One of the things I did while in the throes of desperation was to make an appointment with a meditation teacher who I’ve talked to a couple times in the past. Because even though meditation sounded like far too weak a medicine for the powerful suffering I was experiencing, I knew that everything I have learned in the past four years about relating to hardship in new ways had to be worth something.
I remembered Dr. Zoloft saying, “I want my patients to feel good all the time,” and hearing alarm bells in my head. She was selling false hope, the idea that I or anyone can have all happiness and no pain is one of those lies we tell ourselves to try to feel safe in an uncertain world. Joy and pain, wretchedness and inspiration, are inseparable, two sides of the same coin — I believe this absolutely. And once I got some sleep, I could tell that the pressure in my chest, while very unpleasant, was in a way a gift. I was in direct contact with what Buddhist types call the “genuine heart of sadness.” I could feel that tender spot where true compassion, joy and consciousness can arise. If I could stay with it and allow it to open, rather than desperately trying to make it go away, I knew I could get somewhere.
So I went to the teacher, and he confirmed all of this and more. He helped me see that my anxiety, my sleeplessness was and is, quite literally, a call to wake up. For months now, I’ve been avoiding meditation. Feeling like I just have too much “real” stuff to do, like it doesn’t matter, or just telling myself I’ll do it later when I have time — and that time never comes. This past two weeks is a powerful call to return. To let my hangups and worries emerge there, day by day, rather than have them burst through in a rush after months of dormancy. I am not unlucky that I am an insomniac or a worry wart, that I am often not helped by even the most powerful sleeping pills. I am chosen for greater awareness. My inner consciousness isn’t going to let me run away from this. It’s time to wake up.
Now that the worst of the anxiety has passed, I feel a new clarity of vision. I can see exactly where I’m hung up, how my heart rate rises with each obsessive check of my to-do list. I can see what I need to work on, and how desperately I need to learn that just being here now is every bit as important as crossing off the next thing on the to do list. I can also see that I have a long way to go. I had to crack open and feel the pain to find this insight on the other side. I know that now.
My teacher told me about a practice he used once when living in a monastery called First Awakening. The first time he woke up in the night, whether it was 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m., he rose and did his meditation and then returned to bed. I don’t plan to do that every night, but on those nights when I get up to go to the bathroom and feel myself struggling to return to sleep, I will try to think of it as a first awakening. Instead of lying there with my heart pounding — thinking how tired I’m going to be, thinking how cursed I am that it’s happening again — I will take it as a call to meditation. No matter how long I have to sit on that cushion before calming down enough to return to sleep, it has to be better than lying in bed feeling as if my heart will wear out from beating so hard, so long.
Last night we went to a symphony performance at an outdoor amphitheater, and they played Stravinsky’s Firebird suite. The music represents a story, and it moves in phases from quiet and repetitive, almost monotone, to nervous and anticipatory, to happy, to fearful, to sleepy and finally to joyful. I saw that it was the story of our lives, that we live out all those phases, sometimes in the microcosm of a single day or hour, but also in a lifetime. And even when we’re in a part of the story that’s sad or dull or scary, it’s still beautiful, it’s still worthwhile, and it’s still leading us to our happy ending — the final, joyful awakening of death, where we melt back into the life force from which we came and fully realize, at last, our connection to every living thing.