Imagine you are driving down an open highway, cruise control on, convertible top down, feeling the warm sun on your face, and listening to your favorite song.
When without warning a semitruck sideswipes you, sending you into a tailspin.
Fortunately, for some of us, a major car collision may not occur in our lifetime; yet, for all of us, there have been moments in our lives where things “took an unexpected turn” with the impact of a collision.
Whether navigating the tailspins of life or a car, we find ourselves asking the question: do we turn the wheel against the impact or turn into it?
The beautiful consequence of our human brain is that we have an imagination and like to tell stories. We especially want to know how our stories will end.
A collision with our lives can send us into a tailspin, especially if we have spent years planning and organizing our life’s story to turn out a certain way. These collision moments may be major life events (loss of job, relationship, death, natural disasters) or minor ones (late for work, discord with loved one, traffic, missed deadline). And it is in these collision moments that can create a tailspin when we either choose to take our hands off the wheel (avoidance, numbing out, shutting down), or turn the wheel in the opposite direction (aggression, attacking, anger).
A seasoned car racer and meditator will tell us that when skidding and losing control (of our car or lives), we use the wheel to point the car in one direction to allow the tailspin to slow and the car to regain equilibrium. The seasoned meditator would say that the wheel is metaphorically our breath, used as a guide to regain balance.
More often than we might like to admit, we react and give into the urge to turn the wheel in the opposite direction (to regain control) or take our hands off the wheel because of denial or fear, similar to running away from or avoiding a stressful life situation and seeking relief, or as Tara Brach refers to, “false refuge.”
We’ve all had moments when we felt like we were losing control of a situation, ourselves, our relationships, and our lives, and we tend to counter-react with more control, to fight against what is happening, or to undo what just happened.
Enter suffering: a strong sense of loss or disequilibrium coupled with the strong desire to go back to the way things were because the now and future are uncomfortably unknown.
We start to identify with this collision, as if saying, “I am this” which translated may mean, “I did something wrong.”
Pema Chödrön calls this getting “hooked,” or the Tibetan term shenpa (attachment), in these impact moments when we have an urge to react or seek relief from these feelings of discontent. We may feel like we are stuck in that moment, kind of like in sticky molasses, and we are unable to move through it. And one way to end suffering is to begin to understand what gets us hooked in the first place.
There are wonderful parallels between our experience in our meditation practice and our moment to moment unfolding life. When we are able to transfer our learning in meditation to these impact moments in life, we may be more effective at reducing or ending the accompanying suffering.
Pema spoke of four qualities of focus (maitri) when meditating and it is these same qualities that can be applied during these impact moments of our lives.
Qualities of Focus:
Through meditation, we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with our bodies and minds. When we apply unwavering loyalty to ourselves during our life’s impact moments we are firmly rooted in the moment, like a strong oak tree, not running from or against it but standing still and being with whatever is arising in our minds and bodies.
With daily meditation practice, we no longer use self-deception and cultivate more honesty with ourselves. During these impact moments we are no longer led by wishful thinking or denial and see with open eyes, mind, and heart to what is actually unfolding; we are truth-seeking.
Experiencing our Emotional Distress
With a daily meditation practice we start to drop our stories and self-righteousness and lean into the emotions. In impact moments, we stay with the emotions as they are arising, without bringing in history or expectations. We take in the emotions as they arise and thus we strengthen our patience and acceptance, which provides us with a deeper understanding of ourselves, a more compassionate view.
Experiencing our Emotional Distress
There is a Shambhala saying that by not understanding and knowing fear we can never truly be fearless. Here, fear encompasses all emotions such as anxiety, envy, jealousy, depression, and loneliness. When we feel these are emotions arising, we ask ourselves, “What I am afraid of in this moment?”
Attention to Present Moment
In our meditation practice, we commit to the continual choice, moment by moment, to stay with whatever is arising and unfolding in our minds and bodies. When applied to our life’s impact moments, we return again and again to the unfolding of them with increased astuteness rather than give in to the urge to seek relief or false refuge.
We know, with our meditation and life experience, that maitri is so much harder than stated here.
But, as with meditation, so too—with our lives in these impact moments—we can begin again. Every moment is an opportunity to begin again. By skillfully practicing maitri within ourselves and our lives, it will be of benefit to those around us.
Pema refers to this as the “four-minute mile” whereby exercising maitri may be “handed off” to the next person, because we are all connected.
“There’s a common misunderstanding among all human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable.” ~ Pema Chödrön