Come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of learning,
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, come yet again.
As 2014 drew to a close, practice felt rich and solid. I was sitting daily, clarity seemed to be deepening, I was less reactive, more in tune with my emotions as they arose, calmer, and just generally happier with life, which itself seemed even-keeled after a rough stretch. Now in my ninth year of meditation practice, I felt like I was finally enjoying some of the fruits of my patient (if sometimes uncertain) practice over the years. Even on our vacation, which rounded out the end of the year, I would rise with the sun, meditate for an hour, paint for a while, then head into the day with a feeling of joy. Oh beware these moments of complacency!
The new year arrived like a battering ram, bringing with it one heartbreak and minor disaster after another, unraveling my practice completely and making me doubt everything I’d learned in my years of dharma study. A beloved child in our community, 15 years old and one of step-daughter’s best friends, took his life on New Year’s Eve after a night of drinking. No words can wrap themselves round the emotions of this event for us all – and for my husband, triggering memories of the loss of his own son. My brother, in his final round of chemotherapy for leukemia, was suddenly not doing well, after such a promising start to his treatment. A sewer pipe under our house cracked requiring us to completely tear out several rooms in the center of the house to have it fixed – mundane, but mind-numbingly difficult to have your home filled with strangers and dust and chaos 12 hours a day for 2 weeks during an already stressful time (though so grateful for their quick work). And then, as the hellish month looked to be winding down, things suddenly plummeted off a cliff with a situation I cannot write about on the internet – darker, more dangerous, explosive, and unresolved.
While the events of the beginning of the month sent me into intense metta and tonglen practice, deeply emotional as we grieved with the family and community for the child lost (and for other friends going through difficult times as well), by mid-month my practice just disintegrated. Why, when I needed it most, did I run from practice? Maybe it was the fear of just facing the emotions that waited for me on the cushion. Maybe a feeling of hopelessness about the usefulness of a practice that couldn’t prevent life from suddenly turning completely on its head, from the sweetest times to the darkest. I was forgetting the First Noble Truth – there is suffering. There just is. I was also battling internally with the concept of karma. “What had I done? What had these people done, for such things to be happening?” I know that is a misinterpretation of karma – blaming the victim – but I couldn’t help but wonder how the pattern fit together. I searched madly for cause and effect – but no answers came.
I was looking for answers with my mind. As we do so often when tragedy strikes. We beg the universe for explanations, logic, when it is rarely there. And I found myself caught in obsessive, scattered thinking, and unable to get myself to the cushion at all. And then the simplest thing brought me back. My boss asked me last minute to lead a short meditation for the teachers last week at our faculty meeting. With no preparation time, I simply went on instinct, and found myself suddenly able to do for my colleagues what I had not allowed myself to do for my own self. I came back.
I sat again when I got home. I felt numb. But I sat when I woke up. And the next day. On Sunday (my birthday – a good time to start again, right?) I sat with a renewed sense of purpose as Sharon Salzberg’s 28-Day meditation Challenge began. Yes, I remembered… just come back. No matter how many times you fall away – or run away – just come back. There are no answers on the cushion – there never have been. But the practice itself is the answer. It is the container for our suffering, and practice itself is the way out.