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Finding Peace Through Embracing Difficulty

.A few years ago I went to a talk by Jeff Foster and I refer back to it frequently as it really clarified for me what this process of embracing the present moment might feel like. I’ve included a clip form one of his talks below where he talks about it.  What struck me was his way of putting it. For so long I had wanted to find a way to stop feeling sad. I wanted my meditation practice to take me to an Enlightened high ground where I could look down on all of the conflicting emotions from a safe distance and never have to feel them again. But as Ajahan Cha’s quote at the top of this article suggests, freedom comes not from being removed from the painful emotions, but through knowing them as they arise and in that way avoiding getting caught up in resisting them or getting lost in them.

What Jeff said which has stayed with me ever since, was that our painful emotions are like children walking lost in a storm. When we feel sadness, or fear, or grief, or whatever it might be that we label as a bad emotion, it is as if that child has come knocking at the door. And they are not asking us to fix them or heal them.  They are simply asking to be held. They are presenting themselves at the door of awareness and awareness can welcome them, embrace them and hold them. The mind that creates the perception of time past and time future builds an impression of something that is overwhelming and has to be fixed: “why am I feeling this”, “aren’t I better yet”, “when will I stop feeling so bad”, “I can’t bear this….it’s too much…when will it end”. In contrast to this, by holding the difficult emotions in the arms of awareness we come into the present moment. No longer lost in the deserts of linear time we can rest in the oasis of the here and now and shift from thinking to feeling. When a difficult emotion is held in this way it is noticed as a sensation in the body.

This was the next point that Jeff made which has stayed with me ever since.  As a sensation it is simply that – a feeling of heaviness in the belly, a sense of fire, or tightness or coldness in some part of my body.  I am not going to be overwhelmed by that! It is possible to hold the tightness, the fire, the heaviness as a sensation in this moment, without having to ask when it will end. In this way one steps into a place of emptiness – being the calm witness to what is arising in this moment.  There may be tears, it may be one opens up to an emotion that has been denied from being held in the present moment, a state of frozen grief, fear, pain or anger that is not felt but at the same time blocks energy from moving freely. And as this thaws there is a flood of emotion. But it is held.  And having been felt, it may be allowed to pass.

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Welcoming is welcoming – not a clever way of fixing

The difficult emotions may then dissolve away, or they may not. The intention of welcoming them in is not that in so doing they will immediately fade away, otherwise welcoming would just be a more subtle part of the fixing agenda. They are welcomed because they are welcomed. They are what is here in this moment and this moment is as it is. To think it should be any other way is to say how it is right now is not the true me, not how life should be and is a mistake, and that at some future point in time when I no longer feel this I will then be who I should be and life will be as it is supposed to be.  In that way one could spend half of one’s life feeling that it is not one’s real life but a mistake, waiting for the real life to begin.

Letting go of preferences, letting go of wanting life to be like the happy advert we carry in our head of the perfect life, we can start to be with the life we have. And as I bring this compassionate embrace to my struggle, my pain and sorrow, then I start to feel a peace that is not dependent on feeling good. It’s a peace that is simply there, holding the struggle, blossoming in times of joy but not dependant on good fortune to exist. It is something we all know.  We have tasted it in those moments of allowing. We were much more familiar with it as children and it is something we now need to remember but once remembered feels familiar. And it is easy to forget, but the more often we wake up to it again the more it starts to be the default mode.

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Shifting from the Doing Mode to the Being Mode, from solutions to acceptance

This aspect of mindfulness may be described as acceptance and equanimity. It is the process of shifting from the Doing Mode that looks for solutions and answers – ‘’why am I anxious’’, ‘’what’s wrong with me’’, ‘’how do I stop this’’ – to the Being Mode that observes without judgement or fear. It is not acquiescence, detachment or dissociation but a wholehearted embracing of the present moment exactly as it is, noticing the thought that it should be different and then embracing this thought as well. This doesn’t mean that if we are ill, for example, we give up on the thought of being healthy. Instead of reacting to being ill with worry or anger and raging against it as we long for health at some point in the future we have an opportunity to become fully present to the experiences arising as a result of being ill: the physical and  emotional pain – the sadness, the wanting it to be different, the grief at lost time or opportunities. We then have an opportunity to embrace all of this in the present moment, whilst taking loving action for our own well-being.  As we accept things as they are this may open the mind to choices that would have been lost sight of if one were only intent on getting away from the discomfort. In this way one dives into the heart of the difficult experience.

The more I trust this the more there is a feeling that whatever is here right now is fine. And in that way there is a deeper sense of contentment and peace. I hope that this encourages you to explore this in your own life and that the talk below from Jeff gives you a feeling for this approach.

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Bringing suffering to an end through a Patient Embrace of the Moment

I was in Greece recently for a holiday and saw a sign for scuba diving.  It’s something I have never done before and I thought it could be fun to challenge myself to try something new and step out of the usual patterns of what I would do on a holiday. I am scared of the water and find it hard to swim but I thought having breathing apparatus and a wet suite would give a different feeling of being in the water, which it did.  It was an amazing experience seeing fish just a few inches from my face and moving in the water. I did find it harder to relax and wasn’t as fluid in the water as I thought I might be but it was a fun experience….until I got out.

As I was drying I could feel that my ears felt a little sore. As the days went on this became worse and eventually led to calling a Dr who confirmed I had an ear infection from the water which required a few days of antibiotic drops.

What was fascinating was being present with the thoughts and feeling that arose over these days. Immediately after the dive when I was just starting to feel sore there was the fear of not knowing what had happened: had I damaged my ear drums, the thoughts of “why did I do that”, “this is going to spoil the holiday”, “how long will this last” and other catastrophising, self-blaming statements.

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First and Second Arrow – how to end unnecessary suffering

Then I remembered the Buddha’s teaching of the first and second arrow. He said that when suffering arrises  – mental or physical – that is the first arrow.  It can’t be avoided.  There is pain. There is a difficult thought. There is sickness or suffering. All of this just is, it has happened and cannot be made not to have happened. The second arrow is fired when I respond to what is with resistance and anger: why did this happen, how stupid of me, I don’t want this…….

The next day I was walking up a mountain path to visit the ruins of a Roman city when I noticed my ear was still sore.  Noticing all of the second arrow inner dialogue of how long, what does it mean, why did it have to happen, how stupid of me…… I reflected that I could add to the suffering of the pain in my ear by being washed away in this flood of thought, or stay with not knowing and holding the one thing that was present in my experience – the pain.

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“Unsure, uncertain” – counteracting the catastrophising mind that makes calamity certain and sure 

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Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master who taught my teacher, used to say “unsure, uncertain”. A lot of the catastrophising mind’s fuel comes from wanting to make the uncertainty of life certain by believing one can know how it will impact on the next few days, weeks or one’s entire life! Resting back into the present moment experience and not knowing feels challenging, but for me it opened up a sense of peace.

As I carried on walking up the trail I noticed what was there in that moment:  the sun on my skin, a brilliant blue sky, the excitement of being out on an adventure to find the ruins and the pleasant feeling of physical exertion as I walked up the steep track. And within that there was also the experience of pain. It was not my only experience and was not even the predominant one. It could be held patiently simply as a sensation: a sense of pressure, a slightly warm, burning sensation that had a clear edge in one small area of my body.

Walking up the trail I reflected that just like me there were many people right now who had had a holiday accident and who would be feeling sad and I made the wish that they might recover quickly and find whatever support they needed. This helped to make my experience into something that enabled me to connect out to others with compassion rather than turn in with self blame or anger. I was breathing in the sense of all the suffering there might be of people with similar experiences and breathing out the wish that they might find healing. This helped me to feel more calm and connected me to my heart centre.

Then I noticed how there was a choice to go into the catastrophising thoughts or simply let them be there and pass. Feeling compassion for my own sense of sorrow as I witnessed the thoughts passing by. Sensing that ‘knowing’ that could hold the thoughts without having to be them. And there was a sense of peace.

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“Patient endurance is the highest austerity.”

The Buddha encouraged his followers to practice patience, saying, “Patient endurance is the highest austerity.” I always used to be attracted to this and curious – why was it an austerity?  In the Buddha’s times various austerities were practiced to try and liberate the practitioner from the ego. It might be eating one grain of rice a day, or standing on one leg. They were all designed to create an extreme experience where self and thoughts could be seen clearly in the hope that ego could then be purged or let go of. Some were based on the belief that the soul was separate to the body so by punishing the body the soul would be liberated.

The Buddha had tried this approach to liberation by eating only one grain of rice a day and almost died.  He saw that punishing the body was not the way to liberation but just leads to illness and death without realisation. Patience on the either hand is not harmful.  But it does require being present in the middle of the storm of thoughts that arise when a situation causes us to be unhappy with our experience – waiting in a traffic jam, train delays, illness etc. And rather than identifying with the thoughts by rejecting them or merging with them, there is a process of allowing them to be there and watch them as they arise and fade away.

If an austerity practice is designed to help one let go of ego, then this practice of patience, of resting in the eye of the storm when our impulse is to go into the thoughts or find a way to stop them offers a chance to see that we are not the thoughts. In this way there is nothing to fight.  There is just the experience that is here right now needing to be held – the frustration of the slow queue, the worry over health, the feeling of self-anger at having made what the mind considers a wrong choice. Instead of fighting or merging there is a sense of being present to what is there. Knowing it as it is.

Through taking this approach I had a great day. The thoughts of worry and self-blame drifted in but they were allowed to pass and instead I was present with the fun of exploring the ruined city. My memory now is of a day full of sun and adventure, where the pain is but a small distant aspect of the day. The next day as the pain was still there I took action and saw a Dr who prescribed the drops and a few days latter it was all clear. Latter on when I was on the dance retreat that I was going onto after my week’s holiday  one of the men there got an ear infection from swimming. There was a GP on the retreat and he confirmed the drops would help so I was able to give them to him. So out of my suffering the pain of another was alleviated and I was able to feel the pleasure of this.

The invitation of the practice is to notice when we are adding to our suffering by firing the second arrow of self-recrimination, worry, catastrophising story telling about what might happen, and then stepping into our present moment experience and gently holding that with patient forbearance, compassion and curiosity.

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