This spring I find myself caught in a mental loop, rethinking the same negative thoughts over and over, unable to take a step back and gain any sort of perspective for longer than a few brief moments. Coupled with this inability to see past the end of my own nose is a painful, dig-in-your-heels resistance to change, to things I have zero control over—even though my training and practice is so centred around this idea of letting go, and letting things run their course (And of course, the ever-present should: I should be better at this; I should be calmer; I should have learned this lesson by now; I should be able to let go and observe.). It goes on, always, until I’m able to exhaust myself to the point of feeling calm, at which point I fall asleep.
In my more clear moments, I seek inspiration and surround myself with some much-needed reminders of the practice—of the reality of how things are. Before I forget again, before I get lost in my mind again for days, I would like to share some thoughts with you. There’s a great quote that sums up the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence and loss more beautifully than I ever could:
“The recognition of the coming and going of things is a first step in training and practice.“—Dogen
Isn’t that beautiful? Everything comes. Everything goes. A variation of this quote, which I encountered a long time ago, reads something like this: When it comes, let it come. When it goes, do not cling. This is so elegantly simple. So much pain and suffering arise from clinging to the desire for things to be different than how they are.
That simple truth has been coming up in my life time and again over the years, but more so in the past month. It feels as though I’m being tested once again. As though there’s a lesson I’ve been missing, and the lesson is this: that I have no control. For this reason alone, this thought bears repeating: Pain and suffering arise out of clinging to the desire for things to be different. Do not cling.
Our circumstances are always changing. Sometimes it’s the end of a relationship or friendship, the loss of a job or the death of a loved one. Even the little things change—we go on vacation, but we must always return home. The ending is bittersweet. In certain cases change is anticipated, so we can prepare ourselves to a degree. Other times it arrives out of nowhere and it’s in these cases that we’re brought face to face with our resistance, our insecurities and our pain. In reality, however, we can never be adequately prepared for what it will feel like when the end of something comes. The trick is to practice removing ourselves from our minds in order to gain some perspective. Once we do that, we see just how much energy we misplace in ruminating on events and in wishing things were different.
In my case, I ruminate and obsess, playing events over and over in my head looking for a different interpretation or a way that I can change things (as if playing a scenario again in my mind one more time will solve the problem!). As if this isn’t enough, when I’m able to gain perspective, I sometimes reject it. I’ll reach a moment of clarity, understand that my way of thinking is causing me pain, and reflect on alternatives. I know, for example, that a few minutes of deep breathing would do much to reset my brain and provide balance. I know that doing even five rounds of sun salutations will open my heart and clear my head, as would reading a few passages from the Yoga Sutras or a Buddhist text. But I don’t want to do any of those things. I let myself be a slave to my mind, and the mind tells me that it’s more constructive to just keep thinking, hoping to find a way out of my problem or my mood.
This is, of course, only an illusion. This is madness. There is nothing to be gained from thinking about the same thing, over and over and over again. The situation will not change. Rather, what I need to do is be still, solid and get out of my head.
“Stay at the centre and let all things take their course.“—Lao Tzu
Let’s imagine a river and a rock in the centre of that river. The river flows always on and on. If we sit on the riverbank and watch the flow, we see that it’s constant. It doesn’t matter if the rock in the river wishes to stop the flow of the water. The rock can wish all it wants; the water will always flow. But if the rock can look deeply, it will see that it too is a part of nature, as is the river. It’s in the rock’s nature to sit still. It’s in the river’s nature to flow downstream. The rock cannot change the nature of the river, and it cannot change the nature of itself. It can simply be, and allow the river to be, just as they both are. The rock cannot resist the flow of the water. It must let it run its course. So much energy can be saved if the rock would stop resisting and just let itself be.
So it is in our own lives. Whether or not we choose to fight loss or change when it comes, it will still come. Our resistance, which is always a mental one, will do nothing to change any event, except serve to make us miserable. The only choice we truly have is what we do with our thoughts—whether we let them control us or whether we smile at them and acknowledge that they too are always changing and impermanent. In Buddhism, we say that we can create a heaven or a hell simply with our thoughts. We choose to make the present moment painful or pleasant by what we choose to think.
In the case of obsessive thoughts, the more we ruminate and obsess, the more we feed the hungry mind (and the mind is always hungry for more). Knowing this, however, we can use it to our advantage. The mind likes to think—so let us choose to give it something different to think about. We could, for example make a conscious effort to change, despite our stubbornness and resistance. And it doesn’t have to be a big deal or feel significant. It can be as simple as reading a favourite book, going for a walk, writing our thoughts down, calling a friend and talking about something other than our broken-record thoughts or getting lost in an activity such as cooking, running, yoga, playing with a pet, making art or listening to music.
My best friend once shared a strategy that worked for her at a time when she was worrying excessively. She set aside time every day, just to worry. She scheduled a block of time into her calendar and whenever worrisome thoughts would creep into her head throughout the day, she would write them down and say, “This is for later.” You can guess what happened: When it came time for her scheduled “worry session,” she found she had better things to do, and realized how ridiculous the whole concept actually was. It worked to get her out of her own head, to keep her mind busy and it tricked her mind into thinking it would get what it wanted later on. In the meantime, she became the stillness in the eye of the storm. Things happened, but she didn’t worry. She set them aside for later—and that “later” never came.
We cannot resist the flow of events. We must simply let them run their course, sometimes observing from the centre of the hurricane we find ourselves in. It isn’t simple, and we may need different coping strategies, but once we discover something that works for us, we can employ it to our advantage and get out of our own heads long enough to breathe. In our most painful and trying moments, the way we choose to react, or not react, can be our saving grace.