Feb 27, 2008
Waking up in the midst of loss
When life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster, or look forward through it as an opening toward something new. Sunada tells her own story of how she woke up in the midst of a personal crisis.
This week, I closed a major chapter of my life. I watched as my beloved Bösendorfer grand piano, which I had just sold, was wrapped up and carted off to its new home. This piano had once represented my dreams. It was no ordinary grand piano. It was a top of the line, artist’s instrument. Beautiful to the eyes as well as the ears. But now there is an empty space in my living room where it once stood.
I loved playing piano — I started when I was 8 years old, and studied classical music through my adult years. And I had long dreamed of having a piano like this. When I bought it, I was working in high tech, working my way up the corporate ladder and making good money. I thought I had it all – successful career, happy marriage, and a serious sideline hobby playing Chopin and Beethoven in my spare time. When a business windfall brought me some unexpected cash, I jumped at the chance to buy my dream piano. Music had always been my passion, and a golden opportunity fell into my lap. And in a way, this piano stood for many strands of my life coming together – a nice home, financial security, living out my musical dreams.
As irony would have it, I barely ever got to play my dream piano. About the time I bought it, I was pounding on a computer keyboard by day and playing the piano by night, so those hands rarely got to rest. And with that, my whole perfect world came crashing down. Within a matter of weeks, both wrists grew so painfully swollen from severe tendonitis that I had to stop using my hands almost entirely. When the injury was at its worst, I couldn’t even hold up a book or a coffee mug. It was too much strain. Playing the piano was out of the question. Permanently, as it turned out. I was at least feeling grateful that I could keep working and still had an income. But then after the events of 9/11, my fledgling business consultancy pretty much dried up, too. So much for my perfect world.
There’s a saying that when one door in life closes, a new one opens. It’s taken 13 years to recover from my injury and unplanned career change. And even today I live with lasting physical repercussions in my wrists, not to mention less financial security. But my life veered in a completely different direction because of this turn of events. It was what woke me up — and to this day I’m really grateful that it happened. The way I’m living now — as an ordained Buddhist, meditation teacher, and life coach – bears little resemblance to what it was back then.
What’s deceiving about such a condensed story told in retrospect is that it all sounds so neat and tidy. It glosses over the bumps in the road, the false turns and dead ends, and the terror of feeling forced to step out into the unknown with no guarantees that anything will work out. Even as recently as a few months ago, I wondered if I should just throw in the towel and go back to my high tech career so I wouldn’t have to sit with all the uncertainty and money worries. The compulsion to retreat into the comfort and security of the old and familiar is unbelievably powerful!
What I’ve learned is that when life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster and a loss, or look forward through it as an opportunity and opening toward something new. Which view we take makes all the difference in the world. And the key ingredient in making the wiser choice is a willingness to sit mindfully with everything, no matter what. I remember telling my friends that I felt like I was a trapeze artist suspended in mid-air: I had just let go of the swing behind me and was stuck in that moment where I couldn’t even see the swing in front of me yet, let alone grab it. And I didn’t want to look down because I knew there was no safety net under me. At moments like that, the pull of our fears and aversions can be overwhelming. But something told me I had no real option but to keep looking ahead. I had to trust that the forward momentum of my trapeze leap would carry me to a safe landing.
When we sit mindfully in the midst of our own chaos and confusion, something different starts to happen. When we stop the reflexive reaction of our fear-based choices and instead allow the moment to unfold on its own, we shift in a new direction. We’re no longer ruled by our thoughts and habits from the past, but instead applying our open curiosity and creative energy toward building something new. One small step at a time, we start changing the trajectory of our lives.
As I said before, my life looks very different today. I’m now a mezzo soprano and singing with a jazz/pop a cappella group that’s just starting to perform publicly. I love singing – to me it’s a much more direct and joyful experience to have my own body be my musical instrument, rather than to manipulate a complex contraption of piano keys and hammers. I think singing jazz and pop music is much better suited to me than playing classical piano ever was. And I love teaching meditation and coaching people toward living happier lives. It’s so much more fulfilling to me than building software programs!
But you know what? I never would have gotten here if that rug hadn’t been pulled out from under me. The thought of leaving behind my “perfect world” wouldn’t have even occurred to me. And what a great lesson I learned from it.
I also see now that these opportunities for waking up don’t only come along in once-in-a-lifetime personal crises. They’re happening all the time. Every moment we live is an opportunity to stop, look, and start afresh. I was just so soundly asleep that I needed something big and dramatic to grab my attention!
My living room is now more spacious since I’ve rearranged the furniture, sans piano. The room actually feels more comfy, more inviting. My husband and I — and our friends too — seem to gravitate to it more than we used to. I’m not sure what new things will come into this space that’s opened up, but I’ll be mindfully watching for what it might be.