I’ve been counting the days to August 1. Welcoming. Anticipating. Preparing. Opening.
This will be a month like no other. A month of several massive life shifts that have been in the planning stages and on the wish-list for years. Decades, even.
Change is good. I generally see change as more exhilarating than stress-inducing, but it still comes with challenges, even if they’re welcome challenges. We humans seek stability; we practically worship homeostasis. But that trips us up. Everything in life is impermanent, as the Buddha taught, including life itself. We are always adjusting to change, even when we aren’t aware of it.
One of my favorite analogies is the cup of tea. Before we make the tea, we’re thinking, “Yes, a cup of tea. That would be a good thing right now.” We choose the tea, boil the water, watch the leaves steep. And then we drink. “Ah, nice tea,” we think. And soon, sip by sip, we empty the cup.
The tea is gone.
But how many of us grieve the loss of the tea?
We don’t do that, of course. Tea finished, we go on with whatever else we’re doing. Or maybe we make another cup of tea. Either way, we gracefully flow with the stages of planning, preparing, enjoying, and finishing the tea. But the finishing is essentially a losing, or a not-having. And we’re all good with that. It’s just tea, after all. There’s more where that came from.
Everything in life is like the tea. I don’t mean to trivialize important relationships, beloved ones, careers, homes, health. Many of the changes and losses we experience are worlds more consequential than a cup of tea. But the universal truths that empty the cup will eventually have their way with all things and all beings.
So, when we practice mindfulness and we strive to live intentionally, we’re learning to skillfully and gracefully navigate this flow of life: the planning, preparing, filling, enjoying, emptying.
That’s what August is all about for me. I’ll say more on the particulars in coming days, but for today I want to lay out the top three skills for staying mindful when life is challenging. It’s about diving IN. Or, since there are two Ns in this acronym, I’ll call it INN. It’s my shorthand for the important coping skills that will help you navigate whatever life hands you.
Staying Mindful when Life is Challenging.
Practice being INN
Inhabiting your body. Your formal mindfulness meditation practice will make this easier to do during challenging moments. That’s why we practice: to develop the skills that we’ll apply in daily life. I think of it like coming home: coming back into the now. If this is challenging – and let’s all agree it’s never an easy or automatic skill, which is why we call it a practice – seek out some guided meditations or a teacher to help you develop this skill. An app like the Insight Timer is helpful. Or you might appreciate recovery-oriented teachings and guided meditations like the ones on the Refuge Recovery podcast. Whatever your practice, you’ll be grateful for this skill when life is challenging. Our minds will send us whirling into the past or the future or the what-ifs or the what-did-you-mean-by-thats. That’s when we need to come home. Drop into the body and observe what’s happening. Greet each experience with gentle curiosity. Hello, tension; I feel you in my belly; you’re a tightness in my jaw. Or: This is anxiety. I can feel it in my breath. I know it by the butterflies in my belly or the wrinkling in my brow. Don’t judge or chastise. Just observe. And while you observe, can you soften the brow, relax the belly, deepen the breath?
Non-clinging. So much of our suffering comes from our resistance to reality. When we cling to what we love, it’s not the same as appreciation. You can enjoy that perfect blend of hibiscus and green tea while also knowing that cup will soon be empty. Maybe you even know you’ll never find that blend again: it was a one-time acquisition. It’s the fleeting and impermanent nature of everything that makes it all the more precious. Of course, non-clinging is more challenging when we’re dealing with the loss or change of something much more meaningful than tea. But the principle still applies. When life is challenging or stressful, take a mindful moment to ask if you’re holding too tightly to the things you wish were happening, or the things you appreciate. Again, without judging or chastising yourself, simply be aware: Ah, there I go. I’m grasping at the way things used to be, or the way I wish they would be. You can observe and accept your emotional responses without letting them pick you up and run away with you. Just name your experience. It’s okay. Like everything else in life, this experience is temporary.
Non-aversion. This is the flip-side of clinging to what we want. When life gets difficult, it’s natural to meet it with resistance or resentment. The Buddha taught us that our suffering comes from our responses to life’s events rather than from those events themselves. We relieve our suffering by greeting our difficulties with compassion, by letting them be what they will be. The Buddha doesn’t hold a monopoly on this wisdom: think of phrases from other traditions, like “Let go and let God,” or “Insha Allah” (literally: “If God wills it.”) In my recovery community, we all navigated profound grief together when a leader of our weekly meditation groups very suddenly died. He was a young man, a father, healthy, accomplished, working on a master’s degree. Together, we could offer each other reassurance and acceptance. This is grief. Of course it’s painful. Of course this feels unfair.
If your personal or family history involves self-medicating out of these difficult feelings, this is a new and life-saving skill to develop. I remember when a family member had recently died and relatives sank into their booze and pot and other escapes, all trying to numb their feelings. Since it was all I’d ever known, I responded the same way, until I heard myself saying, “Of course this is hard. Losing someone is painful. You will feel pain and grief and loss. That is normal.” It was a brief glimmer of insight that I wouldn’t truly embrace for many years to come, but I’ll never forget that even in my fog of dysfunction and unskillful coping, I knew there was a wiser and more skillful way of managing.
I’ll be blogging my way through this month of August and all the changes, the goodbyes, the steep learning curves, the shift in my personal and professional identity. Just today, I found myself on the receiving end of some pointed criticism from a colleague. It was a very difficult conversation – one that could have left emotional scars on either of us or on our relationship. The non-mindful version of me immediately put up my defenses. The mindful version of me remembered to drop INN. Hello, defensiveness; you feel like a knot in my gut. And there you are, snarkiness; you’re formulating your come-back before you hear what she has to say. All normal. All natural. All okay. But!
I was able to sit with the discomfort, the sting of fielding criticism, the harshness of feeling misrepresented or misunderstood. And in the end, I was able to simply watch those feelings without acting on them. I had compassion for what I was experiencing. And I had compassion for what my colleague was saying. I thought about how hard it is to confront someone with a complaint like that, how risky it feels when you don’t know how the other person will respond. And before I knew it, we had come out of it unscathed. We had a better understanding of each other, our intentions, our sensitivities.
Be mindful. Inhabit your body. Practice non-clinging and non-aversion. And drink some nice tea. This will all be better soon.