We do not know what life has in store for us, we only know that it will end one day. To be aware of our limitations, to live this life of uncertainty fully is quite a task for a human being. Our capacity to think and plan is very enhanced, overwhelming in many ways and distinguishes us from other mammals.
Our brains for instance have a part that we call our limbic system. This part is activated by intense emotions, memories or sounds; our limbic system influences our endocrine system and our autonomic nervous system (the one that controls our bodily functions). We have a less old fashioned part of the brain that we call our monkey brain and which helps us surviving (fight, flight, freeze) by having immediate responses to (perceived) threatening situations. On top of that we have an enormous capacity to think, speak, plan and imagine.
We are aware of who we are to a certain amount, and we are also aware of the fact that our lives are impermanent, that everything changes all the time. In our human lives we have to deal with loss, fear and despair, we all will face something that feels almost unbearable at some point in our lives and for some of us this is a daily experience. Having faced many difficult periods in my life, my most difficult challenge came after I walked out of my job after years of bullying. My life as a professional came to an immediate stillstand as I did not have the stamina nor the courage to find another job. I was suddenly cut short of a work environment, an income, status, career progression, and prominence. Suddenly I was thrown in seclusion, relative poverty, loneliness, shamefulness, misjudgement and concealment. Undoubtedly the opposite of my previous more glamorous experiences. A place where nobody wants to go ever when given the choice.
I have since experienced how deep, difficult, and dark such a place can be. A place where the sun doesn’t get through the thickness of thorns and untamed branches. A place of isolation, despair and obscurity. A place without status, identification or consolation. A retreat from the world of work and professionalism. And I was lucky! I had teenagers to look after. But it left me with many rampant versions of myself, it is a place full of shame and guilt. My soul became dyed with the colour of my own thoughts. Nothing can harm you more than your own mind untamed! I suffered depression and intense anxiety. I needed to learn to listen to myself in a different way.
Being invited to be an assistant on an 8 week mindful self-compassion course was my reconciliation with the path and the listening. A path this time through a completely unknown area and dark untamed branches. I had become too frightened to look up to see what was in front of me. I had no idea where I was going, scrabbling in the dark. In my life I never set out to harm anyone, but now I was harmed in an undignified way and I responded internally by agreeing with the harsh condemning voices. The harsh inner voices shouted in my ear about guilt, shame and unworthiness. They bathed in their relentless entertainment. Our critical voice is once born out of protectiveness; the inner critic is there to help me better my life. My inner critic was loud and had many ways of entering my thoughts.
In difficult times it is only Bodhichitta that heals, says Pema Chödron. Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit word that means noble, or awakened heart. Wishing I could feel compassion for myself and in fairness; tolerate myself. Hold myself in a way that was no longer condemning but loving. Months, even years it took me until one day I found a little pocket of sunbeams in the wilderness and some time after that I found a beautiful, perfect, white stone. I kneeled on the forest floor and sobbed for its beauty and wholeness, this was the beginning of me forgiving myself for all my imagined wrongdoing.
To sustain an open heart you could daily meditate or practice tonglen (wishing yourself and others good health, happiness and ease), the Dalai Lama does 4 hours of compassion practice every day (The Dalai Lama’s book of love & compassion 2001). If you can keep your heart open when the woods are dark when you do not know where you are is the most courageous thing you can do for yourself. In the film ‘hunt for the wilderpeople’ they just did that…. in the midst of despair, in the darkest of the woods, they opened their hearts and looked after each other. That is what the evolution of the last couple of thousands of years has achieved in us humans, the ability to feel compassion for each other, to imagine how it is to be in the other person’s shoes. And with the current pandemic we see this openness and courage in people blossoming. I am grateful that we never forgot how to be human.