Lean In

A month ago, I considered the uncertainty in my life in the light of Schrödinger’s Cat, the completely theoretical feline of physics fame. As often when I write, I found clarity in the process. I managed to leave many boxes alone, cat and questions in superposition until the time was right. I’d mentally shoved some boxes to the side, glancing occasionally to see that they were still there before looking away before my curiosity could get the better of me.

To some degree, that mental exercise worked. I left alone some issues that needed — or still need — only time. But what remained was this heart and mind tug when tripping over the boxes (some just don’t move aside so easily). Sure, I could send them back to their corner, pushing them out of my head at the same time, but there was still a flaw to my system.

Then this quote came across my Facebook page. It’s a bit from Pema Chodron, Buddhist monk and writer:

“The next time you lose heart and you can’t bear to experience what you are feeling, you might recall this instruction: change the way you see it and lean in. That’s basically the instruction that Dzigar Kongtrul gave me. And now I pass it on to you. Instead of blaming our discomfort on outer circumstances or on our own weakness, we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience, not rejecting it, not grasping it, not buying the stories that we relentlessly tell ourselves. This is priceless advice that addresses the true cause of suffering- yours, mine and that of all living beings.”
(Pema Chodron, Taking The Leap)

Change the way you see it, and lean in. I’ve worked on changing the way I see a situation. (see Spinning Stories — yes, I’m obviously working through some stuff) I’d yet to try moving toward the situation that is causing me emotional upset. Honestly, it seems counterintuitive.  After all, if I brush my hand across a hot pan, I’d hardly leave my hand there, experiencing the pain. By nature, we avoid pain. It keeps us safe to move away from what hurts.

But some hurts don’t fit in boxes, or they sit in them but remain omnipresent. Alive. Dead. Alive. Dead. It wasn’t always the final state that bothered me but the being in between, the superposition. I’d find myself preparing to grieve the dead cat one day while pondering the celebration if the creature lived. While I stopped trying to break in and force the universe to go a certain way, I certainly wasn’t waiting with equanimity.

Lean in. Change the way you see it, and lean in.

So that’s what I’ve been trying, while sitting there with those boxes. I’ve tried a bit of the Buddhist way of being present, which doesn’t just apply to eating, walking, meditating, and the other joys of life. It means leaning in to the discomfort and just letting it be. Uncertainty, sadness, anger, confusion, disappointment, or fear are all fine candidates for leaning in practice. It’s not about leaning in with gritted teeth and an anguished look. It’s about leaning in without a wrinkle to the brow or gritted teeth and held breath. It’s not easy. I don’t do it well. But when I do lean in, the relief is palpable.

The first discomfort I leaned into was a struggle with my older son. We’ve been having a rough time as he works on becoming more organized. I’m impatient, grumpy, and resentful about the slow development of this skill, which he counters with quiet stubbornness and inconsistency. I’m not so much at odds with him as I am with my own expectations and worries. He’s only 15, but I worry about how these habits will play out this school year and the ones five years down the road. I even worry about how he’ll hold a job or find a mate. Yes, I’m borrowing from the future. No, that doesn’t get either of us anywhere except for upset.

So one day, when I was again rankled with the disconnect between my expectations and reality, full of anger and post-rant, I tried it. I leaned in. I looked from the outside at the situation and felt every bit of anger and concern. I sat there, leaning in. And while leaning in, the emotions passed. Now, I wasn’t taunting them, as I had been when expressing my discontent with my son (read: yelling and otherwise not helping the situation). I wasn’t ignoring them either, pretending this very real problem didn’t exist. I acknowledged all of that in a matter of seconds, and nothing about that act changed the situation at all. But my mental and physical response to leaning in was profound — the calm it brought, priceless.

So I tried it again, this time in a time of sadness. I wanted to turn away from the sadness, preferring to look for away around or away rather than see it through. I can often stay with sadness, letting it wash over me and move on, but this one had a different quality. I wanted to run from it. But instead, I leaned in. I stayed present with the very uncomfortable sensation. It roared in my heart, filled my eyes, and drowned out everything else. But I stayed, leaning in and trying to watch the sadness rather than rip away from it or wallow within it. Unlike the calm I felt with my experience with my son, this time I felt only sadness. But it was a sadness unjudged and not fought. Thus respected, it worked its way through.

Now, I’ve let that cycle happen before with sadness, with similarly positive results, but I’d not thought of it in the light of leaning in. Happiness passes as well, although it’s much more tempting to tug at it and force it to stay. So I’ve tried that as well when a markedly good-feeling emotion comes my way. I’ve tried to objectively lean in, looking in from the outside and maintaining awareness that the feeling will pass. I can’t say I like that so much, perhaps because it raises my awareness of the temporal nature of a feeling I like. It’s been worth the exercise though.

Cats in boxes. Stories spun over. Leaning in. They are all slightly different ways of reminding oneself that point of view matters, and that a longer and slightly more distant point of view. And to some extent, they’ve all helped me retain a bit more equanimity and peace in the face of emotional and mental turmoil or just some reason in the walk through life.



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