Today I spend the day with Sylvia Boorstein, and her guests, from afar, livestreamed from Spirit Rock. Beforehand, I debate the all-day commitment on this day, but being in her presence even virtually and getting to listen to her wonderful stories feels like such a reassuring way to begin the year. After, I feel vulnerable. I am achey and tender and sad. I am all opened up. I feel a kind of longing, I think. Longing to be able to be part of something like this always? Partaking in her big warm love and acceptance? More connected to people like this, this deep kindheartedness? Always with Sylvia my old voices arise, want to lament I didn’t find her years ago when I could have worked with her for decades. Maybe, though, another voice says, you wouldn’t have felt this way about her then. Maybe you wouldn’t have been ready, or maybe she needed time to grow into who she is today. In the end, I settle back into gratitude for the day, for the gift of her. But in me, too, is secret hope to get to spend more time with her, maybe even years of it.
Sunday bird walk near my mom’s
A handful of us stop to watch a scrub jay in the bare branches of a tree
Marvel over his unusual silence, his stillness
Maybe he is meditating, someone says
Yes, I say, maybe he’s a Buddhist
I savor the miracle of easy camaraderie.
I need to find a way to touch my refuge when I am in the midst of disturbance. The sweet part is knowing that, given enough time and space, finding my refuge has always been easy for me. That connection, that peace, arises organically. (Or maybe when I am not disturbed I settle into it.) But how do I learn to find it when I’m startled? Or when I’m resisting what is??!!? Lately I watch myself unable to stop, my mind in a flurry. I think I tend to live in that flurry when I have too much work or stress. I don’t know how to stay connected to myself without the luxury of time alone, large swathes of it to land again. Without that, I manage to touch down for moments, in sitting practice, writing, doing yoga, when I hear a raven caw or a coyote bark. And in a stressful time, a time of disturbance, I believe these are moment of genuine connection both with myself and my world. I am able to feel that solace. But then something happens outside me, or my mind returns to a source of agitation, and I am disturbed again. It’s tempting for me to feel disheartened. But I’m going to keep reaching for kindness instead. I’m going to grab for that “sweetheart approach” whenever I remember, even when I’m already roiled, even when using it doesn’t seem to make a dent in things. I’m going to believe turning toward myself with that sweet reassurance, reaching for a connection with myself and the world around me—I’m going to believe that’s my way forward, my way in. I’m going to believe in my effort. I’m going to let it be enough.
I read Sylvia Boorstein’s Happiness Is an Inside Job more than once. Toward the beginning, she describes how she talks to herself when she gets startled. Sweetheart,” she says, “you are in pain. Relax. Take a deep breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” I have read this before, but one day it clicks in. I become startled so easily and so often. I begin practicing with this. I try it out right away when I get a disturbing email from my work. It keeps me from spinning out into stories about what I’m being asked to do, mostly how it’s “not fair.” (They still arise, but I don’t dwell in them.) It makes so much sense to me. There is a bit of the, “Duh!” about it for me. I have been trying to learn how to not be reactive to people, to reach for kindness. But of course I need to re-establish my connection to myself first before that becomes possible. I practice the sweetheart approach again and again. I am so excited, certain I have found a way to interrupt my autopilot after all these decades. Later I discover I am still not very good at this in the heat of the moment when other people are involved. Maybe I need to learn to catch it still in the startle, in the fear. Maybe when I get to the anger it’s too late. I am deflated. But my optimism ekes back in. I know I’m not giving up.
I get overwhelmed. It isn’t just all the failing but all the learning that goes with it. I’ve always had a kind of keen reflective eye, am often swift to see what I’m doing “wrong,” how I might do it better. My first year of teaching was a nightmare. I would walk out of each class with a mental list of 18 things I could have done differently. Today, too, I keep watching myself fail, dizzy with discernment. I guess, really, I am shining lots of little lights everywhere I look. After talking about this with my friend Richard and realizing I need to be able to accept what I’m doing in order for my awareness to effect change, I understand how this is in play for me always. Not only is my acceptance not deep enough, not broad enough, but each time I see a truth about my actions, about my reality, I expect myself to be able to change it. So in that first year of teaching, in every patch of my life when learning is accelerated, I put crazy pressure on myself to be able to fix things as soon as I recognize them. No wonder it’s overwhelming. Exhausting, stressful, even discouraging. This is where I need to develop that kind and curious mind we’re always talking about in mindfulness work, yes? This is where I want to be able to say to myself, “Ah. Look at that.” This is where I want to be able to pay attention without putting pressure on myself to change. Just, “Hmmm, how interesting.” Open palmed, my dear. Open palmed.
I am on the phone with my friend Richard. He is talking about rereading a mindfulness book, about the idea that all we need to do is shine a light on a problem. We don’t need to do anything, only shine the light. I am grumpy with him, get an icky tone in my voice. I’m annoyed—angry, really—because I have been shining a light for years on all kinds of problems, and it hasn’t done any good. (Well, not any good, of course, but the problems persist.) After we hang up, I think about this for days. I try to understand why it makes me angry, why I am so bent out of shape by this claim, so twisted up inside. Then it comes to me. This only works if you accept whatever it is you are shining the light on. This doesn’t work unless we accept ourselves or the situation. There is a letting go in it, an opened palm. I know I am not there yet. But maybe I am inching my way toward it?
For the first time in ages, I’m enjoying the luxury of easing into the new year. I took the week off, and I’ve been attending special daily sessions at our meditation center. At first, I was going to plan a demanding daily schedule of writing and sitting practice to accompany these evenings of sitting and teaching. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to stick to my schedule,” I said. Marylou and Richard and I were sitting together on their patio. Richard suggested in the kindest of ways I might be more easy with myself. At the time, I felt defensive and not understood. “Retreats are supposed to be challenging,” I grumbled. But later, I let his gentle words sink through me, and I ease off of expecting so much of myself. Instead of pushing, I let myself sleep in, dawdle over tea, do my morning writing and sitting practices propped up in bed with the San Jacintos stretched out before me. I make soup, nap, read, eat popcorn. Each evening I step outside, close the door behind me. The solar Christmas lights in the bougainvillea greet me in the dark courtyard. One night the crescent moon is cupping Venus. The next night Mars and the waxing moon and Venus are all in a row. They accompany me on my half-hour walk to the meditation center, the air brisk on my face, my scarves soft and warm against my ears. After, the stars walk me home. One morning midway through, I cry without knowing why. But I trust in the rightness of it. One afternoon I fight on the phone with a loved one. I make her cry. When I hang up, I remember to hold my self-hatred with kindness, identify the swirl of other feelings, five in all. I picture them nested in my open palms, the tenderness immense. One day during the teaching I am overcome. To think, we are all here wanting to heal, working toward becoming the peace we want to see in the world. What a gift to be able to do this together. On day seven, a morning session, I look back as I leave my courtyard and see scores of goldfinch in the bare branches of my neighbor’s tree, like ornaments, like lemons. I walk to the center, happy I am me, so glad for these eight days of practice, for the connection with this sangha, this community. The air is cold on my face, but I am warm in my layers. I feel the way I used to feel on a winter night flanked by Sofia and Sable, their small weights warm against my calves, my belly. I would lie there in the quiet dark and cry because I knew I must be the luckiest woman in the world.