As December is coming to a close, I am writing to you in good health, as I now feel normal again over a month after surgery. I could never have imagined the magnificence of simply feeling normal until now. But while my body has a normal state to return to, my life situation has a completely different story. Before surgery I was in the midst of searching for a new normal after my job of four years came to a close when its grant cycled out, and I was imagining new passions and opportunities that might emerge. A seizure, concussion, myriad of medical tests, and brain surgery later, that new normal hasn’t yet found its way into my experience.
Have you ever experienced a transition that seems to be followed by still more change? Have you seen uncertainty lead to greater uncertainty? When life shows its true colors by unmasking the illusion of stability you are left with an important task. That task is your reaction.
An easy go-to reaction is fear, but if you have had enough suffering you’ll bypass that one quite quickly. Another reaction, which may not even seem like a reaction at first, is waiting. You can wait out the uncertainty. You can wait to feel comfortable, at peace, joyful, and grateful until you have your new normal. Of course waiting to be at peace until your outer situation looks a certain way is the ego’s best kept secret in how to never be at peace.
Without fear and waiting, how can you react to uncertainty and transition? I have found that my favorite, most joy-filled, peaceful, hopeful reaction to such an outer situation is to allow myself to inhabit the present moment.
It feels a bit uncomfortable at first, and I always get the initial sensation that I have to distract myself with something. But after I let myself be present through the discomfort it turns out that the present is a pristine, perfect place to be, that asks nothing of me but my awareness of it. When I let myself place my attention on my sensory perceptions of the present, the mind, which is busy worrying and trying to fix various aspects of what it deems an unacceptable life situation, starts to lose steam. Real life emerges.
While the future feels like it needs constant attention, life is always happening right now and no place else. It isn’t waiting for you to notice it. You could go your whole life unaware that you’re only living in your mind and missing the moment that living takes place. But uncertainty will help you notice the living present if you let it. Life is beckoning you through every situation you find yourself in. This time let your life situation drive you home to the present moment. You’ll be glad you came.
Fear, like any thought or emotion, cannot be picked up with the hands and thrown away. But despite its intangibility, in these days leading up to my surgery I am learning things about fear I never knew before.
The undercurrent of fear that we all experience to some degree is more difficult to notice and release than big fear. The little things I’m genuinely afraid of, like bugs, a lack of money, or my plans not working out, seem so normal that I can hardly imagine what it might feel like not to be afraid of them. But this big event I’m experiencing, a major surgery, is so unknowable and uncontrollable that the fear of it cannot be brushed under the rug. Big fear either forces surrender or causes excruciating suffering.
Another aspect of fear that I’ve been noticing is that it lessens with an increase of gratitude. I’ve been realizing that I’m so grateful I can even have this healing surgery. I’m grateful that I can go to a hospital and have people looking out for my health and caring for me. I’m grateful beyond measure for the love and compassion I’ve been shown in the wake of this challenge. The generosity of spirit that those around me have demonstrated has softened my heart towards humanity in a new and deeper way than ever before. When given the opportunity to show compassion, each person can reveal an infinite wellspring from within their being, an insatiable desire to help.
I have also noticed that no matter my fears, what is simply is, and what will be simply will be. This doesn’t mean my mind won’t take me to the thoughts that are most potent for spawning more fear and subsequently more thoughts, but when that happens there is always surrender, there is always the “For This Practice” game, there is always gratitude, and when all else fails there is always one more chance for surrender.
Two weeks ago I was walking down the sidewalk with my younger brother, and noticed I was having a strong experience of déjà vu. The next moment I woke up in an ambulance with two handsome men enthusiastically declaring, “You had a seizure!”
The good news, as my brother told me, was that I came out of the seizure laughing. The hospital staff wasn’t even sure at first I had suffered a seizure; perhaps I merely passed out, because I was so very conversational after regaining consciousness. But after several different tests, it turned out that I did have a seizure, and that it was probably caused by the 3.5cm benign tumor that has taken over a portion of the top left of my skull bone. While quite a shock to discover, this “epidermoid,” as the doctors called it, could have been present since birth. Even though it may have been pressing on my brain all this time, it has only just shown itself to be an issue.
Although you never hope to hear such news regarding your own body, there are many things I have to be grateful for in my situation. The tumor is almost certainly benign, it is not in the brain itself but in the skull bone, and it is in an easily accessible area. And come November 5th I will undergo surgery to have it removed.
So now what? Where is the lesson in this? While I do feel that my religious practices, spiritual study, meditation, Yoga, and the writing of each post here on Let Yourself Learn have been tremendous training for just such a life altering situation, I have been at a loss for insight. I have experienced fear, confusion, mistrust of people’s advice, and even a small dose of self-pity. Yet through all of those feelings I kept saying to myself, “I am on the cusp of acceptance, I am on the edge of peace.”
There is a deeper knowing that, even in a moment of fear, still faintly flickers as a beacon for the understanding and abundant miracles to come. Sharing my situation with all of you helps to fan that flame.
In my last post I talked about the uncertainty in my life, the space being created, and what it was teaching me about living in the present. With something like brain surgery looming in the future, the present moment becomes more obviously the only tolerable space to inhabit. There is no more time for what-if scenarios; the suffering they create far outweighs the mild ego satisfaction of “knowing” the future.
Before this series of events took place I had planned to write about my acceptance into the Living Yoga Training program at the Satchidananda Ashram, where I was going to live the yogic lifestyle and be of service to their community for one month starting yesterday. I thought I was finally going to get that push into present moment awareness I so longed for. Now sitting here, at my same old apartment in Chicago, I am learning what it means to be present in a way I never could have thought up. It may not look like it now, but this is happening for me, it is part of the highest potential for my life journey, and I am right on the cusp of acceptance, right on the edge of peace.
Recently life has felt like one big question mark. Instead of providing answers, life is providing me with more and more uncertainty. While Eckhart Tolle would describe such a circumstance as space being created for something new, it feels more like I’m venturing into the woods at night without a flashlight.
The space being created is easily filled with thoughts of worry, doubt, and “what if” scenarios. I keep asking myself what I can do to make each situation turn out favorably for me. But whatever I do will only be half of the equation, the other half is made up of howI do whatever it is I choose to do. Am I acting out of conscious awareness or out of fear? Am I making choices based on my worries or from a place of trust?
Of course if I waited to act in life until I wasn’t afraid I probably wouldn’t make it past my front door in the morning, but there is another way for action to be in alignment with positive energy. We can do this by first recognizing fear for what it is, a pattern of thought in the mind that translates to emotion in the body, and back to thoughts again. There is nothing wrong with this being in your sphere of attention as long as it is noticed and not completely bought into. The more you buy into it, the more suffering you experience.
Once the fear based thought and emotion pattern is seen from the light of your awareness you can choose not to buy into it, and instead choose to know that in reality each step you take is exactly what you need to experience at this moment. You can decide to live in each moment as if you had chosen it.
Know deep within, beyond thought, that each decision is leading you towards the highest aspirations of your being. In this way the energy behind your actions is that of consciousness itself, and all that fear stuff is just hanging out to enjoy the scenery. The time for fruitful action is always now, could there be any other?
I often find myself torn between attempts at surrendering to the present moment, and discerning my role in changing it. This simple piece of wisdom from Sri Swami Satchidananda offers a higher vantage point from which life’s circumstances can be peacefully navigated:
“If we know that we are instruments, and nothing is in our hands, then accepting and changing are not in our hands either. It’s very simple. If you are prompted to accept, then accept it. If you are prompted to change, then change it. Even that will be prompted. Something will tell you, “Come on; go ahead and try to change it.” Then your answer should be, “Okay, God, if that’s what You want, let me do it with Your backing. You are prompting me, so I am doing it.” It’s super surrender, and life is really beautiful that way.
All you have to do is follow God’s lead. The brush never tells you, ‘Oh, touch here, touch there, use a broader stroke.’ It lets the painter use it. So, you simply be the brush, and let God paint whatever He wants. God is seeing the whole picture, and it will be a masterpiece.” Sri Swami Satchidananda
I remember the dean of my high school most clearly for the two times I sat crying in his office, refusing to hand over the flip-phone I had long since usurped from my mother. On both occasions a member of school staff had caught me in the bathroom hastily attempting to contact my older brother during what could only have been a five-minute break lest the teacher become suspicious.
My sophomore year of high school marked my older brother’s freshman year of college. While he was still in Illinois, the gap between Highland Park and Urbana-Champaign felt as vast as the distance between the windows of my trigonometry classroom and the intangible clouds above that earned the majority of my attention that year.
For the first time I experienced the pain that came with loving someone who wasn’t physically present in my life. Even though my brother and I saw each other many times that first year of separation, I never quite shook the feeling that it was imperative to live near those I loved. The fact that over ten years have gone by and I still live 45 minutes from my parents is a testament to that notion.
Over the years friends too have come and gone from the proximity that birthed our relationships, and to my surprise the world has continued to spin around its axis. But I am now painfully reminded of the lessons I wasn’t quite able to grasp as a teenager who longed for her brother to come home, because I now have friends who live more than just a car ride away.
A couple posts ago I marveled at the overwhelming lesson I had learned from my travels in Israel: no matter where in the world, one can always be loved. When such bonds of friendship are struck, more than just gratitude can arise. Any meaningful and joyful experience can also be a gateway for attachment. I so missed my brother when he went to college, I long for my friends who have moved out of state, and I can’t fathom the distance between my newfound friends in Israel and my home in Chicago.
When attachment turns joy into sorrow a lesson is being offered in return; the joy and connection that you are pining for came from within yourself. Right now I am missing my friends overseas. But our relationships with other human beings are not outside of ourselves, as they seem from our physical experiences. They originate within, and are born of the love each of us carry as our very being. Our friends do not merely reside in our hearts when we are apart, they are an expression of our hearts, and are returning home to the space from which they came.
Next time you feel attachment gnawing away at your mind, remember that the love for which you pine has never left you, and will continue to reflect itself back to you in infinite, unimaginable ways.