At the time I was shaking with nerves and while I listened to her message I didn’t quite hear it. I was too amped up, too flooded with adrenalin.
When the recording of the weekend retreat arrived I immediately sought out my question and her answer. I listened to it, wrote it down, and began to listen to the entire talk from the beginning. But things didn’t start to shift until I listened to Elizabeth’s talk – the talk I’d skipped because I was talking to Darcy.
The talk I probably wouldn’t have appreciated anyway. The talk that shifted my perspective and made me realise how my scramble for an ‘answer’ or ‘reason’ caused me far more pain than it was worth.
Accepting there doesn’t have to be a reason… life gives us experiences and experiences are the very thing we have to work with – that was what Pema meant by unfixated mind.
So I went there. I sat in meditation and practiced dropping the story line.
“How could she lie to me...”
Let it go.
“But it hurts...”
Let it go.
“She did this thing...”
Let it go.
And with every letting go I got closer to my experience, closer to the rawness of the emotion. I felt anxiety, not as a storyline, but as a sensation. It’s tightness in the heart, fluttering in the base of the throat, fizzing in the stomach.
I felt sadness: A dull kind of ache behind the eyes, heaviness in the heart, a sleepiness of limbs and shakiness of the whole body. Tender, raw, but also somehow gentle.
I felt grief. Mourning is a wailing sensation in the lungs, the skin aching to be touched, the eyes aching for another’s to look into, hands aching to touch – palms seeking out a surface where there is nothing to hold anymore.
I felt them and embraced them. I felt them and realised they would not break me. They could not break me. They were a part of me – part of my experience. But not mine because they are human experiences. They are not unique but universal and what binds sentient beings to one another. They are the source of compassion.
And suddenly I realised that ‘doing’ was unnecessary. In fact it’s ‘doing’ which causes the most hurt. Because ‘doing’ involves a sort of resistance to experience, like something shouldn’t be happening the way it is and must be controlled so it will be different.
Watching 24 Hours in A&E – a mother sits next to her four year old boy. His femur is broken and he’s in incredible pain. She strokes his head, holds his hand, tells him she loves him and he’s a brave boy.
To the camera, in the interview, she says she felt helpless. She couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t help.
But she was helping, immensely. She was present for him. She was showing him love, kindness, care. She was giving him touch and reassurance in the face of great pain.
She was there.
But we get it wrong. We think we have to ‘fix’ it. We think we have failed because we can’t perform miracles to prevent illness, injury or death.
We do not realise that just being there – holding someone, listening to them, letting them cry or giving them space to vent, even being on the other end of a telephone – is enough.
Heartbreak hurts the way it does not because of the betrayal or the grievances, the stories we tell about how they wronged us. Heartbreak hurts because someone who we wanted to be there for us isn’t there anymore.
And it will hurt.
This is one of the most painful conditions of the human experience. It’s this suffering we have because of impermanence. Suffering because we wish things weren’t impermanent. It’s a bit like being upset about gravity.
All things are impermanent. Our state of mind is the only thing we have control over and the only way we can work with this natural part of being human – of being a living, breathing, mortal creature.
It is not a source of further suffering to accept the impermanent nature of existence. When we accept and relax into something we stop struggling. We open up to the experiences we have. We open up and feel the suffering but know that it too is impermanent.
It is not a punishment. It is not retribution. It is not the muddled mis-understood sort of ‘karma’ that’s about punishment or reward.
It’s accepting that life is not black and white but multi-hued and chaotic. The nature of the universe by its very birth is chaos. And suffering will not cease when we accept this but we will take it less personally. We will see that viewing suffering as ‘mine’ and about ‘me’ isolates us. It restricts our experience by creating a focus on a single aspect. It’s like looking up at the sky through a straw and seeing only a tiny circle.
But when we can move from ‘my’ suffering to ‘there is suffering’ or ‘we all suffer’ we stop looking at our pain as something special. Instead we see it as a fact of life, just as joy is a fact of life. Just as any emotion is a fact of life.
And we can be happy just to be alive. Think about the absolute miracle of the existence of life. That this molten rock could cool and change and become a source of sustenance. That causes and conditions could come together so perfectly that you and all other living creatures and plants could come into being.
We can be happy to be able to have an experience at all. Take joy in watching a sunset or the way the moon looks through the phases or the seemingly magical qualities of animals we share the planet with or the fact that all things are made up of the same stuff as stars.
Because the alternative is death and whilst energy cannot be created nor destroyed, we cannot know if consciousness survives after we are gone. Never mind about an after-life or reincarnation. What we can know is that right now, right here, this is the life we have. This is where we are. And we can choose to be present for it or we can choose to resist experience or have expectations about how things should or shouldn’t be.
I have known many people who are open to life in this way, just as I’ve met people who have expectations about almost everything. They expect a certain job or a certain sort of behaviour from those around them. They expect the weather to turn out a certain way or a holiday to go exactly as planned. They expect so much from everything and everyone that they spend their lives angry, frustrated or disappointed.
Hell is not some place to be found in the afterlife. Hell is something we create for ourselves by holding onto so many expectations so tightly. None of us are without the experience of Hell because we have all generated an idea of what should or shouldn’t be.
Sometimes we are good at letting things go or being present. Sometimes we don’t have the propensity to be bothered by something that seems to really bother someone else. But that doesn’t mean we are unflappable or holding onto an idea with our fixed mind somewhere else in our life.
I know what the Hell of expectation feels like and I have incredible compassion for others because I know how hard it is to let go of expectations. I also know how hard it is to even see how we create these Hells for ourselves.
Being open to life can come easily when things are going well and fitting into our expectations. When we get the job we wanted or the person we like likes us back we can convince ourselves that we are incredibly open and embracing of life.
But genuine openness and genuine happiness comes from ‘walking the walk’. It’s not enough to sit in meditation regularly but then not apply what we learn to life away from the cushion. It’s not enough to share that meme with wise words but then not live by or embrace what they mean.
Genuine openness is being present for the sunset even when our heart is breaking. Being in awe of the brightness of the full moon even when our body is in pain. Being amazed at the age of a tree even when we are flooded with anger.
To live well and embrace life is to accept all of life. To accept the pain and the joy. To not cling to either. To not be the martyr nor the saint.
To live well is to ‘be’.
And when you think you’ve ‘figured it out’ let go of that too.