In the conclusion of this two-part article on change, Dr. g examines how the only way to navigate difficult experiences is to practice. Read part one here.
Once we realize the ways in which our minds can be deluded, once we have begun to see the ways a gap, a space of not knowing, is not as terrifying as anticipated, we realize that we need to practice. The word practice in itself frees one of the unrealistic expectation of mastery; practice, individually and in community, allows for continual opening to new information, inviting other ways of knowing.
In order to practice, we must first be able to sustain attention, and, in this case, choose to return our attention to uncomfortable situations and experiences. Mindfulness allows one to become familiar with the landscape of mind or inner experience. How we know and relate to our inner experience is correlated with how we come to know and relate to our external experience. This practice also helps resource our ground in the present moment, so even as past difficult situations arise, we meet them from the stable space of now, not returning to the chaos of then. The latter is how we repeat histories and trauma. Mindfulness practice helps shift from the reference point of needing to know everything to resourcing what we need in the moment to meet the situation. This helps move from a one-way approach to one that is beyond the binary, complexly descriptive and responsive.
You too can be present to the rich tapestry of your now, a fabric that is spacious enough to include the frayed edges along with the pleasant.
Mindfulness practice often begins with returning your mindbody to the present. It could be your breath, a syllable, a light. Some people benefit from using a word or phrase to anchor their mind. One of my anchors through the pandemics has been working with Tibetan Buddhist slogans (lojong, or mind training). These fifty-nine slogans have repeatedly highlighted that everything in my life, even my suffering or confusion, can be an opportunity to awaken compassion and clarity. I do this as an ongoing conversation of voice memos with a dear friend, which has fostered a deeper connection with myself, but it has also dissolved the view of separation from others. In sharing our experiences, we turn to slogans such as “Self-liberate even the antidote” to laugh at the ways in which we relentlessly try to solve life’s problems forgetting that this is a path. The laughter allowed us to let go of having an answer, which propelled us in the future, and to be with what is in the present. In an American society that profits off of solutions and productivity, our release of grasping at solutions freed us from the currency of capitalism–we became blissful in being free of destination in that moment. At that moment, we entered a new society. It begins just like that–in the moment. Those moments plant seeds of possibility that the moment had life and could possibly have a longer life if remembered.
Another slogan that resonates is“Three objects, three poisons, and three seeds of virtue.” This focuses on delusion and tendency of humans to label and categorize everything. Categorizing in and of itself is not inherently a problem, but when we grasp and solidify these categories; we eliminate the gap. First we place people as one of three objects —friend, enemy, or neutral. Now that an object has been created, we develop fixed reactions to our labels —, aggression, and ignorance or grasping, attacking, or avoiding. This rigidity to our labels and our reactions to them is inevitably what causes us suffering. No longer are see relating to the person or situation; it is all made up by our minds.
What I find wonderful about this path is that there is no lost opportunity and we don’t have to wait until our deathbeds to transform difficulties into seeds of wisdom. When we make the choice to take responsibility for our reactions, that these categories are of our own creation, then change is possible. With no external object to relate to with these labels, then the reaction loses steam. When we can see the ways in which we people change from moment to moment, that we change moment to moment, category to category, then we free ourselves from the reactions. Those poisons of passion, aggression, and delusion become three seeds of virtue. Members of the Global Majority for example have been categorized and because of these categories, we are not related to as humans but as the objects of other’s projections. Instead of avoiding this, we could view it as an opportunity for our own awakening as well as freeing others.
Mindfulness practice supports embodiment, which guides our actions. Somatic or body-based approaches help to deepen the connection of mind-body. This can help cultivate an internal safety that is independent of one’s surroundings. Often, a perceived lack of safety (more often a sense of discomfort) disrupts conversations and can lead to reactive responses. Instead, listening to the wisdom of the body allows the ground of the present to hold you as you pass through difficult times.
Energy can also impact a sense of safety, so it can be helpful to create a circle of protection around you as you engage in difficult spaces. A circle of protection is an imaginary field in which you can call to mind people, situations, and elements that provide support and ease. Many approaches do this. For example, in Buddhism, chanting invites the lineage of practitioners and beings who came before to guide your practice.
Presence & Just Decisions
In the fourteenth century, when terton Karma Lingpa composed The Self-Emergence of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities from Enlightened Awareness or the Tibetan book of the Dead, he understood that one needed a guide toward a favorable rebirth at the time of death. Likewise, we need reminders in the gaps of our lives of ways to arrive at more liberated decisions. We have defined ourselves by many narratives that swirl around our lives whose origins can be traced to conquest, violence, fear, and white supremacy. These narratives have led to actions that have caused harm not only to others but to ourselves. We are challenged to explore endless possibilities, choosing not to constrict and limit ourselves but, instead, to remain curious and open. As poet Cynthia Dewi Oka said, “When we insist on coherence we cut out voices of the most vulnerable/impacted because that’s what’s easy to cut out.” In essence, we cut out the most vulnerable and impacted parts of ourselves and our experiences, exactly the matter that is needed to nurture an environment of compassion and healing, the foundations of a justice and liberated society.
This work is in flux and invites us to be present. What are we being present to? The experience of the rawness of now. Now is the opportunity to reconnect with parts of the self that didn’t have space, which are a microcosm of the things in our lives that do not have space, which is inseparable from the parts of our society that we do not allow space.
In my private practice during the pandemic, I witnessed many Black folks pause for the first time in their life. Black folks for generations have been fighting for equitable freedom for hundreds of years. I have not spoken to one person who does not have a vision of what that freedom would look and feel like. The foundation of all those visions included being able to more deeply rest, to change priorities from the pressures to keep moving to survive, and to have the time, space, and resources to be present to their experience. What many did not account for was that this would not feel all positive because after generations they would finally get to feel and heal from many adverse experiences by the hands of white supremacy. Black folks previously did not have the luxury to make space for their grief, for their sadness, for their anxieties, nor for the time it took to connect with them. Many continued to churn just like the system had trained even though they desperately wanted something else.
They were also being met with the possibility of freedom they hadn’t known since before colonization and white supremacy – to harness their power outside the machine. There was considerable fear and anticipation that to fully receive the vision also involved trusting that the system would not, once again, take it away. They were not wrong to have those fears. So the work became being present to each moment that they did experience freedom, to give radical permission to take more time off to grieve when things returned to “normal,” to rest more than their PTO allotment, to even start their own businesses that they framed based on their needs and schedules, and to reconnect with the power, wisdom, and guidance of their Ancestors. It was when they were in practice of doing this that many realized they could experience a freedom that did not have to wait for policy to affirm.
As I was recovering from the stroke, each moment I was blessed to wake up whether from a nap or a night’s sleep, I was present to what I possibly remembered, what was easier to do, and where there were spaces to try something new. I had defined myself as an athletic person, with an almost photographic memory, and quick witted and the definitions of them all needed to change to allow the space of who was emerging. Athleticism was defined less by my lifting and distance capacity and more on my focus and persistence marked by innumerable breaks. Photographic memory was laid to rest for sharp attunement to the nuances of the body. Quick wit was redefined for wisdom. And yes, I mourned who I was, feared who I was becoming, but the gift was seeing that it was not all of who I was; that made it easier to let go and open. And, after years of recovery, I still experience the terror of seeming nothingness and the bliss of possibility.
You too can be present to the rich tapestry of your now, a fabric that is spacious enough to include the frayed edges along with the pleasant. Stop the efforting of crafting innumerable ways to freeze-frame the world and your person just so and open to opportunity gaps to something else. Stop missing out on your living by grasping to a future that may never be or past that secures your comforts. Life continues after death. Loss can be a gift of freshness. See these gaps as openings versus finite end. Use this as a daily practice. What arises is and is free because if we keep the view of impermanence, it will change. It is changing. Each moment is the opening of another rebirth.
This article was created in collaboration with Buddhist Justice Reporter (BJR), founded by BIPOC Buddhist practitioners in response to the police torture and murder of George Floyd. BJR publishes articles on issues related to environmental, racial, and social justice and its intersections, from an anti-racist Buddhist lens.