(If you would like to listen to the audio version of this talk, click on the link above.)
The picture changes. Have you noticed this? People, places, things I’ve loved and wanted to hold on to are no longer the same. Family pictures that we took when my daughter was a baby are different now. She’s no longer a cute little cherub, but a tall, lanky teenager complete with acne and attitude.
The picture of who I wanted to be as a mother was so radically different than who I actually was. Instead of having my shit together and nursing my daughter lovingly, I looked like I hadn’t slept for days, felt irritable all the time, blamed anyone and anything in my way (especially myself), and couldn’t breastfeed beyond about 6 weeks.
For those of you who have ever been first time parents, you know it’s challenging. Even if you haven’t been a parent, anything you take on that is new and unfamiliar can be difficult: adopting a pet, starting a new job or school, caring for an aging family member, losing a job, moving to a new place, a new medical or psychological diagnosis in you or a loved one, and so on.
But stress, discomfort, dis-ease, is not just about meeting moments of difficulty in life. We all face challenges. What makes certain ones more stressful than others?
2600 years ago, the Buddha had a word for stress. In Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha in India at the time, the word is dukkha. Just living this human life, we know that pain is inevitable. But the added stress is optional. There’s a saying that illustrates this point well: pain x resistance = stress. If pain is inevitable, then what adds to the stress?
It’s our resistance to what’s happening moment to moment. The desire to hold on to the way my body used to be in less discomfort and able to do certain yoga poses, the aversion to burning, searing, aching, throbbing sensations in my left gluteal muscles, sacroiliac joint and right shoulder, the delusion that none of this should be happening, that I should be able to fix it, that this experience of pain is unique to Moi and no one else has ever felt this way.
What are you currently holding on to in your life? What are you pushing away? How are you daydreaming or misunderstanding a current situation? It may help to place a hand on your heart or a part of the body that is hurting, breathing into any discomfort with as much tenderness and compassion as you can muster. If that feels awkward, then imagine a comforting presence here with you now, breathing with you, understanding you, loving you just as you are.
With our body’s, our circumstances, the people and things in our lives ‘forever’ rotating through like a slideshow, what can we come to rely on that is real, that will provide some measure of robust comfort when the picture is always changing? How can mindful awareness frame the experience in curiosity, kindness, and remain intimately connected regardless of whether we like, dislike, or believe what we are seeing?
There’s a song that I love from high school called ‘Pictures of You’ by an 80’s band called The Cure. The lyrics start out:
I've been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they're real
I've been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures
Are all I can feel
I realize now that expectations I had of myself as a new mother, as a person with this current body, even of my daughter as they are now, are all rooted in past or future stories of what could have been, what should have been.
This moment, right here, right now can be so exquisite, unburdened by past blame or future worry. For me, The Cure for stress is to identify more with the picture frame, and not the changing picture. Easier said than done, right? It’s hard to believe this when there are constant messages and advertising of the perfect picture, the perfect body, the perfect life on Facebook, Instagram, the media and beyond.
Mindfulness practice trains us to notice when we are lost in a story that isn’t true, when emotions feel like weather systems that will last forever and are actually changing all the time, when sensations define who we are and don’t need to be taken so personally.
Learning to identify more with the picture frame, the frame of mindful loving awareness rather than the picture of changing circumstances takes time. If you are fairly new to mindfulness practice, you may uncover thought patterns and old habits you haven’t seen before. Things can feel worse before they feel better.
Know that you aren’t crazy or doing anything wrong. This is completely normal. In firefighting, the term backdraft is used to describe the sudden introduction of air into a fire that has depleted most of the available oxygen in a room or building. Similarly, when you bring attention to patterns of desire, aversion, and delusion, they can initially feel more intense.
This is when it’s helpful to practice with the support of others- a trusted teacher or therapists, wise, loving spiritual community. I’ve also found it useful to bring a spirit of creativity, adventure, and play to these practices. Like learning to cook a dish, play an instrument, grasp a new language, ride a bike, or train yourself in any unfamiliar skill, it can feel so cumbersome if approached with rigidity or expectations of immediate results. Yuck! Who wants to do that?
And, it takes a certain amount of gentle discipline, curiosity, kindness, patience, trust, determination, care, compassion, joy, beauty, resilience, and forgivingness to keep practicing, at least in my recipe book. Your healing journey may need similar or different ingredients. You won’t know till you try, keep showing up, adding a little more of this, taking out a little bit of that.
After 15 years of practice, I still identify with the picture, and sometimes forget about the picture frame. What’s changing is the capacity of this heart-mind to notice sooner, rather than later what’s needed to frame every experience in some aspect of love. It doesn’t matter how long it takes me. What matters most is my willingness to try. I’d like to share a poem that I think speaks to this "Cure for It All" by Julia Fehrenbacher.
This life isn’t what I expected. This practice isn’t what I expected. And it’s inspired such a radical honesty in me to try and see things as they are. Nothing more. Nothing less. Anything else just doesn’t make sense.