From The Under 35 Project: “How to save your life, over and over and over again”

Here’s the latest from The Under 35 Project by Ishita Gupta, about living up to our own expectations.

Lion’s Roar
12 October 2012
Photo by Ridham Nagralawala

I check my email a lot. It’s part of my job as a digital magazine publisher, but I try not to let it overtake my day. But sometimes it does. When that happens, I’m drained from sending one piddly message after another. I probably don’t eat healthy or keep other promises I’ve made to myself either.

Other days I am good and strong. I work like a Proper Person, exercise, eat well, have fun. Strength came overnight. If you called me awesome, I’d smile.

This pattern repeats itself every week. Tuesday I take two steps forward, Saturday I sail backward. It is hilarious and frustrating.

I come to terms with the erratic pattern and uncertainty of if I’ll hold myself accountable with a simple but profound tool. And it’s the only thing I really do consistently.

I come back to the present moment and start over.

What starting over looks like is this: as soon as I see a pattern arising, like restlessness to check email, I bring my attention back to the moment and just feel the itchiness and restlessness. I let it seep into me. I can’t pretend I’m not restless because I am. I can’t launch into productive mode, because the itching is there. So I sit with it and call it out. “I want to check my email right now because I’m restless.” That doesn’t mean I actually have to check it.

When heavy moments arrive, mornings where you feel it before you can even name it, I pause. I put my attention on “Well. Heaviness is here.” The pause curtails my judgment and instead of spiraling into a bad mood or boredom, I sit and do nothing without getting overrun by my thoughts. I drop my story of “Here I go again.”

This is life affirming for me. Life-affirming choices are the ones that give you relief, make you smile, and help you continue when you think you can’t. They’re not flashy, but the quiet guys who pull the curtains and allow the show to go on. Attention is your quiet friend — it wants your show to go on.

I don’t know where fear and boredom and restlessness come from. But I know they well up — I don’t actively choose them. To combat them when they do come means I exercise control, conscious choice, over what I pay attention to.

This practice has saved me many times, and not just from hours wasted in grumpy moods or watching TV. It’s saved me from indulging in pain and sadness and anger. It’s saved me from acting poorly in relationships. It is critical in how I manage my moments with harmony, and I practice it every day.

Last year I went through heartbreak I thought I’d never recover from. I spent a year swimming in pain, crying, relief coming only by exhaustion. Every day I asked, “Will I be happy again?” Finally, I threw in the towel. I quit trying to understand what it all meant and just felt, to the core, whatever feelings arose.

If I was sad, I felt it in my bones and let the tears come. If I was lonely, I let myself feel utterly alone and sat there, by myself. If I felt abandoned, I let it wash over me. During this period of giving in, I had many WTF moments: “WTF. Why am I not feeling better? WTF. What is happening? WTF. How long does this take?”

One weekday afternoon, I thought I’d take a walk. Maybe some sunshine would do me good, and anything was better than doing nothing at all. As I passed a small courtyard near a law school, a wave of grief so strong hit me that I gripped the entrance gate bars to keep from sinking. I mustered my energy to keep it together, but all I could do was draw in my shoulders, bow my head, and weep. I must have stood there for a long time.

That’s why I didn’t notice the birds right away. They came out of nowhere and darted in and out of the gate, moving fast. As I watched them fly through the bars and back out, their motion captivated me. I stared until my eyes hurt. As I watched, I felt like someone temporarily shut off the grief hose; I felt a trickle, but not the steady, heavy feelings I felt before. Almost like the birds flitting around me snapped me out of my head and into the courtyard with them. I was noticing, not thinking. I looked around some more. A student was having a smoke in the sun. Leaves were falling. More birds. I felt pain, but less of it, and it slowly occurred to me that the things happening around me were as they should be.

I walked back to my apartment. I didn’t bring with me newfound peace, but I did know that I could manage what I felt. That relief was possible and in fact, I felt a bit of it. I believe that savoring that moment with the birds, as small and fast as they were, saved me. I remember them when I feel fear or uncertainty and know that if watching those birds can save my life, most anything I pay attention to can.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.