I once heard Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron talk about the instructions she gave to people who came to retreats while dealing with trauma. Anyone who has been a practitioner for a while is familiar with the sight of a newcomer showing up at a retreat or a class who is clearly dealing with the weight of suffering and searching for immediate relief. Their minds are in turmoil, their emotions in hyperdrive. Chodron would give these people a particular meditation to keep them from leaping off the cushion and out the door. She gave them the mantra, “Stay.” Whatever is going on, stay with it. Thoughts might be crazy — let them fly but stay with the moment. Want to get up and run — don’t, just stay. Stay within the body; stay within your field of hearing. Just stay. After a while, the individual would invariably settle.
I don’t know why this stuck with me. Oh, maybe I do. I’m a dog lover. I loved the idea of training my monkey mind like a dog and instructing it to stay until released. Full disclosure: my mind is better at this “stay” business than my dog.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I, along with a third of the world’s population, have been involuntarily stayed. I’d like to go out but I can’t, I have to stay. There’s no place to go anyway because everyone else is stayed. I’d like to distract myself with shopping or movies or my favorite restaurant. They’re stayed. I can watch Netflix but that tires quickly. I can read a book but the news channels pull me away from the page. I can sit and shake with fear at my possible imminent death but even that soon gets old. After all, the sun is streaming through my windows and the jonquils are in bloom. I can only take so much sadness and then I have to figure out dinner. I’m left with very little except what is in my immediate vicinity. Quite literally, my world is reduced to my field of vision which, now that I think of it, it always was. And I’m finding that it’s a very big world indeed.
Like many people, I took the loss of my old life as a death of sorts. I mourned it. Its loss was so much more poignant because I thought it was unlosable. When my father died, I thought my mother would never get over the sorrow. But some time after he died we were in a store and I persuaded her to reluctantly try on a dress. She came out of the fitting room, examined herself in the mirror, front and back, gave a nod of approval and said she’d take it. Then I knew she would be OK.
At the time I thought it was a sign that she was “moving forward.” But now I look back and wonder whether she didn’t, as with any great loss, simply take stock of what was left and make peace with it. She didn’t actually move in any direction. She stayed right where she was and got on with her life as it was.
So I took inventory of what I had and what I needed. (Not much, it turns out.) I bought canned soups and beans, something I don’t usually buy because I cook from scratch. But knowing that if I got sick, really sick, I wouldn’t be able to cook, I stocked up on cans. I found out I had an abundance of friends and books. I also had an old, slow dog to bring my attention back when it wandered and whose needs and playtimes patterned my days. When I woke at the witching hour, heart hammering, the world dark and quiet as after a heavy snowfall, she would snore and twitch on my pillow to remind me that I wasn’t alone, and I’d fall back to sleep. So the days went on, surprisingly quickly, one into the next. And here’s what I found.
I had all that I needed and everything was just the way it needed to be.
In the past, I’ve been guilty of catastrophic thinking and letting fear take the reins. During hard times I’ve played with multiple scenarios that all ended up with me eating cat food or being homeless. I wouldn’t throw money away on a lousy movie but I spent far too much time unspooling melodramas in my head, so far-fetched that if they were a script they would never have been greenlighted. And all along, I’ve known that wherever I am in my life at any given time is the result of all the decisions I’ve made in the past. I’ve often agonized over those decisions so it’s good to find that they weren’t all that bad and that it was always OK and it’s OK now.
I have everything I need and more than what I need. The future is uncertain; it has always been uncertain. The possibility of sickness and death is very real; it always was. People I love may die. That was true last year, last month, yesterday and is just as true today.
As the French say, the more things change the more they stay the same.
My local plant nursery is doing a roaring trade as people plant “victory” gardens or look for something to do to amuse themselves while on lockdown. I drive by it every day and I’ve entertained the thought that maybe I should also plant vegetables this year. That would mean hauling home bags of dirt, fertilizer, plants, stakes and tomato cages. I like gardening and it would be a good project, but then I stop myself and wonder why I need to take on another project.
I already have one that is completely satisfying and takes up all my time. The project is to stay. I can do this. We all can.