I just read a great article by Pema Chodron in Tricycle magazine (Fall 2012) entitled, The Fundamental Ambiguity of Being Human. I just love when something I am currently working on in my own life just happens to appear in an article I am reading. The subtitle of the article is: How to live beautifully with uncertainty and change.
Last week I came down with a nasty case of laryngitis. It set in quick. One minute I was watching two little kids for some friends of mine, running around in the front yard, laughing and making sure the one year old wasn’t eating sticks and the next minute I had a terrible headache, a hoarse voice and sore throat. From there it got worse and I wound up with no voice above a whisper, an awful sore throat, fever, and no appetite. And I wound up having to cancel a bunch of plans last week that I really didn’t want to. And it was OK! I’ve been working on embracing the impermanent nature of life which, with my ever changing health and pain levels due to my nerve disease and newly diagnosed case of endometriosis, I get a lot of opportunity to practice. When I cling to my ideas about what should be going on, how I should be feeling, who should be doing what I create a reason to suffer when things don’t go a certain way. When I can make friends with one of the only true facts of life: that everything changes, the suffering element is removed. Sure there may still be pain there but it’s important to note the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Pain is a normal response and suffering is the story we then attach to it.
For example, I get sick with laryngitis and have a sore throat and fever: pain. I tell myself, “oh my gosh, I feel so terrible, I can’t believe I got sick, this is such bad timing, this always happens to me, I have so much to do, I can’t be sick!”: suffering. It is a deepening lesson in liberation being able to understand the difference. So when I got sick it was OK because I’ve been practicing to make friends with change. I really didn’t like having to cancel plans on people but I was able to let go of the unnecessary attachments that create suffering.
Chodron says in her article, “The Buddha called impermanence one of the three distinguishing marks of our existence, an incontrovertible fact of life. But it’s something we seem to resist pretty strongly. We think that if we only did this or didn’t do that, somehow we could achieve a secure, dependable, controllable life. How disappointed we are when things don’t work out quite the way we planned.” (By the way, in case you’re wondering like I was, the other two distinguishing marks are suffering and non-self). Later, she writes, “In My Stroke of Insight, the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s book about her recovery from a massive stroke, she explains the physiological mechanism around behind emotion: an emotion like anger that’s an automatic response lasts just 90 seconds from the moment its triggered until it runs its course, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.”
90 seconds! I don’t know about you, but that astounded the heck out of me. How telling of my self-constructed paradigm that I can sometimes stretch those 90 seconds into hours, days, weeks and sometimes even years of suffering.
Change is all around and within us in every moment from our tiny cells dying and new ones arising to our plans getting rearranged, from our children suddenly growing taller than we are (see the above picture of my step-son Jaden with his friend Cadence on a recent hike in the Bitterroot) to getting the flu. Things change. People change. The weather changes. Emotions change. We change. It’s inevitable. It’s life. And it makes transformation possible.