I was drawn to my first Buddhist mindfulness retreat during a time when my son, Narayan, was four, and I was on the verge of divorce. During a slow, icy drive through a winter snowstorm on the way to the retreat center, I had plenty of time to reflect on what most mattered to me. I didn’t want a breakup that would bury the love I still shared with my husband; I didn’t want us to turn into uncaring, even hostile, strangers. And I didn’t want a breakup that would deprive Narayan of feeling secure and loved. My deep prayer was that through all that was happening, I’d find a way to stay connected with my heart.
Over the next five days, through hours of silent meditation, I cycled many times through periods of clarity and attentiveness, followed by stretches when I was swamped in sleepiness, plagued by physical discomfort, or lost in a wandering mind. Early one evening I became inundated by thoughts about the upcoming months: Should my husband and I hire lawyers or a mediator to handle the process of divorce? When should we move to separate residences? And, most importantly, how should I be there for our son during this painful transition?
As each anxious thought surfaced, I wanted to really dig in and work everything out in my mind. Yet something in me knew I needed to stay with the unpleasant feelings in my body. A verse from Ryokan, an eighteenth-century Zen poet, came to mind: “To find the Buddhist law, drift east and west, come and go, entrusting yourself to the waves.” The “Buddhist law” refers to the truth of how things really are. We can’t understand the nature of reality until we let go of controlling our experience. There’s no way to see clearly what’s going on if on some level we’re attempting to ignore or bypass the stormy weather.
During the last few days of the retreat I tried to let go, over and over, but felt repeatedly stymied by my well-worn strategy for feeling better—figuring things out. Now Ryokan’s verse was rife with possibility: Perhaps I could entrust myself to the waves. Perhaps the only way to real peace was by opening to life just as it was. Otherwise, behind my efforts to manage things, I’d always sense a lurking threat, something right around the corner that was going to cause trouble.
My old habits didn’t give up easily, though. As soon as I’d contact some tightness in my chest, I’d flip right back into worrying about my son’s new preschool, carpooling, or about how to find a baby-sitter with more flexible hours. Then I’d become hypercritical, harshly judging myself for “wasting” my retreat time. Gradually, I recognized that my heart was clenched tight, afraid to let the intensity of life wash through me. I needed help “entrusting.”
Each afternoon, the teachers had been leading us in a lovingkindness meditation. I decided to try weaving this into my sitting. The classical form of the meditation consists of sending loving prayers to ourselves and widening circles of other beings. I began to offer kind wishes to myself: “May I be happy and at ease; may I be happy and at ease.” At first, repeating the words felt like a superficial mental exercise, but soon something shifted. My heart meant it: I cared about my own life, and becoming conscious of that caring softened some of the tightness around my heart.
Now I could more easily give myself to the waves of fear and sorrow, and simply notice the drifting thoughts and physical sensations—squeezing and soreness—that were coming and going. Whenever the worries that had been snagging me appeared, I sensed that they too were waves, tenacious ones that pressed uncomfortably on my chest. By not resisting, by letting the waves wash through me, I began to relax. Rather than fighting the stormy surges, I rested in an ocean of awareness that embraced all the moving waves. I’d arrived in a sanctuary that felt large enough to hold whatever was going on in my life.
After my retreat, I returned home with the intention of taking refuge in presence whenever I was irritated, anxious, and tight. I was alert when the first flare-up occurred, a week later. My ex-husband called to say he couldn’t take care of Narayan that evening, leaving me scrambling to find a baby-sitter. “I’m the breadwinner, and I can’t even count on him for this!” my mind sputtered. “Once again he’s not doing his share, once again he’s letting me down!”
But when I was done for the day, I took some time to pause and touch into the judgment and blame lingering in my body, and my righteous stance softened. I sat still as the blaming thoughts and swells of irritation came and went. Underneath the resentment was an anxious question: “How will I manage?” As I let the subterranean waves of anxiety move through me, I found a quiet inner space that had more breathing room—and more perspective.
Of course I couldn’t figure out how the future would play out. The only time I had was right now, and this moment was okay. From this space I could sense my ex-husband’s stress about finding a new place to live, working out our schedules, and, more deeply, adapting to a different future than he had imagined. This helped me feel more tolerant and kind. It also revealed the power of entrusting myself to the waves. My husband and I continue to be dear friends. With him and in countless instances with others, this gateway to presence has reawakened me to a space of loving that feels like home.
Adapted from Tara’s upcoming book, True Refuge – Finding Peace and Freedom in your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, Feb, 2013)