Hello out there!
I’ve been remiss since late June. I’ve had a lovely summer, including a visit to our daughter and son in law in Germany mid-summer, many days spent running trails in White Clay Creek State Park, one trip to the Jersey Shore, and many hours spent converting a storage room into a guest bedroom on our second floor. I’ve also done some teaching this summer, working with our new interns and a group of recently admitted students to the Wilmington University Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. It’s been a full agenda!
But now it’s time for “coming back.” I think that knowing how to go about “coming back” is a great skill, one that we can strengthen with our meditation practices. And I think that “coming back” can be looked at on grand and mundane levels. Let me give a very mundane example of “coming back.”
In late July Zina and I went to the beach. Actually, we went to the Jersey shore; anyone from this area will tell you that it’s the “Jersey shore,” as opposed to the “Delaware beaches.” In any case, Zina and I made it down on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to Ocean City, NJ. I dropped her off at the pavilion on 59th Street and drove off to find a place to park. If you’ve ever been in Ocean City on a beautiful weekend day you know the problem I ran into. I had to park nearly a mile away. So, being in reasonably good running shape, and having my running shoes on anyway, I proceeded to trot at a pretty good pace back to where I had left Zina. As I came down the final stretch of Central Avenue, and was no more than 50 yards from Zina, I crossed from the street to the sidewalk. The curb could not have been more than 3 inches high, but being a rather clumsy person my right big toe caught the side of the curb and down I went. But not down enough, because I awkwardly was able to briefly catch my fall by hyper-extending my left leg. This gave me one very flat footed step before I did hit the pavement, cutting up my right knee pretty severely (the first dip into the salt water was interesting!). That awkward step cost me, however. I felt something pop in my upper left leg, pretty near to the hip, in the back. It was pretty sore.
Being a male (i.e. not exercising good judgment on a regular basis), I went for a nice, long, slow run the next day on the trails. At first my left leg, upper and to the rear, hurt, but as I ran the endorphins kicked in and it felt great. This continued for the next few weeks until I realized it was time to shut things down for a while. It didn’t really hurt when I ran lightly, but sitting for lengthy periods was getting worse and worse (literally a “pain in the butt”). We had begun a new project in mid August, the conversion of our upstairs storage room into a bedroom, so I devoted my “running time” to working on the reconstruction. I’m happy to report that my leg is feeling much better. Two days ago I took a long walk on the trails with our son Phil and felt no discomfort at all.
In this case “coming back” required retreat, rest, and recreation. I had to fall back for a while, retreat to safety. This is so important but something that our egos can sometimes make very difficult. Retreat can feel like failure, but it’s not, at least in the big picture. If General Lee had retreated after the first or second day at Gettysburg, the south may have prevailed in the Civil War. Wiser men, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., knew the power of accepting powerlessness from time to time. They willingly retreated to a safe place. Retreat provides a haven for rest, allowing for relaxation of body and, at times, our minds and spirits. Rest is another underrated quality. So often we associate rest with indolence, laziness, unwillingness to exert effort. But without rest at night we can truly get crazy! And without periods of rest and relaxation we tax our resources to the point where our capacity for resilience evaporates and is impotent. With rest comes the opportunity for recreation, a chance to play (in one sense of the word), and a chance to become new again (in another sense of the word). Play is essential; I learned this working with grieving children over the years. When the feelings of grief overwhelm them I’ve seen countless children simply pick up a toy, alone or with a pal, and begin to play. Playing allows our minds to rest a spell, take a load off, and then come back to our concerns, whatever they may be. With play comes arousal of a new perspective, a different way of seeing things each time we return to the problems that were troubling our minds. We emerge from retreat, rest, and re-creation renewed in body, mind, and spirit.
So my little misadventure on the Jersey shore (sorry, Snooki wasn’t involved in any way!) led to a period of retreat, rest, and recreation that has allowed me to begin, slowly, coming back to my usual running practice. But how often do we have to practice “coming back” in the course of the day? How do we respond to the difficult times of a workday, or a even a vacation day? Pema Chodron has pointed out so poignantly that…
“we can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty and fear. So the central question is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day? When we doubt that we’re up to it, we can ask ourselves this question: “Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”” (from her book “The Places that Scare You”).
Our “coming back” has to be a letting go of our wish and, at times, our demands for how things should be. So often I have feared this letting go, thinking that my pain could be ignored, my suffering denied despite the obvious consequences. But I find my power in my powerlessness; when I let go of how I want things to be the pathway opens again. I can see the retreat, rest, and recreation that beckon me back to good health. The painful leg reminds me to let go and allow for a coming back to take place. The difficult exchange with a friend, loved one, co-worker, reminds me to let go of what I want (or believe I need), and consider retreat, taking time to rest, and allow re-creation of self for the coming back. And it’s in the coming back that I can thrive once again, older, a bit different, maybe wiser, but renewed and ready.
So go sit for a while. Let your mind settle on your breath; on the sounds that surround you; on your bodily sensations; on the thoughts and feelings that arise and careen like an insane ping pong ball trapped inside your head! Notice. Don’t judge. Mind wanders and judges; notice that. Keep coming back. To your breath, your body, your environment, your self. And see how little that self actually needs, how easily satisfied one can be with very little. I’ll close with a quote from Thoreau that captures this thought more gracefully than my words could ever hope to do:
“I am grateful for what I am & have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence. Well anything for variety. I am ready to try this for the next 1000 years, & exhaust it. How sweet to think of! My extremities well charred, and my intellectual part too, so that there is no danger of worm or rot for a long while. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it – for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”
– Henry David Thoreau; “Letters to a Spiritual Seeker”
PS Enjoy some Ikebana from Magdalena! Sorry that my iPhone photo does not do it justice.