What Is the Use of Worrying?

It’s amazing how right spiritual teachers and traditions can be even when I’ve spent years thinking they were wrong. Take for example this whole idea that we create much of our own suffering. My evolving relationship to this truth has gone from “Yeah right, did you miss war, famine, etc.?” to “Well maybe so” to “Well would you look at that.”

I did not have to look far this week. I was attempting to stuff my purse and my lunch bag into a drawer at work, but they didn’t fit. I wanted to make a cup of tea and get some items checked off the list. I pushed harder on the unyielding bags and thought, oh come on, I don’t need this. Then it dawned on me that I was creating the problem. The drawer was not getting any bigger no matter how much I wanted to put more stuff into it.

Whether or not I accepted it, reality wasn’t changing. The drawer’s solid, physical existence made it clear how silly we are to resist what is.

It was a small, insignificant event, but as Richard Rohr says, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” My resistance to the limitations of three-dimensional space is mirrored in so many aspects of my life: trying to do too many things in a day, wanting other people to act a certain way, wishing I could do things the way other people do them. The list goes on.

In all of these situations, I tend to react with frustration, worry, or some other form of resistance rather than acceptance. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama cites the teaching of Shantideva, an eighth century Buddhist scholar who said, “If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?”

We skip looking at what’s happening and go straight to worry, or at least I do. Until we accept the situation instead of fighting with it, we can’t even determine whether or not change is possible through some effort on our part.

Sometimes we can change our circumstances, and sometimes we can’t. Until we see what they are instead of what we want them to be, we’ll never know.

Wave the White Flag

I love it when my friends tell me exactly what I need to hear and I actually listen. Sometimes I ignore or resist their good advice, but now and then, it goes straight in.

This week a friend and I were talking about how change happens in life. At a time when things were shifting for her, a friend of hers said, “Well, you’ve gone over it mentally every way you can for months. Now all you have to do is give up.” She asked, “How will I know when I’ve given up?” Her friend said, “That’s when it will change.”

Though I’ve spent plenty of time resisting this truth, it’s still true. I also think we’re on God’s time, and we’re unlikely to give up ahead of the universal roll-out schedule. We still need to practice, though, so when the time comes, we’re ready to do it.

The spiritual journey is so odd when considered with the same lens we use to do the grocery shopping or complete tasks at work. We can’t rush it, we’re not in charge, but if we don’t participate, it doesn’t work. Participation mostly means practicing giving up.

I am of course not the first person to say this. Teachers in every wisdom tradition have been saying it for a long time. God’s will, non-action, falling into grace—it’s all the same thing: we’ll only find what we’re searching for when we give up thinking we’ll get there by ourselves. It also helps to realize we don’t even know where there is.

We need to strike out in some direction that we think is right— another strange twist—we just shouldn’t get too attached to the destination we’ve chosen. Julia Cameron describes this in her book The Artist’s Way. She says we go out looking for apples and end up with oranges, only to discover that’s what we wanted all along. But we never would have happened upon the oranges without leaving the house in search of apples.

None of this to say I’m particularly good at giving up. That’s why I write myself reminders like this; that’s why we practice.

Standing in the Muck

It was one of those weeks that makes me grateful other people can’t see into my head, which was more than usually full of all that muck we rather wish we didn’t carry around inside of us— fear, a sense of inferiority, frustration, meanness.

A religious sister once couldn’t overcome her inability to be patient with the other sisters in her community. She asked St. Thérèse of Lisieux what to do. St. Thérèse didn’t say a word about how to treat the other sisters but instead counseled her to be patient with her own impatience.

I decided to take St. Thérèse’s advice. I wrote myself a list of questions: Can I be loving with my cruelty? Can I be understanding with my frustration? Can I tell the voice that sees only lack that it is enough?

The answer was yes—for a few seconds at a time every now and then. Did it make a difference? It depends on what you consider a difference, I suppose. Was it all sunshine and butterflies after my first few attempts? No indeed, not even after many attempts. Was I more loving to those around me? No way to tell without popping over to the alternate universe where I chose to be overwhelmed with feelings of self-pity or take a sick week.

Though a sick week sounds pretty good—and sometimes we need those—other times we just need to stand in our own skin and be OK with ourselves as we are. There is that saying that the only way out is through. I’ve always pictured that as a relatively unpleasant journey, but maybe the only way through is love and acceptance.

Seek and, Well, Just Seek

It is so easy to get distracted in this life, and let’s be honest, there are some fantastic distractions, like Agents of Shield or a European bakery window full of tasty delights. Most often for me, though, it’s the inside of my own head.

My brain has been obsessed with the doing end of things recently, and I don’t know about yours, but my brain can be very convincing. I’ve been walking around for several weeks acting as if the voice in my head were describing reality.

I was talking with a monk once who said that his focus for the year was to let God love him. He was probably in his mid fifties at the time—it’s hard to tell with monks—so he’d been doing this pretty intense God thing for at least twenty years and apparently still hadn’t mastered it.

That is reality. That is what doingness mind distracts me from with its promises of fulfillment if only I can cross all the items off the list on time. Never mind that new tasks continually pop onto the bottom of the list, appearing out of the ether with no effort on my part.

Perhaps it is not surprising that we approach life this way. Our educational system is more or less structured this way and so are our jobs. And to some extent so are we. Human beings seem to be internally propelled forward. We choose—or perhaps are attracted to—different directions, but most of us are seeking something most of the time.

While we are certainly capable of wandering off in the wrong direction, maybe the bigger problem arises when, unlike that monk, we become convinced that we can find whatever it is we’re looking for.

Not Getting There

This week may have been about not losing sight of the infinite, which of course I learned by losing sight of it in many small ways. Like eating three—OK four, but they were small—croissants in one day, panicking over approaching work deadlines, or falling back into my default position of resisting doing things such as the dishes or writing this blog. But somewhere in the midst of that, I heard for the first time the phrase, “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Of course I’ve known those words most of my life, but I’d never heard them, especially that word “surpasses.” I’d always heard, “There’s this state out there that you’re supposed to achieve that you don’t understand yet because you’re not advanced enough, pure enough, whatever you’re supposed to be enough.” Turns out this is not what “surpasses” means. Plus there’s that pesky little “all” in there.

This peace is not understandable ever, no matter how smart you are or how holy you are; your mind cannot grasp it. I don’t know about your mind, but mine is not fond of admitting the existence of things outside its purview.

Jim Finley says something along the lines of, we think there’s a corner to turn and then we’ll be able to grasp all this, but there isn’t. That’s the story our mind tells, but as Finley points out, there’s nowhere to get to because “all this” is infinite.

On first blush, I am not a fan of this situation because I really want to get to that un-gettable place. I want to believe that at some point in my life I will have better time management skills, and that will make it all OK. But on second glance, there’s a spaciousness that opens up when I admit the possibility that, as William Stafford says, “there will come a time when all we have said and all we have hoped will be all right.” That time is any moment we choose to accept existence, including ourselves, as it is.

Note: The Stafford quote is from the poem “A Message from the Wanderer.” “The peace that surpasses all understanding” is from Philippians 4:7.

Letting Life Be

When we returned to the vanpool stop, a.k.a. the Walmart parking lot, one evening this week, two baby and two adult birds—a kind I’d never seen before—appeared to be searching for each other with no success even though they were only a few feet from each other.

The babies were tiny, still fluffy, and looking as if they shouldn’t have been out of the nest. They had somehow gotten onto the pavement while the adults were up on the grass in one of those small islands of partially neglected nature that we interestingly dot our parking lots with. The babies were so small they couldn’t get from the pavement to the grass because the curb was taller than they were, maybe three or four inches, no taller than my shoe.

The adults appeared to be calling and looking for the babies but never in the right direction. It’s possible the adults and babies literally couldn’t hear each other because of the noise from the nearby highway. I wanted to show the adults how to search visually for the babies, how to methodically cross and recross a space the way humans do. I wanted to lift the babies up onto the grass that they kept trying to look over the impossibly high curb to see.

But I know just enough about nature to know there was no way to help. Touching the babies would make them smell like human, and their parents might reject them, never mind the perhaps impossible task of catching them. The parents would probably not interpret my attempts to guide their search as anything other than a threat. In reality, I didn’t even know whether they were really lost or this was just part of how these baby birds grow up, a type of being pushed out of the nest.

I think this is so often true, that there’s nothing we can actually do to change the course of things unfolding in this existence, though we’re trained to think we can. I don’t mean that we never affect each other or that one person’s generosity can’t completely change the course of another’s life. Those things happen all the time, but this helplessness is also true, and perhaps at least as often. Maybe the only thing we can do when we find ourselves next to an impossibly high curb or watching a loved one search for something we are powerless to provide is remember that everything we are looking for is only three feet away.

As William Stafford says in the final stanza of the poem “Afterwards,”

Maybe people have to go in and out of shadows
till they learn that floating, that immensity
waiting to receive whatever arrives with trust.
Maybe somebody has to explore what happens
when one of us wanders over near the edge
and falls for awhile. Maybe it was your turn.

Hanging in the Balance

It is RAINING on the Central Coast of California, and I have been thinking about water and how it brings both rejuvenation and destruction but not necessarily balance. You know, the lighter side of life.

I am wildly grateful for the rain; the state profoundly needs it and more. I love the sound of it falling on the roof. The hills will finally be green, and yet there are mudslides, flooding, power outages.

A good rainstorm doesn’t restore balance. It seems to me that, though nature always gets back to balance—overpopulated species run out of food and die off, for example—it doesn’t exist in what we would think of as balance all the time. We don’t get the perfect amount of rain every year. We have a drought, we have a storm, there is flooding.

There have always been droughts, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, locusts. There have always been times of plenty and times of not much. And since we were created into this world, it must be the world we’re asked to live in, a world with valleys and peaks, with easier times and harder ones. So the balance, apparently, is up to us.

I tend to approach my life with the assumption that if I could do everything perfectly, I could somehow avoid valleys and peaks, but that’s impossible. The rain will fall or it won’t; the question is how to exist in tune with what’s happening in times of plenty and times of less, whether that’s less rain, less financial stability or less emotional ease.

I’m afraid we’re back to the “a word”—acceptance. To live in balance, we have to live in tune with what’s happening right now, not what we wish were happening. And we have to recognize that what’s happening right now won’t always be happening.

I think this is really hard to do—to be truly present and truly hopeful—but I suspect that if we can get those two, being truly joyful comes along with them.

The Zen of Surfing

Some people become Zen masters after a slap upside the head. As befits a Californian, my uncle found enlightenment when we were learning to surf a couple of weeks ago. This was his insight: “The board doesn’t become more stable; you become more used to instability.” I confess to being skeptical at first, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

Rachel surfing
Probably me on one of my more successful rides.

I spent most of the first day of lessons learning not to be alarmed that the board was rushing with all possible speed toward the shore. (A shout out to our excellent instructor, Nick, from 2 Mile Surf Shop in Bolinas, who pushed us into the waves, which was the only reason I was speeding toward shore.) In retrospect, alarmed was an interesting reaction because I hadn’t jumped out of a plane and I wasn’t headed toward a rock wall. The worst possible outcome ended with the board running into the sand. Still, it took a goodly number of waves before I believed the sand wasn’t going to hurt me.

The second day consisted of trying to get from my knees to my feet and failing—instability galore. It’s easy to understand the idea of keeping your feet in the middle of the board and a lot harder to do it.

On the third day came acceptance of instability, just as my uncle had said. I doubt my feet were much closer to the middle of the board than the previous day, but similar to overcoming my fear of running headlong into the menacing sand, I stopped freaking out as soon as the board wobbled. This had the miraculous effect of keeping the board from tipping over—at least not immediately—thus giving me more time to teeter back and forth and get my feet under me. I don’t think it was pretty, but I did stand all the way up and get off the board on purpose twice.

Riding the wobble is a lot like getting friendly with the “A” word—acceptance. If we stopped wishing for everything to be perfect and smooth, we might find that we can get a nice ride in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. If you master that, let me know. I think I’m still on day two.

Lessons Not Learned

I’m beginning to suspect that there are lessons I will never learn in this lifetime. Such as empty the compost bucket you forgot about before leaving for vacation as soon as you discover it rather than after writing a blog post. Or don’t plan a lunch date for every day the week you return from vacation because it might just stress you out.

Seeing that these changes may never happen is a little like the time I realized I wasn’t going to read everything of consequence that had ever been written or see the whole world or learn to speak three more languages. That happened in my late twenties, and I was pretty upset about it.

I am not so upset this time around, which feels like progress. My own recalcitrance and resistance to change still puzzle me, but most days they no longer appear to be faults that might knock the world off its axis. (There are, of course, days when a lot of chocolate is required to achieve this perspective.)

Also with age has come the ability to recognize incremental improvements. For example, I had the good sense to leave myself a free day between travel and returning to work, which is a rare accomplishment for me. Of course I spent much of it watching Arrested Development, but we mustn’t rush progress.

Note: I apologize for the inconsistency of blog posts this summer. With any luck, this post should mark a return to a more regular publishing schedule.

Resisting Finite

My lesson for the week: when the curried tomato coconut soup explodes all over the kitchen at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday night, it’s time to admit there’s no way you’re also making bulgur pilaf for a Monday night dinner gathering.

Here’s one of the things I don’t understand about myself: why does it take exploding soup to get me to realize this? Simple addition would do the trick. Number of hours between present time and guest arrival: 20.5. Hours that should be spent sleeping, working, or getting to and from work: 19. Time it takes to make bulgur pilaf: too much. After all, there is now a big mess of soup to clean up.

Needless to say, I ordered pizza. And poured everyone large glasses of wine.

Earlier that very day my mom and I had discussed the radical concept of accepting our limitations. We spend a lot of time in this culture pretending we can overcome any shortcoming with hard work and will power, but that’s just silly.

I am never going to be an Olympic high jumper, for example, or win the Nobel Prize in Physics. I’ve pretty much gotten over both of those. For some reason, it’s harder to accept that I’m never going to approach Martha Stewart-ish, even though I don’t actually want to make matching, spring green, baby-duck napkins, placemats, and table runners out of recycled aprons for Easter brunch.

Other difficult ones: I will never be the uber-productive, uber-efficient, uber-thrifty member of any randomly selected sample of American women aged 27-45. Or any other age for that matter. I will almost never get anything much done after 9 p.m., except this blog. I will probably never succeed at any diet that includes less than a lot of chocolate. I feel I ought to be able to make myself have these capabilities, but I don’t.

It’s possible I’ll once again be cleaning soup off the butter, the counter, the floor, the cookbook, the real estate papers before remembering any of this. At that point, I hope I also remember to laugh and order pizza.