By Dana Gornall
I remember that night in frames, like clips shot in a film.
It was the night after Christmas, the tree still standing and decorated, opened presents shoved under the branches, pine needs scattered on the carpet threatening to pierce bare feet. We had extended family over that night. My son was only three and my daughter was still breastfeeding. We had collapsed into bed the only way parents of a toddler and an infant can do at the holidays, sleeping deeply.
At some point, in the middle of the night the house phone rang, because back then most of us still had house phones and cell phones were still a fairly new thing. He jumped up to answer it, as my infant daughter was tucked under my arm in our bed. I heard his muffled voice, but in my sleep induced, groggy state, couldn’t make out what he was saying.
His sister had a to be taken by ambulance with heart issues. Her seven year old daughter would be coming to our house tonight—the police were bringing her. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. My sister-in-law had Lupus, which can attack organs. Last year at this exact same time—Christmas—she had been hospitalized and her daughter had come to stay for a few days.
The next day we waited to hear how things were. It wasn’t good, my husband had said. This time it was much worse—she was in a medically induced coma. Her seven year old daughter had been the one to call the ambulance.
Frame after frame, I remember. Watching my niece and my son play together on the living room floor, Nickolodeon playing on the TV, my husband walking in from the hospital and gravely shaking his head. Where would she go? What would she do? We waited for family to say something. We waited as we planned a funeral, and as I called my job to say I would need a few more days off. I remember standing in the living room looking around at the house—the toys on the floor, the Pack-n-Play, the Christmas tree still standing patiently waited to be de-decorated. I remember knowing what we had to do next and feeling overwhelmed.
I didn’t choose this horrible situation to happen, just as my niece and my sister-in-law didn’t choose it. But here we were.
That’s how life happens at times. Sometimes things occur gradually, like water flowing over a rock, slowly inching it loose over time. And other times it’s a hurricane and we are left to just stand there and pick up the pieces little by little and re-build what we have.
This is what Pema Chödrön is addressing in her book Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World.
We have all had to deal with welcoming a situation in our lives we do not want to accept. This could be something simple such as an unexpected traffic jam on our way to work, causing us to be late. It could be the prospect of our company closing and being forced back into the job market and the fear of losing financial stability (and in some cases, losing our homes, or needing to move to a new location). It could be a death in the family, a broken marriage, or it could be losing faith in someone you once trusted dearly. No matter what it is, we experience unexpected and unwelcome events constantly in our lives.
We can’t change the fact that this will happen, over and over again. But what we can do is change how we react to it, and use the tools out there to cope with how we pick up the pieces again.
Our natural human habit is to hope continually for a life of nothing but happiness and pleasure. We’re always searching for a way not to feel any of the unpleasant stuff. But we can only embark wholeheartedly on a genuine spiritual path when we start getting the haunting sense that this dream will never come true.
Most of the time—no, probably every time—our first reaction to unexpected change is that this isn’t fair. Why is this happening to me? It isn’t happening to her or him. We have this vision of what life should be and as soon as that vision gets distorted or just plain shattered, we. are. pissed. How dare it not go the way it is supposed to go? How dare there be construction again on the road? How dare he want a divorce? Getting angry is natural. Staying angry doesn’t fix it or make us feel any better.
The alternative to this struggle is to train in holding the rawness of vulnerability in our heart. Through this practice we can eventually accustom our nervous system to relaxing with the truth, to relaxing with the impermanent, uncontrollable nature of things. We can slowly increase our ability to expand rather than contract, to let go rather than cling.
Chödrön goes on to explain what it means to truly step outside our comfort zones and how that stepping outside aids us in times when we are forced outside of it. Training ourselves to sit with uncomfortable thoughts, uncomfortable position or uncomfortable situations, prepares us for these moments as they occur. She gives an example of waiting in line at a grocery store. At first we may be irritated that we have to wait in line, but just sitting with that irritation, investigating it, allowing it and then letting it go is like calisthenics for the mind.
Once we begin to see emptiness as an experience to cultivate rather than avoid, we can take advantage of the many opportunities that arise in our lives to learn more about it. Those don’t have to be sudden shocks where the bottom falls out and we end up in a freefall. Sometimes we can connect to emptiness through less dramatic emotions and states of mind that we generally find unwelcome.
That night after Christmas, when our lives changed completely was many years ago.
We survived, and then we thrived, and then life turned upside down over and over again. Now here we are, my niece graduated from college, my son, attending community college, my daughter—just an infant at the time—in her senior year of high school. Life is once again shifting. What was once a house full of children and toys, is now growing more and more empty.
It’s uncomfortable. I don’t want things to change. It is a gradual shifting, like water flowing over a rock slowly inching it loose over time. But I have gained much more insight into discomfort over the years. So I am sitting with it, feeling it, letting it go.
Pema’s book, Welcoming the Unwelcome gives great insight into this. Chapter after chapter she connects the things we experience in our daily lives and guides us through feeling and accepting. This is not a book on Buddhism. This is a handbook for living in an uncomfortable, changing and brokenhearted world.
Photo: Shambhala Publications
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