.  It sounds simple and funny – but it actually works.  

The next time you feel overwhelmed and frightened and think that you can’t possibly handle what life is handing you…e.g. you’re going through a relationship breakup, you just lost your job, you just lost a loved one…and the grief and worry seems too much to bear – try this technique – and just focus on the present, just focus on what you can handle “right now” – and then handle the next moment when it arises…and so on.   Just sit with the feelings as they arise in the moment and don’t worry what you are going to do an hour from now, or two days from now, or a month from now…just focus on what you are thinking and feeling right now and get through this moment.

Not only is this focus on the present a useful technique for dealing with difficulties, it also illuminates the fact that life truly is a big adventure – i.e. we never know what possibilities the future holds.  The moment or opportunity that you have been waiting for your whole life could literally be right around the bend – and the tragedy that you thought might be your life’s ruin may in retrospect turn out to be your greatest gift.  

There’s a great chapter on this in Pema Chodron’s book When Life Falls Apart – I actually think that is the title of the chapter itself.  She tells about a Chinese family who were devastated when their only son fell off a horse and was severely injured – until a few weeks later the village went to war and all of the young and healthy men were sent to go fight.  Their son's injury turned out to be their greatest gift because it allowed him to stay home and care for them.  The point is - we just don’t know what’s going to happen – and if you can develop a curiosity about each moment as it unfolds, life can be such a rich, fun experience - full of wonder and surprises, good and bad. 

The last thing which really spoke to me tonight and also in a few other experiences this past weekend is the idea that life is not a race to the finish or an exercise regimen to be mastered.  Rather the opportunity is simply to go deeper and experience more of the fullness of each given moment.   In Ajaraj Yoga class, the objective of more advanced practice is not to perfect the sequence of asanas but rather to go deeper into the felt experience of them – to really sink into the physical, emotional, and spiritual energy that emerges as you do them.  In Buddhism, the point is not the be the “Good Buddhist,” the teacher’s pet, or the perfect meditator – rather it is to approach every moment with mindfulness, experiment with the teachings in your life, and see what is true in your direct experience.  

I even went to a talk today on female sexuality today in which the speaker shared that her definition of female orgasm has nothing explicitly to do with climax – rather it is for women to lose themselves in sensation and experience every feeling that emerges in a moment of connection with another - sounds familiar, right?   Biodanza hits on this as well with the idea of vivencia – or the vividly felt experience – the point of Biodanza is not to do the moves right or be the perfect partner – rather, it is to experience life fully – to let our words fall away (for most of the class) and be present for the adventure that unfolds in class each week – moment by moment.  There is some definite synergy between these different activities – and I am excited to see what possibilities emerge as I continue to center my life on them!

To close for this evening, I want to share a quote / voiceover from Grey’s Anatomy (Episode 5.21, courtesy of the Know Thyself blog) spoken by Izzie after her unexpected marriage to Alex Karev when she is supposedly dying of cancer, which really speaks to me about the serendipitous nature of life:

(Izzie) You never know the biggest day of your life is going to be the biggest. The days you think are going to be big ones, they’re never as big as you make them out to be in your head. It’s the regular days. The ones that start out normal. Those are the days that end up being the biggest. And today was the wedding. It was beautiful. Perfect.

(Izzie) You never know the biggest day of your life is the biggest day. Not until its happening. You don’t recognize the biggest day of your life. Not until you’re right in the middle of it. The day you commit to something or someone… The day you get your heart broken. The day you meet your soul mate. The day you realize there’s not enough time… because you want to live forever. Those are the biggest days.  The perfect days. 


As I am discovering more and more these days, life is an adventure – full of ups and downs and unexpected turns – Enjoy It!

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