Anahata Rising – Chapter Three:  Training in Equanimity and the In-Between State

altar

Before My Time

Cold feet, don’t fail me now
So much left to do
If I should run ten thousand miles home
Would you be there?
Just a taste of things to come
I still smile
But I don’t wanna die alone
I don’t wanna die alone
Way before my time
Keep calm and carry on
No worse for the wear
I don’t wanna die alone
I don’t wanna die alone
Way before my time
Is it any wonder
All this empty air
I’m drowning in the laughter
Way before my time has come

Namaste everyone,

Peace and light be with you all.

Tonight, I felt drawn to the above lyrics from one of my most favorite melodies called Before My Time by J. Ralph featuring Scarlett Johanssen and Joshua Bell. You can hear this song by clicking on the link below:

I have spent the last couple of days trying to avoid putting my pen to paper to write this post.  That is because I have been, for the most part, struggling with a host of emotions after finishing our most recent YTT training session this past weekend at Bliss YogaSpa. In brief, it was filled with all manner of emotional ebbs and flows, periods of light and dark, laughter and tears, self-doubt and confidence (yes, the former reared its ugly head again), high energy and extreme fatigue.

Speaking only for myself, in the words of the beloved Buddhist nun and scholar, Pema Chödrön, this weekend for me has awakened me to what it truly means to sit in a state of “groundlessness” (see below) and to actually begin doing (or rather, simply being) the deep work of meeting this present moment when the moment under scrutiny feels as though it has literally fallen out from under oneself.

Over and over again this weekend, I felt the floor fall away from me.  Yet, for some reason, each time when I felt this unsettling emotion of groundlessness, the word “equanimity” kept penetrating my mind – in mindful meditation with our comedic Kat, in asana practice with our mighty Lindsey, and in yoga nidra with our sweet Sheena.

What is equanimity?

From the Buddhist perspective, Pema describes equanimity thusly in her illuminating work The Places That Scare You (p. 70):

Training in equanimity is learning to open the door to all, welcoming all beings, inviting life to come visit. Of course, as certain guests arrive, we’ll feel fear and aversion.  We allow ourselves to open the door just a crack if that’s all that we can presently do, and we allow ourselves to shut the door when necessary. Cultivating equanimity is a work in progress.  We aspire to spend our lives training in the loving-kindness and courage that it takes to receive whatever appears – sickness, health, poverty, wealth, sorrow, and joy. We welcome and get to know them all.

And still further Chödrön says this:

Equanimity is bigger than our usual limited perspective. That we hope to get what we want and fear losing what we have – this describes our habitual predicament. The Buddhist teachings identify eight variations on this tendency to hope and fear: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and disgrace. As long as we’re caught in one of these extremes, the potential for the other is always there.  They just chase each other around. No lasting happiness comes from being caught in this cycle of attraction and aversion.  We can never get life to work out so that we eliminate everything we fear and end up with all the goodies.  Therefore the warrior-bodhisattva cultivates equanimity, the vast mind that doesn’t narrow reality into for and against, liking and disliking.

The state of groundlessness

What Pema has to say about the principle and practice of equanimity touches directly on what she also says about an emotional state of being she describes as “groundlessness”:  

We realize that connecting with our experience by meeting it feels better than resisting it by moving away.  Being on the spot, even if it hurts, is preferable to avoiding.  As we practice moving into the present moment this way, we become more familiar with groundlessness, a fresh state of being that is available to us on an ongoing basis.  This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, unchartered, and shaky – that’s called liberation.

~Chödrön, Pema. (2003). Comfortable with uncertainty. Boston: Shambhala.

I believe in the last few days, I experienced a distinct state of groundlessness; and, at the same time, I was presented with a precious teaching about the principle of equanimity.

You see, like many of my YTT classmates this past weekend, I had a vivid dream during our yoga nidra practice with Lindsey and Sheena. It was a brief but distinct memory from what I have been told is likely a memory from a past life that I lived. In fact, this was the most pronounced memory of a past life I have had in my dreams over the last several weeks. While I shall not divulge the details of what exactly I saw, it is enough to simply say that the experience for me in that moment felt very real to me and gave me pause to the point of feeling quite anxious (yes, even scared somewhat) following the event. It left me numb and without words.

This was the after-nidra sequence of thoughts that permeated (and continue to permeate) my mind:

Did I just dream up these things in my head? It’s not possible. I’m a lawyer, after all.  I turn to rational thought by default as a lawyer.  That’s what lawyers do.  My default as a lawyer has always been to question what evidence there is to support or confirm a particular fact. And if the evidence is not direct but only indirect or circumstantial, then only certain inferences may be drawn therefrom.  How could it be anything else? Anything else is mumbo jumbo, junk science, or just plain silly talk!

As Pema explains, training as a warrior-bodhisattva requires all of us to train in equanimity as though it is a work-in-progress.

I have come to recognize this sequence of thoughts that I’ve set out above as my default position, a habitual pattern of reactionary thoughts that do nothing but perpetuate the status quo – that is to say, the story line that we find delicious precisely because our default position is convenient and familiar! It takes absolutely no work and yields immediate gratification.

Being on the spot, even if it hurts, is preferable to avoiding

There is so much wisdom in this teaching.  Instead of jumping ship at the sight of a burst pipe, Pema teaches us that all that is needed was a wrench to fix the pipe.  But, the ship itself was never broken.

We are unbroken. There is nothing that needs fixing and nothing to fear about what is already a part of who we are.  All that is needed is for us to remember who we are by cultivating loving-kindness for ourselves and those around us.  It is that simple, but requires constant, daily practice and discipline.

This past weekend, I truly feel as though I have begun walking on a path outside of habit, familiarity and story – a path that is unknown, unchartered and incredibly shaky – indeed, a path towards that experience of liberation which Pema so clearly communicates to us in her work.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that Lindsey and Sheena have been our fearless warrior-leaders every bit of the way helping us to navigate this very challenging process and continue do so with such reverence and honor for our individual journeys.  They are not only our instructors, they are our spiritual friends and mentors for life.

As I began to reflect on this experience more this week, the feeling of fear and trepidation has dissipated somewhat. I am starting to become genuinely curious about the events of this past weekend and what they mean spiritually for me in my continuing journey in yoga and mindfulness.

In closing, my prayer is for all of us to reside in the “in-between state” in times of anxiety, fear, and self-doubt.  Pema’s description of the in-between state is a clarion call that shows us the road-map to arrive at the in-between state where inner strength, liberation and self-remembrance await us:

Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid.  The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than buy into struggle and complaint.  The challenge is to let it soften us rather than make us more rigid and afraid.  Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender.  When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously.  By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access or inner strength.

As I reflect on the lyrics to the song I introduced at the beginning of this post, I must say I have always felt drawn to the lines I don’t want to die before my time.  I realize only now – in walking this wondrous path of yoga and mindfulness towards liberation – that I have allowed habit, fear, and story to occupy the pilot’s seat for the great majority of my adult life.

By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access or inner strength.

This is how I wish to live my life from this day forward – in the queasy, mysterious, tender and wondrous realm of the in-between state.

I wish you love, happiness, and hope – this day and every day.

The divine in me bows in deep reverence to the divine in each of you.

Namaste,

Alex

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