“I feel,” I said to a friend as we started the new year, “like I can’t quite get my feet on the ground. Every time I think I'm on solid ground, it disappears out from beneath me.”
It’s understandable. It’d been a busy eighteen months: my marriage had ended unexpectedly and I'd lost my home and most of my possessions; my mother had been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s; my father’s advanced Alzheimer’s had spiralled down into unpredictable violence and delusions necessitating specialized care. Perhaps not surprisingly my own health had deteriorated, culminating in a recent cardiac incident and on-going migraines.
With the support of my sons and some very good friends, my spirits were (and are) good. But I felt like I was having a hard time finding the energy and uninterrupted time that would let me pursue my writing or any other consistent work. I simply could get my feet on solid ground.
About a week ago, on day twenty-two of a migraine, looking for a little guidance amongst the books on my shelves, I pulled out Pema Chrodron’s, When Things Fall Apart. Randomly opening the book I read:
“We want to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we’ve tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and the ground just keeps moving under us. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can’t be done. Turning our minds toward the dharma speeds up the process of discover. At every turn we realize once again that it’s completely hopeless- we can’t get any ground under our feet.”
“It’s completely hopeless.” It’s hard to describe the sense of relief that flooded through my body as I read these words. It was as if hooks planted throughout my body were released, unhooked. Of course, I’d read this before. But the idea of adapting to uncertainty and difficulty when things are going more or less as we’d anticipated is an interesting idea, not a life raft that makes continuing possible.
My relief wasn’t about giving up on doing what had to be done, or neglecting to care for myself and others to the best of my ability. It was about giving up any hope of finding or creating solid- as in unchanging and predictable- ground; giving up trying to move away from the discomfort of not-knowing; giving up the illusion that tomorrow I may wake up as a “better” me, someone more “on top of it,” more able to direct or control the uncontrollable. It’s about relaxing into life as it is, relaxing into the hopelessness of controlling impermanence even as we do our best to meet and respond to the conditions of the moment.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but Pema’s encouragement to “relax into hopelessness” gave me just the break I needed. Since then, I’ve been thinking of moving through life as less about finding solid ground and more about learning to walk across the deck of a small boat on the open seas. Sometimes the waters are rough, sometimes they’re calm. Sometimes you keep your balance. Sometimes you fall overboard, and hopefully a fellow seafarer is there to throw you a line, as you will throw one to them when the time comes.
Hoping and trying to control the weather or the sea is a futile waste of energy that can wear us out. Learning to walk and rest, dance and dream on a rolling deck is a far more useful skill.