Sometimes I know it from the second I wake up in the morning.
Something’s off. It just feels wrong. It’s going to be the worst day I’ve had in a long time, and it’s probably everyone else’s fault, or it will be, so they really better leave me alone and get on with it.
I used to ignore this feeling when I’d wake up with it, or maybe I didn’t even recognize it was there. And then, when I did proceed to have the worst day ever, I could never look back to see if there was an origin to this disaster, a crucial and potential turning point.
With a little bit of training, I came to see that it’s not that hard to apply a little bit of awareness to the process of waking up, not exactly to change our moods, but to be aware of what we’re feeling.
It was a revelation—and it’s shocking that it could be one—that moods don’t just sneak up on us and appear to come from an outside source.
It could be a dream that brought me to the mood, or more obviously, residue emotions clinging to me from a fight I had the night before. Maybe I read an old journal of mine and became flooded with a variety of feelings. It doesn’t really matter.
Once aware that something feels grey and foggy and snarly and wrong, it boils down to making an effort to check in with ourselves, observing this heaviness inside, and enacting what seems like a simple choice.
Not the kind of love that has me wanting everything in return, or that I feel is owed to me for trying to be a nice person. Or even the kind I expect from people I feel should encourage me to believe I’m not an inherently mean, or even cruel person.
This kind of love is easy. It’s so gratifying, to look at the person I love, who has just done the kindest thing I could have asked him to do, and believe that love comes naturally.
It does. Or it can, but this kind of love is just the tiniest hint of it. An etched out part of a frosted-over window through which we can make out love in the distance.
Sometimes I imagine waking up in that ideal wooden cabin by a lake to birds chirping and throw open the door and take in the new sun and gaze at those almighty mountains, and just love everything about everything. I’m so lucky to have done this; it’s incredibly easy to be love-filled in moments like these.
Once, when I was about 11, I found myself horribly miscast in a drama class, where I auditioned for a part in The Wizard of Oz. I sang Maybe from Annie, one of the only songs I knew by heart at the time. It’s a song about the parents she never met:
Maybe far away
Or maybe real nearby
He may be pouring her coffee
She may be straighting his tie!
Maybe in a house
All hidden by a hill
She’s sitting playing piano,
He’s sitting paying a bill!
(I got the part of the Good Witch of the North, who has around 2 lines, and I was also a Flying Monkey).
Annie’s love for her parents is based on fantasy, but her yearning for love is entirely real. We’re all like Annie. But most of the time this love we crave comes with a heavy dose of prerequisites. Love me back. Fulfil my needs. The dreaded, ‘Complete me.’
But the fantasy remains. I want that perfect alignment of insides and outsides, me and you, all intertwined and perfect. And why not? We should celebrate the magic of harmony.
But what happens when it’s not there?
These are the times someone’s said something that cut so deep into my core that I was forced to question every last thing about myself, which is the very last thing I wanted to do, to stare deep within the most hideous creature I have become and so obviously am.
What about times like these, and those mornings that begin with foreboding instead of excitement?
Choosing to love seems so hard. Because the kind of love that counts, knows no bounds, and mornings like these, all I feel is boundaries surrounding me.
When we don’t choose love, the outcome is clear. We have seen this outcome time and time again. It’s simple, but it’s worth saying. Hatred makes hatred and love makes love. It’s always in our best interest to try to understand those people and things that anger us, and to do that, we can try to merge with them, become a part of who or what they are.
One of the most powerful things I learned during some retreats I did in India is a Tibetan Buddhist practice called Tonglen, which means “Giving and Taking,” and it is designed to help open our hearts.
Here’s how Tonglen works:
You imagine someone, or a group of people in front of you. Visualize or think about all of their suffering, and on your in breath, take that suffering away from them and into you, right into your heart center.
On the out breath, imagine white light pouring out of you and onto them, so that they can be filled with peace and happiness. The practice can become more or less elaborate and has variations, but this is the basis: we take others’ various miseries (even that of the world), and give them happiness in return.
Filling the world with the light of happiness is an incredibly uplifting experience. And anyone can do it. Find a quiet or sacred space without distractions, sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and begin.
You can do this several times, starting with the ‘easy ones’: your loved ones, closest friends, family members. You can repeat the exercise a few times, for as many breaths as you need, trying with people for whom you feel neutral, and eventually moving on to your ‘enemies’—those who anger you or fill you with unpleasant emotions.
It’s amazing what can erupt in the very core of your being as you realize everyone in the world suffers, and that no one should. We all want love, and have a hard time grasping what real love is, and we all suffer from our attachments to things we don’t have when there’s nothing to have, except (for awhile) our own lives, history and capacity for love.
What better way to turn your mood and your day around than to help others and generate exactly what you also need to be a happier self?
Pema Chodron Guiding a Tong Len Practice:
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant archives