The Darkest Day

IMG_0144Today is the winter solstice. This means that the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest period of daylight today (nine hours, 4 minutes, and 23 seconds where I live), with the sun reaching its lowest altitude of the year. Starting tomorrow, our days become longer, with what often seems like imperceptible increases in our daily allotment of natural light. We gain three seconds of daylight tomorrow. I’ll take it.

Winter is the rebound season, cold in these northern climes but offering more light with every earlier sunrise and later sunset. Therefore, the start of winter should bring hope. Honestly, I find that hope hard to find. I struggle with the holiday season, finding the period from Halloween through New Year’s Day to be filled with reminders of the rifts in my family of origin and family of choice. Divorce times two resonates loudest during these last months of fall and first days of winter, as I juggle those families, anticipating their absences to the point of missing the time I have in their presence if I don’t watch myself.  Healing continues, but I’ve still not adjusted to having my children away for part of each holiday.

Holidays are hard on my younger son, whose autistic way of being in the world makes breaks in routine akin to tossing him overboard in a leaky dinghy. Just when I’m wrung out from a semester of teaching my own and the children of others, when I’m ready to curl up with a good book and a beverage appropriate to the time of day, he’s losing his moorings. Between the surprises, gatherings, and laxity of the holiday season, he’s forever struggling to find the safety of a schedule. I’d like to say I do my best to make that schedule, but I can’t find my own rhythm during this time, and, frankly, I enjoy the directionless days this time of year offers. I provide some support, of course, charting individual days as they come, discussing what social events he feels he can manage while seeking a bit of form to our general formlessness. I could be more helpful, but the darkness of these days sucks me under.

The hope of the solstice takes some seeking out. This time of year, from now until the warmth of the sun brings us to spring, are hard for me. It’s easy to pull into an existential darkness that comes more swiftly the older I grow. It’s somewhere between an anxiety and depression, helped by exercise, light therapy, and just the right balance of social contact and solitude. (Some days it’s hard to know which I crave more, such is the indecisiveness that lurks with my winter darkness.)

It’s heavy, the blanket of winter. While my residual sadness about family divisions fuels the intermittent funk of late October through Christmas, the pull toward introspection draws stronger during these long nights of deep winter. I don’t know how much is influenced by the increased darkness of late fall, but it seems the lack of light outside encourages much scouting about into my interior. The older I become, the more willing I am to dig around in there, but come winter, my ability to look with equanimity decreases. It’s all too easy to see only the shadows, the failings, the humanness that without the light seems full of flaws.

I see the hurts I’ve inflicted on others, the good I’ve failed to do, all while hearing the roar of the endless motion I maintain to keep away from the silence which makes these wrongs scream their loudest. I keep moving, busy even when there is no busy to really be had, avoiding even a moment of stillness for fear that the sadness that descends with I think too much will just be too much. It’s a restless feeling, that undercurrent, rarely affecting my day-to-day duties but undoubtedly coloring my encounters with loved ones and strangers.

Ironically, perhaps, peace and hope can only be found in those silences. That’s the hope of the solstice. I spent much of this last semester feeling bombarded with busyness. What quiet I had I squandered with online Scrabble, Facebook, tasks that didn’t need doing, at least at that time, and other purposeless pursuits. I’ve rarely ever just been doing one thing, which is undoubtedly part of the problem. I model multitasking and the poor outcomes it produces. Mindfulness? Not even when I brush my teeth.

In an attempt to escape my daily patter, I scoured my bookshelves for some light fiction. Not wanting to reread, given the phenomenal number of unread books around here, I reached into my closet to a shelf holding marginal fiction that I might someday be desperate enough to read. (Yes, my shelving habits are that specific.) And thus Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo, came to bed with me several weeks back. This is not an amazing read. It is an easy read, however, about a man who takes a cross-country trip with a monk and the changes in that man as he makes that journey. He’s flawed, humans always are, and initially resistant to change. As he journeys, he finds awareness of that something is missing and discovers that stillness — meditation and mindfulness — fill what he did not previously know was empty.

Predictable? Yes. But it reminded me that I’d once tried to reach a more mindful way of being. Some years back, when I was more actively searching for meaning and solace, I reached toward a number of authors on meditation and Buddhist thought, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, and others. After a scene where Otto, the ordinary man, attempts to meditate with Rinpoche, his traveling monk companion, I returned to my closet. This time, I reached for Pema Chödrön ‘s When Things Fall Apart, a book I’d read years back during my separation. This collection of talks explores, from a Buddhist perspective, how we tend to miss happiness in our rush to escape pain and suffering. Chödrön advocates staying in those fearful places rather than backing away, learning from them while being compassionate to one’s self. Of course, she advocates meditation as a tool to this end.

And so I started, in the darkness of my quietest time of day, that point just before sleep. I read some of Otto’s path and a chapter of When Things Fall Apart.  Or I reread the previous chapter, as Chödrön’s words sometimes need more time to seep in to my distracted mind. And then one night I tried what I’d not really tried for years: meditation. I’m embarrassed to say how unwilling I was to try again what I’ve often felt I’ve failed so miserably in the past. Yes, I know one doesn’t fail meditation, but I’m harder on no one than myself, and I’d left the practice I’d barely begun because I felt I’d failed at it. Starting again, watching my mind wander after a single breath, the greatest challenge has been not giving up at the first hint of perceived failure. It’s hard. It’s a noisy place, up there in my head, filled with ideas, judgements, plans, worries, desires, joys, passions, fears, anger, disappointment, and a good deal of random noise. The silent seconds (nanoseconds?) where it all silences are rare at this point, but I’m hopeful that they will gradually lengthen and become more frequent.

So I’ve started to use the darkness of winter to find some hope. I will sit in its silence and listen to my breath, letting thoughts go and finding what it is just to be. I’ll read from what feeds me and seek out a bit more mindfulness in my day, decreasing the chatter I’ve been using to push away my darkness within. Perhaps there I’ll find the light promised by the solstice.

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.