When your mind is prey to what the Buddha called “unwholesome states” like fear and despair and you feel like you’re losing heart, Sylvia Boorstein says, it’s time to cut yourself some slack.
Things in the world look so bad these days that it’s hard not to feel like you’re losing heart. Faced with all the suffering, injustice, and bad news, you may find that your mind is falling into periods of what the Buddha called “unwholesome states”—despair, fear, anger, torpor, envy, depression, yearning, etc. If that’s happening to you, you should give yourself some slack.
This is, truth be told, an unusual practice instruction, especially if you’re familiar with the Buddha’s instruction for cultivating zeal: “Practice as if your hair is on fire!” But these are unusual times.
In pandemic times, the world on high alert turns everyday challenges into startling, complex, and potentially life-threatening events.
We have been practicing steady high alertness since mid-March, when the coronavirus quarantines began. Although steady alertness coupled with delighted curiosity and expansive goodwill is the perfect platform for the arising of wisdom, the high alertness most of us have been practicing lately has happened in the context of alarm.
In normal times, the Buddha’s advice on wise effort, a component of the eightfold path of practice, is this: When unwholesome states arise in the mind, eliminate them. When wholesome states—generosity, kindness, compassion, peace, etc.—arise in the mind, cultivate them.
Under normal circumstances, I love teaching this. It’s the active ingredient of my favorite mantra: “May I be free of enmity and danger.” When I notice that my attention has settled on a negative thought or feeling that is on the way to blossoming into an unwholesome state, I tell myself, “Do something else. Plan dinner or write.”
To take my own advice requires clarity to see what’s happening, determination not to stay stuck, and energy to eliminate negative states and cultivate positive ones. In times like this, though, when the mind and body are fatigued, clarity, determination, and energy are in short supply.
Here is a helpful practice for when we have a beleaguered mind, as so many of us do now.
- Tell yourself, preferably out loud, what is happening: “I am fraught.” “I am frightened.” “I am angry.” “I am so disappointed that my wedding plans are all messed up and I am also humiliated that I’m preoccupied with wedding plans when other people have real problems!”
- Settle into the feeling of what you just said. Try not to explain your feelings, or justify them. Just name the emotion and feel it. For example, “This is it! I’m mad!” Then relax, breathing, for however long you can rest.
- When you realize that the intensity of the emotion has passed, feel the relief of its passing. You haven’t resolved the situation that produced the painful emotion, but you moved through it, at least for the moment.
As this happens, you’ve augmented your trust in the Buddha’s axiomatic teaching that “Everything that arises passes away.” The next time a powerful negative emotion arises in your mind, you’ll be more prepared to remember that “This storm is here now. I’m not afraid of it. I can move forward through the middle of it. It will pass.”
My son-in-law, Johan, is an ultra-marathoner and regularly runs fifty- and one-hundred-mile races. “There are times,” he says, “when I need to go slower to take a drink of water or unwrap a Powerbar or just catch my breath. But I always keep moving forward. Stopping altogether is disorienting to the muscles.”
I think it’s the same with the mind. In normal times we meet and deal with challenges regularly, managing them gracefully. In pandemic times, the world on high alert turns everyday challenges into startling, complex, and potentially life-threatening events. So give yourself some slack. Slow down. Take care of your health. Remember that everything passes. And don’t lose heart.