When S*** Happens
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
I began the day, as I always do, with breath work and meditation to calibrate the mind. It's a proactive approach to managing any challenges the day may bring. This morning, I woke to a flooding basement. Rivulets of water were streaming from the base of the water heater. I called out from work to attend to the problem and rearranged my schedule to work remotely. I remained equanimous, calm. This is the fruit of daily practice.
I shut off the gas and water lines, drained the tank, and mopped up the puddles. Before I drive to a home improvement store to purchase a new water heater and supplies, I wanted to post a few strategies which may be useful to you when s*** happens.
Every few moments, I monitor the mind and scan the body, releasing tension where it may have begun to nest. In particular, I remain alert to the kinds of inner narratives that might ignite the stress response, thoughts such as: "Why me?" "This is going to set me back hundreds of dollars," "I can never get ahead," "The universe is conspiring against me," "There goes Christmas/vacation money," etc.
Setbacks come to us all. Yesterday, the toaster oven caught fire. Flames were leaping out of the oven. The kitchen filled with smoke. I reached for an extinguisher and put out the fire. When I removed the toaster to dispose of it, I noticed mouse droppings on the counter. The day before that, a flat tire, a much anticipated trip to Boston to visit a friend was canceled due to COVID restrictions, and a few days before that I was scrambling to find coverage when we were informed that a child in my son's class had tested positive for coronavirus. All students and faculty in that pod were quarantined. I took my son in for testing. They administered the wrong test. I returned to have him retested.
Each event was simply a happening. There were choice points moment to moment, decisions to make and actions to take. Years of meditation training, the single pointed focus on one object, the daily practices of gratitude and prayer, the interoceptive awareness of the arising and passing of thoughts and emotions, and the discipline of directing attention trains the mind to serve us well when s*** happens.
A flat? Fix it. A fire? Extinguish it. A leak? Address it. Mouse dropping? The children have been pleading for kittens. I attend to each problem with full attention. The mind remains clear, focused, undistracted by unnecessary thoughts. If distress arises, we accept and allow. Once the danger has passed or the problem has been addressed, I give myself time to dial down the sympathetic response. With deep breathing, relaxation techniques, open awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, as well as self-monitoring, we can regulate the stress response and allow the body to return to homeostasis, allowing the catecholamines, glucocorticoids and other stress related hormones that were secreted to meet the demands of the moment dissolve back into the body. More specifically, 5-30 minutes of deep breathing will slow the heart rate, breath and metabolism. Intentionally, we can induce a relaxation response with a frequency of 6 breaths per minute or less. With each exhalation, we scan the body and release any tension (paying particular attention to the neck, shoulders, muscles of the face, position of the tongue, muscles of the hands and thighs). We give attention to sensations within the body: the throbbing, tingling, pounding, tightness, shaking, etc. We can do this anywhere- while at work, while addressing the issue, while in the car on the way to the hardware store, or while scheduling an appointment with a plumber. The more we practice, the more proficient we get at dialing down the sympathetic (stress) response and maintaining parasympathetic (calming) dominance.
We let go of storylines. Once the mind and body have settled somewhat, we can apply perspective. Millions of refugees fleeing civil war or the billions of people in extreme poverty would happily trade their problems for mine. This invites gratitude, humility and compassion into the heart. Now attention is trained off the ego and its petty, self-centered concerns.
Where there is constriction- self-pity, anger, hopelessness, despair- we can accept and allow it to be. By accepting what is there, we can release it. We release through kindness and compassion- not by rejecting, suppressing or condemning what is alive in us. That energy- the fear, the anxiety, the excitement- simply needs to flow. If adrenaline flooded the body, I sometimes release it through movement. After putting out the fire, for example, I cycled to work. Gradually, we return to a state of equilibrium.
Like this, we can weather whatever arises as it arises. With every challenge we face, we grow in resilience, in equanimity, in patience, in wisdom, in experience. "Don't wish it was easier," to quote Jim Rohn, "wish you were better. Don't wish for fewer problems, wish for more skills. Don't wish for less challenge, wish for more wisdom." When s*** happens, we can use it to compost the fertile topsoil of mind to grow a spirit that stands like a mighty oak deeply rooted, which does not resist the wind, but sways with it.
But like the mighty oak, we, too, must return to the Mystery from whence we came. Knowing this, and trusting in That which orchestrates what is seen and unseen, I take refuge in it, and there rest my soul.