Many of you know I am a huge podcast fan. There is no special pattern or theme to the podcasts that make their way into my playlist. So many things interest me and I find podcasts to be an enjoyable way to learn about different topics and ideas without having to sit in front of a screen or even anchor myself to a chair with a book. They open up worlds for me that I can later explore in more depth if desired. Podcasts are an especially welcome treat for me when I’m walking. Fortunately, I have the amazing luxury of a 100-mile bike trail running through our town so I can walk and listen without having to worry about vehicle traffic. It gets tricky in the winter when snow clogs the trail, but a few years ago the town paved a portion of the trail which is plowed during the winter. Most of this section lies in full sun for much of the day so even when the hours of daylight are few, the trail dries out pretty quickly providing an ice-free path which is greatly appreciated. I feel very fortunate to have this resource.
On my walk this morning I listened to a podcast that originates from Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico called Tonglen for our Times. The main speaker for this talk is teacher and author, Sean Murphy. Tonglen is a meditation practice where the practitioner breathes in the suffering of the world and breathes out loving-kindness. The idea is that energy can be transformed from something seemingly negative into something more useful. There are examples of this throughout nature. One that was cited in the podcast was the transformation that occurs in the process of composting. A speaker described how she had begun using worms in her compost pile and saw that after a few days there was no evidence at all of what had originally been in the pile. Even the smell was gone. What we reject as garbage had been transformed into nutrient-rich loam. One person’s trash is another creature’s treasure. Also mentioned was how peacocks can eat what to humans is a poisonous substance and turn it into a source of nutrition that allows them to become such beautiful creatures. Then there is the process of photosynthesis where plants take the energy from sunlight and create the sugar they need for their own growth and survival. We can all think of other examples of natural transformation of energy. In fact, one of the laws of physics is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It is simply transformed.
One of my favorite podcasters, Caroline Casey, takes this concept a step further. She suggests that we all carry an imaginary portable composter into which we can throw all negative energy as we feel it. The composter will then transform that energy and send it out to the universe in a form that will help create things that are useful.
So what has this got to do with progress? The fact is, we have the power to transform some of our own energies from something that no longer serves us into something that might be useful in another form. Think of recycling. Once my husband and I had yard sale in which we sold some old clothes which were no longer useful to us. Some Haitian women came along and bought them to send back to their home country. There the clothes would be taken apart and re-made into something useful to others. Transformation of energy from useless to useful.
In the Upaya podcast Professor Murphy talked about the constant play between opposing forces of energy. These forces are not “positive” or “negative”. They just are. And, in fact, each energy needs the other. You’ve probably heard it said that we would not appreciate Spring if it weren’t for Winter. Sometimes the difficulties we face are necessary for us to appreciate the benefits we have in our lives or to find the positive energies we can give to others. There are energies that produce light and dark or exert forces that are relatively strong or weak. Balancing these energies within ourselves takes constant effort and presents many opportunities for practice. Discomfort of all kinds is often the result of too much of one force or not enough of another. Things get out of balance. The concept of progress, especially in reference to our daily lives, is never one straight forward line. We move in one direction for a while and then something happens and we find ourselves going in a another direction. Sometimes this is by choice but more often it is circumstances beyond our control creating the energy that propels us. And balance is something we never seem to be able to maintain for any length of time. Just when we think we’ve figured it out, the situation changes and we find ourselves starting all over again at the beginning. This might make us feel discouraged, but that’s also a form of energy. With practice, we might be able to take that energy and turn it into an opportunity to learn something new.
Experiencing difficult situations that can cause suffering is a fact of life. We have all experienced pain of one kind or another. Sometimes that pain can last a long time or even become chronic. Another example of opposing energies are those of joy and sorrow. Although none of us can escape sorrow, most of us have also experienced joy. Even the most tragic lives have had periods of joy. Sometimes we’re so focussed on the down side that we forget that there have been and will again be up sides also. It seems to be a human characteristic that we remember all the negatives and forget the positives. Or maybe we fixate on some time in the past when things seemed to be so much better than they are right. This can cause us to overlook the good in our current reality and see only what’s missing. If you recognize yourself in that statement, remember that not only is hindsight 20-20 but memories are faulty. What seemed idyllic then no doubt had it’s own drawbacks.
Which brings us to two more opposing forces, ability and inability. If for whatever reason you are unable to accomplish tasks or goals that you set for yourself, you might find yourself sucked into an emotional vortex that sends you spiraling downward. How can you transform that energy into an opposing force that propels you back upward? Here are a few ideas: first, just stop. Even for a few minutes. Take some deep breaths. Find Child’s Pose in your mind. You don’t need a mat; you can do this in a chair or where ever you are. Professor Murphy talks about the difficulty of not knowing what to do when faced with suffering you can’t get away from. His suggestion is to stop struggling and wait until the way becomes clear. That may not happen within your hoped for time frame. But chances are it will eventually happen as long as you don’t try to force it and stay open to the possibilities. Take an honest look at the task in front of you. Is there a way you can change it so that it doesn’t cause so much discomfort? Maybe that simply requires a change of attitude. Or a modification of the method. Remember, too, that nothing lasts forever. Everything is always changing all the time. The thing you can’t do today may suddenly become do-able at some point in the future. Or, better yet, it might become irrelevant as some new priority takes its place.
One more thing Professor Murphy suggests in the podcast: when you don’t know what to do with inescapable pain, take care of yourself. If you put self-care in the forefront, you will be in a better position to recognize the way to move forward when it presents itself. The fact is you are no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself. This is not being selfish. It is just common sense. You can’t give what you haven’t got. Another suggestion I would add is to ask for help. We are all interdependent. When we’re hurting we tend to isolate thinking no one can possibly understand what we are going through. But everyone has had their own experiences with stress and darkness. Allies can come from the most surprising places. Treating yourself with kindness and compassion is always good advice. No matter how desperate and hopeless life may seem, there is always something to be grateful for if you give yourself a chance to find it.