2023 has started with a bang! There seems to be a frenetic, urgent speed at which this new year has begun. Perhaps it is just me, but I am hearing stories from so many people of the complex vortex of activity in which they are finding themselves. It has led me to ask these questions: What do we so urgently need to accomplish? And if we are on the treadmill, where are the spaces where we can rest and rebalance?
Of course, the obvious answer to the second question relates to where we can find the most comfort and peace, the places and things that can help us settle our nervous system. That might be walking in nature, spending time with friends, creating art, or cuddling up with a good book or pet. But what is less obvious, and perhaps more challenging, is how we can relax into our stress and the "urgency" of all things. How can we be present with the discomfort of the treadmill, without pushing away what is difficult or getting pushed around by it? Since we cannot stop the waves of change, how can we learn to surf, as was suggested by Swami Satchidananda.
I experienced some semi-surfing moments recently that provided me with insight about the attitude that I can bring when I become overwhelmed or stuck. My husband decided that, after 7 years of living in Colorado, it was time to learn how to snow ski. We both felt significant anxiety about jumping into these unchartered waters. But we took it on. We found snow pants and goggles, figured out where to get beginner's lessons, drove two-hours to the ski range, rented our boots, skis and helmets and met with our ski instructor who kindly and compassionately tended to our beginners' limitations.
After learning how to put on our skis and trying out the basics of gliding and stopping, our instructor took us to a mini-hill that had a conveyer belt called the "magic carpet" that would transport us to the top of the hill. Just stepping onto the magic carpet with my skis was too much of a leap for me at first. My skis entered the belt, my balance of weight shifted backward instead of forward and I tipped over to my left and collapsed on the moving belt. To my dismay, no matter what I did, I couldn't pick myself up. There was nothing stored in my muscle memory that could help me out of my bind. There I was, helpless, with people in front of and behind me.
As my situation became uncomfortably clear, I surprised myself with my reaction. I let out the deepest, longest, most guttural laugh that I had heard come out of my mouth in a long time. It wasn't the laugh of anxiety or frustration. It was the laugh of surrender and acceptance and of simply recognizing the absurdity of the moment.
Of course, the instructor knew what to do. He told the conveyer belt operator to halt it and he handed me a ski pole to pull myself up. It still took a while but I got back on my ski feet. And that was the last time I fell. While the speed of the hill frightened me, I learned to surrender to that as well, and to stay grounded and focused with my weight properly balanced. I eventually found my groove. While it was an exhausting and overwhelming day, I felt victorious for having surrendered to the waves and learned to surf.
I now look back at that experience with appreciation and I see so many implications for life. There are many times during my busy, frenetic workdays that I find myself similarly stuck and immobilized. I can see the absurdity of all of the meetings and tasks and proposals and presentations, wondering how this will ultimately advance community health and well-being, which is the directive of my work. I have no choice but to surrender into the tasks in front of me, to put my skills to the highest possible use and to continue pressing forward. While I know I must surrender into the waves, I can do so by choosing the perspective that I take.
I love this story that Tara Brach tells in some of her podcasts. There was once a meditation teacher who opened a class by drawing a V on a white sheet of paper. He asked the students who were present what he had drawn. Most responded that it was a bird. "No," he told them. "It's the sky with a bird flying through it."
How instructive this is. As Tara explains, when we're feeling stressed out or stuck, our attention narrows and we perceive objects in the foreground -- the bird, a thought, a strong feeling of resistance. In these moments, we don't perceive the sky -- the background of our experience, our open awareness. But with our mindfulness practice, we can intentionally incline our mind toward a more open attention that includes the absurdity, the difficulty, but also the sunshine and the breeze and the sound of children playing in the distance. It all belongs to the present moment. We don't have to get caught up in our narrow perspective, our reactivity or our judgement. We can access so much more spaciousness when we stay open to our full experience.
So if 2023 continues to expect an absurd amount of activity from you, consider how and where you might widen your perspective, surrender gracefully and practice surfing. You may find that you can preserve precious energy when you don't try to battle the waves and make enemies with the absurdity. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't question or challenge unfair or unnecessary expectations or protect your boundaries at all costs. And the safest response may not be to laugh at your predicament. But by meeting the moment with mindful awareness and kindness, the wisdom that comes from seeing more clearly becomes possible. No need to get dragged into the waves. Instead, with mindfulness, we can learn to surf or ski or simply stay open to the vast and spacious sky.