Taking Heart in Changing Times
At about three o’clock yesterday morning, I woke up suddenly from a panicky dream. I was on the stage of a massive lecture halls, the kind with long rows of tiered stadium seating. It was the first day of my position as a Teaching Assistant and I huddled anxiously at the podium. I had forgotten that it was the first day of class, and had not prepared anything. To my horror, the students began to trickle in, one by one, and I looked at the clock, wondering how I could possibly kill the next 50 minutes.
When I woke up, grateful to find myself safe in my bed, I felt curious about what spurred the dream. I am usually very adaptive in new situations, but (as I mentioned in my last blog post, My whirlwind month) I am in a massive transition right now. I have left my job, my community and my home, and the stress of beginning an ambitious graduate program at a big research institution is starting to set in. My life has changed dramatically and it is completely disorienting and that is a hard feeling to be with.
And really, is that not our world right now? Things are changing, and rapidly. We are more connected then ever been, but every year brings a new iPhone, a new operating system to learn, a new watch and a further creeping infringement of technology into our lives. We are living through the sixth mass extinction and our climate is changing at a rate never experienced by humans before. It is easy to feel destabilized and confused and overwhelmed.
A lot of things are changing right now, and even a little bit of change can be absolutely terrifying. And for good reason: Our brains were designed to perceive any change in our environment as a potential threat to our survival. For our ancestors, who lived much closer to eminent dangers such as big predators or starvation, this adaptation was nothing short of vital. But, luckily, for most people, most of the time, our lives are not actually threatened.
Nevertheless, that feeling of something being threatened is very real, and can create all kinds of maladies in the world. It seems to me like the Trump campaign is really just a nation-wide reaction to change.
Even for those not involved in that train wreck, we still have developed a whole suite of clever ways over, around, away from or in defiance of change. We cling to the past, we distract ourselves, we overeat and overwork, medicate ourselves and spend hours on phones and computers and TVs. We shop like crazy and overschedule our lives and, in order to avoid the biggest reminder of change, which is death, we worship youth, banish our elders to care facilities and continue to invest in multi-billion dollar medical system that keeps people alive longer and longer, just so we can put off having to say goodbye.When it comes to change, we want to go any way but through it.
But feeling hard things is really the only way through this mess. Feeling the heartbreak, the grief, the confusion, the terror, feeling it all, with an open heart. It is an act of courage, one that brings insight and blessings.
That is where I have found myself lately, literally sitting in my room, snuggled into a red framed wooden chair, and being with the hardship of my transition. Sitting with the grief of leaving my home, the sadness of missing people I love, the confusion of city streets and buildings whose geography I do not understand.
I think that is what the world is asking of all of us right now: To be with the rage of injustice at another black body lost in the streets to violence, the grief of species being lost to disappearing habitats and the terror of not knowing what the world will look like for future generations. See how rage illuminates our sense of morality, how grief points to what we love, and how terror shows us what we need to work for. As fully as possible, with the hardship and the joy.
And then, from that place of groundedness, from that place of deep connection to our own truths, with greater clarity and insight, we can leap into action.
I think about it like this: I once heard a story about Zen monks who would spend hours studying one piece of grass. They would come to perfectly know it’s curves and movements, how the strations perfectly followed the angle of the blade, how its green faded to brown at the bottom or where it was tattered at the top. Then, after hours of still study, after coming to know that blade of grass so fully, they would, with only a few efficient, well planned flicks of their wrist, paint the blade of grass, cutting right to the heart of it’s essence.
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