“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” ~Heraclitus
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” ~Haruki Murakami
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” ~ Khalil Gibran
I hope you are all well and enjoying this spring. It’s hard to believe that we had a snow squall a few weeks ago seeing the apple, peach, and cherry trees in bloom. In Connecticut we are starting to cautiously re-open businesses. I’ve seen a traffic jam on the major highway and full tables at open-air restaurants. Life can seem normal, by which I mean, pre-COVID, and sometimes it can seem very not-normal as I find myself never wanting to touch a doorknob with an ungloved hand ever again, or harboring a mistrust of lettuce. One thing which is true always but seems more dramatic and novel is that none of us has been here before. This changing time in the world is new for all of us.
And, there’s lots of advice…so many things to read. I have well-meaning friends who send me articles from different viewpoints about the “best” strategies we should take, about the failings of the government to keep us safe and how to keep ourselves safe. One person tells me about herd immunity and that we should be emulating Sweden. A medical doctor tells me I need to stay isolated…another medical friend says, “no we don’t need to do that, only certain people do.” A practitioner sends me a sign up for another webinar. I am told to treat this time as a retreat…Meditate four hours a day…Garden…Play your flute…Make a commitment to write each day…And when all else fails—bake.
In Zen, we have gathas, practice poems to keep us anchored to our intentions as we go through the day. Several years ago when I began graduate school online, I was overwhelmed with anxiety around the technology, the updates, the daily check-in on the school platform…all of it stretched me thin with worry that I would miss out. Entering the online world, I would get swept up in anxiety and find myself holding tension in my shoulders and in my mind. I was afraid I wouldn’t see a critical piece of homework; I’d post a reply in the wrong place or I couldn’t open the attachment from the teacher, my computer would crash, the internet would go down…and so many more. During my time as an online student, all these things happened—and I managed to survive.
After a few semesters of computer aversion, I wrote a gatha that I taped to my computer keyboard. Turning on my computer, many voices are calling to me. I promise to listen to myself and remember that caring for my body and mind is my highest priority. I aspire to be a presence of compassion for myself and everyone I encounter. While this reminder was not an instant cure-all for my feeling of overwhelm, it was a reminder that I could choose how I wanted to respond. Remembering that I had a choice allowed me to prioritize what was truly important to me.
When I remembered what my priority was, not being perfect, but taking care of my true home, my body and mind put things in perspective. I could take breaks. In one class, my teacher sent the class a link to the lying down desk which made my body so much happier for long hours of keyboard work. I worked when it was the right time for me. I listened to what was right for me…and I respected my capacity.
When we listen to how we are and what we are looking for we can create our own path. We can make our practice our own. Our practice does not look like everyone else’s. Even for those who live in a monastery and follow the same schedule of sitting, walking, eating, and working…their practice is not simply transferred to them from an outside source. Spiritual maturity requires we take responsibility for our own practice and make it our personal.
What I have found to be true is that our practice is made of what we do…and how we do it. It is a patchwork of our honest looking at our habits, the hurts that have healed and those which are still raw, our willingness to try and make mistakes, our ability to find soothing in our distress and our willingness to sit up with ourselves and hold our own hand when we can’t be comforted. It is made of celebrations when we don’t do the same thing, when we take a risk, are brave and vulnerable and we can see we have changed. Our true path is stitched together from all our woundedness, our celebrations, our ability to choose, authenticity, and failure…all of it create the path and the way we walk it. The two are not different. Our practice creates our practice.
The energy we invest in looking and clear seeing creates the foundation for how we practice. The essential ingredient is you. How do you want to be? What are you willing to do to commit to your own awakening? No one can answer these questions for you, nor can anyone do your practice for you. When we recognize that living with our own truth is more powerful and transformative than looking like a good practitioner following form without differentiation. We can start to make our practice our own. This is when things get exciting. This is when the practice of stopping and deep looking, making space for all our emotions can become integrated and truly support our life. This is not a dress rehearsal. As our teacher Thay says, This is it.
May we all trust our light,