Remembering What Matters Most
As a clinical psychologist and mom to three kids, finding time to get sh#t done is a daily mission. Finding time to meditate is something bloggers blog about and teachers talk about to help people devote themselves to the practice, knowing in these busy times, carving out time is a hindrance of its own. Yesterday, I had the sweet decadence of some time to myself, so I delighted in the chance to meditate. I naively set my goal to sit for a good, solid, uninterrupted 25-minute sitting.
About 10 minutes in, Mr. Nibbles sauntered in and climbed my back like a tree, perching himself as a jaguar in the wild would on top of my shoulder. Nibs, as I like to call him (like I said, time-saving intentions), is a 4-pound, fluffy, bunny-soft Ragdoll kitten with a mocha coat, white boots, chocolate nose, sky blue eyes and a white patch on his mouth that makes him look like he got into the cream. Even cat-haters could not deny his cuteness. I bought him as an early Christmas present after my daughter wore me down. Apart from climbing my drapes to the ceiling and occasional misuse of my plants as his litter box, he has transitioned well.
While the odd nail dug a little too deep and I had the urge to yell out and push the lil’ guy away, I liked his accompaniment – I mean, who doesn’t like to cuddle an adorable kitten? (Dog people: don’t answer that). Once settled, his fuzzy body on the side of my neck warmed me like a cashmere scarf. I smiled naturally and felt happy. ‘Okay then,’ I re-focused, back to my sitting…. watching the breath and body, tracking in and out… only to be pulled away again by Nibbles’ slight adjustments. “Ouch!” He’s not quite small enough now to balance easily, nor big enough to drape around my shoulders like an airline pillow, so he started to move and adjust back and forth. ‘Okay, okay,’ I thought, as I observed wishes that he settle pass through my mind like clouds. ‘Okay, good, now back to the breath, … Damn it!’ Distracted once again a second later. ‘Frig!’ said the top layer of skin on my left arm that he clung to, desperately trying to not fall. ‘Okay’, I thought, back to my practice and maybe he’ll go away... Nope, he didn’t want to leave, he persisted in his efforts to lay on top of the tree that was my shoulder. He tried again: climb, balance, shimmy, fall off – ouch!- repeat.
My initial smile became a memory and my mood, an erupted volcano of irritation. My wanting mind thought only thoughts of what it wanted to happen, while silently screaming “Bloody hell kitty, settle!” Then, like a trusted friend we all know, but don’t generally want to embrace, full force frustration. “What the [fill in curse of your choice]!! Can I never get a moment of peace??!” Tension and contraction slid through my veins accompanied by the story of ‘Poor me, I have NO TIME!’ The controller was fully at the forefront along with helplessness and annoyance, wanting the moment to be a certain way, different than it actually was.
As I zoomed in on the movie of this story and stepped back just enough from the ranting thoughts, a spontaneous laugh poured through me, tickling me from the inside and accompanied by a giddy lightness in my body where the coursing frustration had only just passed. The corners of my mouth rose up towards the sky. ‘Ahhhh, yes’, like I’m remembering a funny joke that I had forgotten. ‘Hold it all lightly’ whispered in my mind, words I’d once heard in the voice of my teacher, Jack Kornfield. My whole body, still immovable in its kneeling posture became effervescent as joy trickled out from my heart to my limbs. I rested in clear awareness of my frustration from wanting my meditation to have certain conditions that were non-existent. I was caught in delusion; I forgot that wherever I am in any moment is an opportunity to open to loving presence. I laughed at the veil that lifted and relished the clarity and freedom it bestowed for just a moment, because what swiftly followed was the tears.
Soul sadness, Tara Brach calls it. There are no better words to describe the tears we shed when we see clearly a delusion that has blinded us from being fully present and awake to what matters most in our life. A memory montage of all the times each of my children approached me during yoga or meditation practice arose in my mind. I could see their beautiful faces hungry for love and attention and observe my perception of their bid as an interruption, and my reactivity of irritability or frustration at the demands that being a mother place on me as an inconvenience to my spiritual path. I began to go through the mindfulness practice of RAIN: Recognize, Allow…Investigate in my body and breathe this through… ‘Yes, welcome soul sadness’.
Soul sadness can be misinterpreted as guilt. But I didn’t fall into a self-blaming story of how I’m a bad mom or feel a pit in my stomach paired with feelings of guilt or shame. To me, soul sadness feels closer to grief than guilt, and is not quite as gut wrenchingly painful, though still not an easy emotion to embrace. As I allowed the tears to flow and opened to my experience, the N of RAIN (non-identified or sometimes ‘nurturance’) naturally and organically followed, filling in the soul sadness as though offering a warm and understanding embrace. The thought that ‘it’s okay’ soothed and assured me that ‘this is it’, ‘this is the path’. Devoid of any judgment or criticism, I felt held in compassion that was beyond me. This was not a metta practice, mantra or my inner coaching self-talk saying, “Okay Angele, now what words fit?” This love naturally arose after opening to the raw vulnerability of soul sadness, observing and listening, letting the emotions and sensations wash through me. I felt exposed, held, and celestial at the same time.
‘Remember’ was the next whisper as I continued to sit with my little furry messenger. Remember and practice…two soft wise words invited by my soul like ancient and deep knowing – ‘It’s all okay’. Opening to soul sadness, I experienced a deep and expansive love in response to my forgetting, understanding that this is the human incarnation. I rested in and felt gratitude for this reminder. There is beauty in the process.
As Mark Nepo writes:
For being human we remember and forget. We stray and return, fall down and get up, and cling and let go, again and again. But it is the straying and returning that makes life interesting, this clinging and letting go – damned as it is – that exercises the heart.
We all get caught up and pulled away from presence in various ways. I am often pulled away by my ‘To-Do’ list or planning mind. I tend to get caught up by focusing on the daily tasks of parenting, the ‘what needs to get done’; it’s a constant inner checklist. When I see time through this lens, I have a frantic energy, a sense of scarcity, like there’s never enough. In this zone, resentment can build while I miss out of the beauty and joy that surrounds me in the moment that is.
Many people get caught up in worries about the future, the ‘What if…’, complete with a barrage of various scenarios played out like a Netflix binge, none of which is real or true since it’s unknown. Maybe the unfinished business of the past haunts you most. Cycling back at old scenes in your mind, situations and experiences replayed through the hue of this moment, assuredly colored in some way that is distorted, keeping you from the here and now.
My kitten helped remind me that it is wise to hold it all lightly, with humor, and of course, with compassion when we get off course and lose sight of what matters most. Often in death and great crises, we see more clearly what matters most. We are organically jarred back to our universal compass in recognizing that relationships, each other, the presence and power in connection and community are the foundations of meaning and importance in this life. I learned this as a teenager when I was in an argument with my best friend. I don’t recall what the argument was even about, of course, but I’ll never forget when she called me to tell me her father had died. In that moment I forgot what the fight was about, but not enough to forget to promptly say how sorry I was, for everything. It all fell away in the presence of deep loss and grief. What really mattered was instantly clear. We all know this to some degree.
But in the neutral days or the mundane, it is easy to be swept away by the grind of Ground Hog Day. The kitten was my messenger to remember what matters most. My longing for uninterrupted practice time and the delusion that that is what is required for my spiritual growth was observed in its fallacy when I opened to the reactivity that erupted and touched the wisdom of loving presence, which does not require the world to stop turning. Spiritual growth is not relegated to sitting times or spiritual activities. Training and practice of mindfulness is not carved out in 20-minute segments in life, without regard for the other 1420 minutes a day. It is a practice of devotion, intention and opportunity in each and every moment to open and see things and accept things as they are. What is returned is a deep and mystical experience of profound and unwavering love and compassion. Deep enough to hold it all.
What can help bring us back and remember is being clear about our intention. What mattress most? What is your deepest intention? The reality of life and our automated world will be ripe with distractions, including our own neurological hard-wiring that pulls us out of the present moment. When you move off course and get caught up, as you will, your intention will guide you back to your soul’s wisdom. I encourage you to open to the soul sadness that might accompany a moment of waking back up. Remember, the forgetting is also part of the path, part of our humanness, so embrace it all with an open heart. When I did, I remembered what we all know to be true deep in our hearts. We are all deserving of love and compassion.
Our teachers come in all shapes, sizes and species. A bow of gratitude to Mr. Nibbles, my furry messenger, for helping me remember what matters most.