I’ve been re-reading a book on Buddhist thought (“When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron) that focuses on turning towards one’s fears and despairs and allowing them to fill your thoughts as much as you revel in pleasure and joy. It is a powerful antidote to panic and hysteria, opening your mind to its own inner workings and helping you to step back from constant impulsive reaction.
Two years ago, in the midst of a devastating personal crisis and the worldwide madness led by the United States, I thought my whole world was crumbling. Attitudes that I had taken for granted, friends that I always thought would be there, health that I had always counted on, debts, career goals, family stability, even my assumptions of who I was and what I thought was important, suddenly made no sense any more. It was so bad that for several months I could barely talk to people beyond the rote greetings, classroom routines, and obligatory daily practicalities. Something had died inside and no amount of self flagellation or pepping by indulgence in ice cream or late night movies could lift me out of the pall.
At such times so often people around you will advise you to carry a more “positive” outlook. The funny thing is that this advice always sprouts from those who are themselves not experiencing much anxiety at the time, and often cannot perceive the shaking loose of seemingly solid foundations. People in such a temporary state have convinced themselves that all is well and that the world around them will continue in its solid state. I have found that usually people who are going through the meltdown of preconceptions, who are experiencing loss or pain or confusion, people who have often known loneliness or fear or self-doubt, tend to be those who most effectively respond to and answer my questions when my own world falls apart.
Perhaps the sharpest inkling I gained into beginning to comprehend what it means to be alive, just to exist, arose out of the Buddhist concept of all things having a dream quality, that nothing exists in permanence, everything is in flux. As Buckminster Fuller put it, “I seem to be a verb.” Viewing myself as merely gaseous, a temporary formation of passing clouds, helped me recognize the noise of my mind and the waves of emotions that wash back and forth within me.
I’ve always wondered why the sea shore calms me with its endless motion, or why the waving and whisper of trees in the wind seem to talk to some hidden ear in my breast. And it must have something to do with my own billowing flag of a soul. As the years tiptoe across my heart, I think of aging and of the clutching of memories, wondering at times which way to turn, back toward the pillows of childhood or ahead toward the unfathomable wall. And it occurs to me to just stand still, let all these swirling tides do what they will.
Following such advice, Pema Chodron’s instruction to be kind to myself and allow that the whole great granola mix of joys, fears, hungers, contentedness, anger, lusts, pleasures, and doubts are all grains in the shaken bag, has made a great difference for me. Something died in me two years ago, but then something new emerged. And while it is no less great a struggle, the focus has changed.
For me the natural world has always taught me these things, though I have not always been open to listening or looking. The natural world is reality, it is what is. And that, in my own winged participation, is who I am, too.