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Asking for Help

16. April 2020

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy.

“Help.” said the horse.

This is the time to rely on your meditation practice.  If you have not started cultivating a practice, there is not better time than now.  If not now, when?  Those of you who meet with me regularly will know I start sounding like a broken record, here I go again.  Your meditation practice can keep you sane during these times.  I am always available if you have any questions about starting a practice or finding what resonates with you.  Do not hesitate to let me know if want assistance to find The Way, not your way 🙏🏻👼🕊

Things Keep Getting Scarier. He Can Help You Cope.

If the link above does not work, I am adding the text from the article about meditation teacher Jack Kornfeld from last Sunday’s New York Times here:

Things Keep Getting Scarier. He Can Help You Cope.

By David Marchese

In this turbulent moment, a lot of us — myself included — are feeling fear, anxiety and grief. And a lot of us, I suspect, could use some help managing those difficult emotions and thoughts. I had been wanting to talk to someone who could answer that question with practicality and steadying wisdom, so I got in touch with Jack Kornfield, whose work has offered that to me and a great many others over the years. A clinical psychologist and author whose books have sold over a million copies, Kornfield is one of America’s true mindfulness pioneers, a man who helped popularize the once-exotic practices he learned more than 50 years ago when he began training as a Buddhist monk. “Epidemics are a part of the cycle of life on this planet,” Kornfield said. “The choice is how we respond. With greed and hatred and fear and ignorance? Or with generosity, clarity, steadiness and love?”

People reading this might be scared of contracting Covid-19 themselves, or fear that someone they love might contract it. Is there something, even small, that you can share that can help us all feel a little steadier? 

What’s needed in a time like this, David, are ways to steady the heart, which is the essence of your question. The first step is acknowledgment and the willingness to be present. You could almost whisper to yourself, “Sadness, fear, anxiety, grief, longing,” as if to bow to that feeling and hold it with respect. That allows the feeling to open — maybe even intensify for a bit — but eventually to soften. The next step is to bring in a sense of compassion for all the fears and confusion and helplessness. These feelings are all part of the fight-flight-or-freeze instinct in the body and the mind. If I make space for the feelings and they have time to be felt, it’s as if my awareness gets bigger and I can hold all of this with greater ease and compassion and presence and steadiness.

But what you described sounds like something you would do alone before going to bed or something. What about those times during the day when, I don’t know, you’ve been reading scary things about coronavirus-death projection, and your kids are going stir-crazy from quarantining, and you feel that all your stress is about to bubble over? We don’t always have the luxury of dealing with anxiety in some period of quiet reflection. 

I love the line from the Japanese Zen poet Ryokan Taigu.1

1Ryokan Taigu, who lived from 1758 to 1831, is regarded as one of the great poets of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism.

He wrote: “Last year, a foolish monk. This year, no change.” So the first thing is to acknowledge that this is just our humanity. Your feelings are your organism trying to handle things. The second thing is what you teach kids: Take a pause. You don’t have to sit and do some formal meditation. In that moment when you’re about to snap, take a breath, turn away. Bring that quality of loving awareness, and name the feeling gently— upset, worried, frightened or whatever it might be — and then, almost as if you could put your hand on your heart, say: “Thank you for trying to protect me. I’m OK.”  That can take 10 seconds, and it allows us to reset our consciousness. All the good neuroscience on trauma and its release is based on this kind of caring attention.

Should we be trying to find some equilibrium between our feelings and other people’s? It can be hard when other people — parents or friends, say — aren’t taking the pandemic as seriously as we want them to. And on the flip side, it’s hard to know how to respond if someone you care about is more anxious than you are. You don’t want to diminish what they’re going through, but you also can’t feel something you’re not feeling. 

Let’s get real, baby. You have enough trouble managing your own damn feelings, and now you want to manage the feelings of others? The real answer is to acknowledge that you’ll have cycles where you’ll get lost in anxiety or fear — and by the time this article comes out, I think we’re going to be dealing more with grief than with fear. But what you can tend is yourself. You can breathe a bit and acknowledge what you’re feeling and what your judgment of others is: “I wish they weren’t so anxious” or “I wish they weren’t so blasé.” And you can feel all that with some kindness and say, “I’m just trying to protect myself and others the best I can, and they are doing the best they can.”

Very few people’s lives are going to be untouched in some way by death after all this is done. How are you counseling people in that regard? It all seems so unexpected and senseless. 

I’m not counseling people in any particular way. Some grieve by expressing it in wildly powerful ways, and some grieve more quietly. I’ve come to respect that grief knows its own way, and we have to honor that. But what I’m saying to you is, by the time this article comes out, there will be people we know who’ve died. There will be people we know in the hospital. We’ll be holding all of that in our hearts, and it will come in its own way as grief. So I’m counseling people on holding their humanity and emotions with compassion. There’ll be sadness and tears, all those feelings. And when I allow myself to quiet and feel them and say, “All right, show yourself to me,” then they do open. You’re not trying to fix them. You hold them, and gradually they display and settle, and you feel well-being or steadiness. That’s the first thing to say.

What’s the second? 

There’s lots to say. Some people need to grieve individually. Then some need to grieve together, whether it’s online or making a piece of art with others, writing something. There are so many ways to help people. Another way is to use the inner strength of our imagination. Everything human that we’ve created comes from that capacity. Every amazing building in New York where you are, David, was first pictured in somebody’s mind. And in the same way, we can allow ourselves to have an image for our grief. It can be the image of a weeping being or a cup overflowing. Or we can place our grief, in our minds, in the lap of Mother Mary or Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion.2

2Traditionally, in Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone aspiring to enlightenment whose compassion impels him or her to help others.

Or in the generations of scientists and physicians who have held us through epidemics in the past and say to ourselves: “We’ve been through this before. We know how to do this.” Just so you’re not carrying it yourself. There’s a collective of caring beings, both present and past, who are with you.

The feeling that we have so little control over how death could touch us in this instance — that’s what a lot of these current anxieties come down to, right? We’re worried about ourselves or the ones we love dying from Covid-19. 

You’re asking the question that goes to the hearts of the people who will be reading. Death is a great mystery. It’s wild that we have our personalities and bodies and full lives and families and then, poof, they’re gone. We look for a story and understanding in our lives, but first we’re faced with the mystery of death. What I know from  50 years of meditation3

3For the last 31 of those years, Kornfield has taught at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif, which he helped found. An estimated 40,000 people visit it each year.

and doing hospice work is that we are not just this body. You are made of spirit. And the spirit makes it so that even if people have died, we’re still profoundly connected to them in love. In that sense, they haven’t exactly died. They are in us, not only in our hearts but also somehow in our very being. Knowing this does not take the grief away, and it doesn’t take away the power of that grief to shake us to our roots, but it lets us know something bigger than all of that: Who I am is not just this body. We are consciousness.

Does it matter if I don’t believe that? I believe that when we die, we’re gone. Is there still comfort I can take in what you’re saying? 

 Doesn’t matter in the slightest. I was pushing the envelope so that those who were reading and were interested could explore it. You know, when I was a kid,4

4Kornfield and his three brothers grew up in a home with a biophysicist father whom he has described as being abusive to them and their mother.

if it was a clear night, I used to go outside and lie in the grass. I would imagine that I wasn’t looking up at the stars but that I was looking down into a vast sea of stars. It gave me this combination of awe and fear and wonder. What is our place in the universe? It is so vast. So when we talk about questions of death, we can bring all of our ideas to them. I’ve had my own very powerful experiences, but these aren’t things that I would ask someone to believe. You’re a human being on this earth for this time, and you have not just a body but a miraculous consciousness. There’s no good science about consciousness, really. It’s still a mystery. I want to add something entirely different, if I may.

Of course

In the Buddhist tradition, there are beings called bodhisattvas. A bodhisattva vows to alleviate suffering and bring blessings in every circumstance. They choose to live with dignity and courage and radiate compassion for all. The beautiful thing is that we can see bodhisattvas all around. We see them in the bravery of the health care workers or the unheralded ones who drive the trucks and stock the shelves of our grocery stores so we can all continue to eat. And now it’s time to add our part to this great dance. This is what we are here for. It’s time to make a vow, to sit quietly, rest your heart and ask, “What is my best intention, my most noble aspiration in this difficult time?” If you quiet yourself, your heart will answer. The answer could be simple: “I vow to be kind no matter what.” And when you find the answer in yourself, write it down and place it somewhere you’ll remember. Then when you feel lost or confused, take a breath and remember that vow. Because it’s time to become the lamp in the darkness, David. Where others hoard, you help. Where others deceive, you stand up for truth. Where others are uncaring, you become kind and respectful. This is what’s possible for us as human beings in this moment.

It’s a particularly tough time for health care workers and their families. How might we ease their thinking? 

So my daughter’s husband works in an urban fire department. Like many first responders, he does not have masks. About 80 percent of his work is emergency medical calls. And today I spent time talking with Vivek Murthy,5

5A former surgeon general of the United States who served during President Barack Obama’s second term.

who’s been advocating on behalf of hospitals and healthcare workers in order to get them the personal protective equipment and ventilators they need. He’s in a family of physicians, and they’re going in without protective equipment. So what could I say to all these people? My eyes tear up. I can say that in spite of the fear and the real possibility of dying or infecting others around you, this is what you trained for. This is the oath you took. We’ve tended one another through epidemics before, and now it is our time to do it again. And do not feel that you’re alone. Let your heart open, and feel the web of physicians and nurses and front-line responders around the world who are willingly placing themselves at the service of humanity. You are showing how we can care for one another in a crisis. You have a team of a million who are voluntarily linking hands and saying, “We know how to do this.” I could weep as I say that, because it’s not something glib. It’s true. I want to pause for a second, David.

Sure. 

How is this going for you?

What do you mean by that? 

Are you getting what you want and need?

Oh. Yeah, I think so. To be totally honest, and I don’t mean to be unprofessional, the challenge for me is not to let this devolve into my asking you a bunch of questions that relate only to me and how I’m feeling. 

You can do that. That could make it more interesting for people. I want this to be useful, David.

Well, if you’re willing to indulge me: I feel that I’m lucky enough not to have had to deal with any serious health issues, and I’m doing a good job of being a husband and a dad in this weird time. So I’m fine. I’m lucky, and I’m fine. But just underneath that feeling of fine is a real strain of fear and uncertainty. I don’t know what my question is. I guess I just want someone to tell me that having those conflicting feelings — and feeling guilt about being scared while I’m in such a relatively fortunate position — is all OK. 

How does it feel to say all that out loud to me? My guess is that it’s helpful, because you’re acknowledging: “I’m doing OK. Even though the virus is rampaging through New York City, I have a job, and I have my family sequestered for now.” So you can feel all those things. You can feel guilt. All of those are natural, and it’s not helpful to judge the feelings, because you don’t ask for them. They arise. But what you can do, as you just did, is acknowledge that these are all part of being human and that the field of mindfulness can hold them. Then you can say, “How do I tend this moment?” You’re tending it by doing your work, which is a source of understanding. You’re tending your family. And your acknowledgment of this is helpful. It can make other people feel like, “Oh, it’s OK to be a human being.”

How do we strike any sort of balance between accepting how little control we have as individuals in this situation and not letting that acceptance turn into resignation? 

That’s a beautiful question. It’s posed in a way that sets up a straw man: Either we accept things the way they are and don’t try to change anything, or we realize that it’s our job to change the whole world, which would be a heavy burden. The reality is the middle path. I go back to the serenity prayer.6

6Commonly attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘‘God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.’’

In a similar way, with this pandemic, we have to accept where we are, the uncertainty of it, and then say, “All right, I’m going to steady my own heart and see how I can contribute.” If you’re a scientist, you contribute in your lab. If you’re a poet, like those people singing from the balconies in Italy, send your poems out and buoy up the hearts of others. If you have the capacity, buy groceries for your neighbors. So it’s not about passivity. In Zen, they say there are only two things: You sit, and you sweep the garden.  So you quiet the mind, and once you’ve done that, you get up and tend the garden with the gifts you’ve been given.

When you mentioned the serenity prayer just now, it made me think of recovery programs and the idea of taking things one day at a time. The uncertainty about how long the pandemic and the social distancing and the quarantining will last is a big part of what’s so unsettling. It’s hard to imagine Month No. 3 of this, you know? 

Let me ask you a question.

  1. When you live in speculative thoughts — “How long is it going to last?” “Will I make it through three more days or three more months?” — how does that make you feel?

I know where this is going. 

Is that thinking helpful in some way?

Nope. 

All right. We’re just trying to be human and practical and wise in this interview, right? So you can either spend your time worrying, which you just noted doesn’t actually help, or you can say: “I don’t know how long it will be, but let me do the most magnificent work I can do. Let me hone my interviews. Let me be there for my wife and children. Let me live in this life fully.” That’s what one day at a time means. It’s important to know that you don’t have to believe all your thoughts. You can choose the ones that are helpful.

You once spent more than a year at a monastery in silence7

7This was as part of Kornfield’s training at a Burmese monastery of the renowned Theravada Buddhist monk Mahasi Sayadaw U Sobhana.

That was volitional, obviously, but can you share anything about how to adapt to disconnection and solitude? 

 I wouldn’t want to set any ideal, because temperaments are very different. Instead I would say, in the solitude or in the sequestering, let yourself find ways that nurture you. It may be listening to music or watching old movies or reading. And people will find that they might feel stir-crazy, but if they look closely, there will be moments that get more still. Moments of presence or contentment that come unbidden because we have been quiet. And if you can, pause before you distract yourself with a video and acknowledge, “I’m getting stir-crazy.” Take a breath, and hold that restlessness. Allow it to be held with some kindness, and it will start to settle down. Doing that will open you to something more mysterious. Which is that you’ve realized: “I can tolerate this. Maybe I can live a little easier.” This kind of attention is what neuroscientists call widening the window of tolerance.

Are you finding it more difficult to practice mindfulness these days? Although I guess you’re probably long past having that problem. 

Give me a break, David. I worry about dying. I’m almost 75 years old. I’ve had many blessings, and in a lot of ways I feel I’m ready to die, but I know I don’t want to leave my daughter, my grandchildren, my wife. But when the time comes, I will let go. So nobody’s past anything. We all are exactly where we are.