July 12, 2021
Being the Calm in the Storm
Part of the human experience includes loss and gain, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, good weather and stormy weather. In this podcast, we will explore how even when we’re moving through the storm, we all have the capacity to find that inner calm.
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[The following is the full transcript of this episode of “Dare to Awaken Podcast.”]
Welcome to episode number 14 of the Dare to Awaken podcast, Being the Calm in the Storm.
Whether it’s a scary health diagnosis, an injury, the loss of a loved one, a financial crisis, or a global catastrophe, we all encounter storms in our life. When the storms come, a person with wisdom always ask the question, why is this happening for me, as opposed to, why is this happening to me? One thing that helps us to navigate difficulty is having this wise perspective. Persian poet Rumi writes, “When you go to a garden, do you look at the thorns or the flowers?” A lot of suffering that we experience is actually self inflicted. And, of course, when we’re playing the role of the victim, we don’t really see things that way. We want to empower our own ego and pain body. We want to justify why we’re suffering. And very often, we become loyal to our suffering. We become identified with our suffering.
The Buddha described this as the second arrow metaphor. He said the first arrow that you get, whether that is the scary health diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, that’s that first arrow. And it hurts. It stings. But what happens is, is after that first arrow, we continue to inflict more and more suffering upon ourselves because of the way that the mind ruminates and perpetuates that initial sting. So, for example, if somebody gets a diagnosis of cancer, very often, where the mind goes, which is to these very dark, scary, depressed places, in many cases can be much worse than the cancer itself. Same thing with a deadly virus. Very often the mind becomes so fearful that it becomes worse than the actual virus itself. So it’s important to acknowledge, yes, the first arrow is painful, but the suffering that trails after that first arrow, we all have the ability and we all have the capacity to stop it right then and there. So we’re no longer feeding the story, the drama, the conflict by replaying that over and over. The person that has a challenge that goes on in their life and they go around to all their family and their friends and they’re telling this story over and over, this is the second and the third and the fourth arrow. So if we want to eliminate unnecessary suffering, we have to stop after that first arrow. So we no longer identify with that challenge anymore. We no longer identify with it any more than it needs to be. We take care of business, we take action, we deal with the challenge, we deal with the difficulty, we deal with the the adversity, but we do it less from a reactive victim place, and we do it more from an empowered place, a place where we take action. And we focus on the solution instead of the problem.
The Buddha said, “If you’re suffering, you are forgetting who you are.” And what he means by this is that underneath the the suffering, underneath these outer layers of who we are is really this deeper dimension of consciousness and awareness that is much larger and much more vast than the limitation of the suffering that we’re experiencing within any given moment. There is one Zen master who used to go around his monastery and he would go up to the monks periodically and he would say, “Are you suffering today?” And if the monk said no, then he said, “Oh, good, good, good.” And he’d just keep walking. Eventually he’d come up to another monk and he’d ask him the same thing, “Are you suffering today?” And maybe that Monk would reply, “Yes, yes, I am suffering today.” And this particular Zen master would say, “Ah, you’re clinging. You’re clinging. You need to let go.” And he would chuckle and then walk away. So very often this suffering that we experience is because we are clinging and we’re grasping. And, of course, the opposite of that would be letting go. So letting go of the story, letting go of the things that we no longer have control over and focusing on the things that we do have control over, such as how we’re going to respond to the storm, to the challenge, to that moment of adversity.
As the great mindfulness teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “You can’t fight the waves, but you can learn to surf.” And this is what these great ancient wisdom practices teach us. They teach us the ability to surf the big stormy waves so that we’re no longer drowning and getting pummeled and beaten up by these waves. But we actually use the storm. We use the power of the wave. We use the challenge as an opportunity to grow, to awaken, to experience deeper understanding, to find freedom, freedom of heart and freedom of the mind. So understanding with every difficulty and challenging event there is within that a seed of opportunity. And that very often, our greatest lessons become our greatest blessings. Our greatest lessons, they strengthen us. Dolly Parton said, “Storms make trees take deeper roots.” So when we’re moving through those inevitable storms of life, we too have to grow our roots deeper. We, too, have to become stronger. And, of course, the stronger we become, the greater the storms that we can endure through.
They did that study, I believe it was out in Arizona, where they studied trees. And this was to explore the possibility of growing trees and vegetation on the planet Mars. So they’re doing this study inside this protected biosphere, trying to grow these trees isolated from the elements, the wind, the rain, the storms. And what they actually found within this study is that these trees became incredibly, incredibly weak. Their bark wasn’t strong. They would fall over. They wouldn’t grow as much lush vegetation, because they need the resistance. They need the conflict. They need the challenge. They need that good, positive stress. And you could say that this is true for all things in nature, including us as human beings. Sometimes it can feel like we are being barraged with one challenge after another, one wave just pounding on top of us over and over. And it can feel totally overwhelming. But the universe never dishes out more than what we’re capable of taking on. It never gives us more than what we’re capable of handling, even if we feel like we’re cracking at the seams.
There’s that famous quote by Leonard Cohen that says, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” So these storms and these challenges, they come at us, they crack us open, and this is how the light of awakening begins to take shape. If we can maintain an elevated perspective when we’re in the midst of the struggle, then we can see the storm as a necessary process of transformation and awakening. And when we feel that, when we know that, when we understand that, that begins to change everything. Louisa May Alcott says, “I’m not afraid of storms, for I am learning to sail my ship.” Or Vivian Green, who writes, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” And that struggle and that challenge, instead of us letting it take us down, can we thrive within that, again, knowing that this is an opportunity to grow and to evolve?
Now, in the center of every hurricane, there is that calm center, the stillness, the nucleus of the storm. And mindfulness practice, it helps us to find that center. It helps us to find that calm. Yoga as well teaches us to meet adversity with equanimity. Of course, when we’re moving through a yoga practice, this is why we move through difficult poses, right? We’re placed in this pose that is challenging, it’s intense. It’s really not that enjoyable or fun. And that yoga instructor is guiding us to breath, to practice staying steady in both the body and the mind, even in the midst of that difficult pose. Same thing in meditation practice. We’re sitting on our cushion, whether that’s 10 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour, a day long meditation retreat, a 10-day silent meditation retreat. We take our seat. And in the midst of all the turmoil, of the thoughts and the emotions and the images and the mind movies that are showing up, the visitors that are passing through the sky of our mind, there we are at the center of it all, the center of the storm. And, of course, we train on our yoga mat, we train on our meditation cushion so that then we can bring that forth within our life. So these practices, they give us the great gift of resiliency, which includes, in many cases, more courage.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” So maybe we’re that person. Maybe we’re that one calm person on our boat. And maybe we’re the calm person in our family. Or God forbid something happens out in public, and you’re that one calm person, the one person that isn’t freaking out. And other people feel that. And they see that. And then you have an effect on others. We all have that ability. We all have that capacity.
There is a story of a Norwegian pastor who worked secretly during World War II to help save Jews and all whose lives were being threatened by the Nazis. Eventually, this pastor was called into the Nazi headquarters and told to sit in this metal chair opposite a German officer. The officer switched on his harsh light, took out his gun, placed it on the table, pointing directly at the pastor. And then without hesitation, the pastor reach into his satchel, he placed his Bible on the desk next to the gun. The officer demanded, “Why did you do that?” The pastor calmly replied, “You put your weapon on the table, and so have I.” And so we can all find this inner strength, this inner power to carry us through the great storms of life, to carry us through the inevitable battles that we face. And we can do that by identifying with the part of us that fire cannot burn, that wind cannot blow, that water cannot wet, that no storm can harm. Call it God, the universe, the big cell, spirit, or soul, or as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” So when you tap into that soul force, when you tap into that part of you that is timeless, that is eternal, that is indestructible, you can weather any storm that life throws your way.
I want to share a letter with you from one of our students in the Maine State Prison who writes about a tsunami of adversity. This is inmate Brandon Brown. He says, “I faced what feels like a tsunami of adversity for the last couple of months. In 10 plus years of incarceration, I’ve learned that difficult times rarely come in drops of rain or even isolated thunderstorms. They rumble and shake the whole earth, coming through with uncontrollable forces and testing your fortitude to see how you pick up the pieces.” And he goes on to talk about how he lost his grandfather. And his grandfather meant the world to him. He said that, “Everything that I’ve achieved is in great part because of the love that he gave. And he always told me he was proud of the man that I had become. He was. He still is my hero.” Brandon goes on write, “Fortunately, I was allowed to attend the burial service on a gorgeous July morning with friends and family, some of whom I have not seen in 10 to 15 years. It was a beautiful service where I got to celebrate and honor Bubba,” his grandfather, “while also shedding tears of grief with those in this world whom I cherish most. It was also a time where I became acutely aware of my status as an inmate in the weight of time.
At 8:15 that morning, I was dressed in a fluorescent orange jumpsuit. I was chained at my ankles, waist, and wrist, unable to move my arms more than six inches in front of my waist and only moving forward by shuffling my long legs in awkward short steps. At 11:00 AM, the service began. Unable to give hugs with no free arm, hand, I could only receive them awkwardly from those not traumatized too much by my appearance. I remained like this for the one and a half hours I was allowed to attend, the two-hour drive back. Some family was obviously uncomfortable with my attendance, their faces saying more than words ever could. Despite the fact that my grandfather was one of my closest companions and a source of inspiration in my life, I couldn’t help but wonder if I belonged, if I was out of place, if I had made a mistake by attending. It was a hard reality for me to ponder and a heavy experience that lingered for weeks after. Once back in the prison, I think I was numb to how anger, fear, resentment, loneliness and sadness and confusion crept into my psyche. I began becoming hyper aware of how staff was making me feel with the way they looked at us. The venom that they spoke with and the joy they seemed to get out of our pain and sorrow. My heart was becoming hardened, and it began to affect my mental and emotional well-being in some of my relationships inside and outside of the walls. Dominoes began to fall, storm winds surged on, and I was quickly feeling engulfed by the floods of negativity. I went through some very confusing changes with how I do my schoolwork and correspond with people. And quickly, I began to feel like nothing was worth my effort because the people with power over me will never recognize my humanity and will continue to test my resolve until I break. I know I can’t break. I was really feeling like packing my belongings up, contacting my university to withdraw until my release and go into segregation in search of solitude and the necessary peace and quiet to be able to retreat within and rediscover my own humanity.”
“I’ve been meditating daily and using my mantra as a reminder to keep the vision clear. I’ve been doing mantra work to ground myself. Last night I did 108 better days are ahead just to remind myself of this undeniable truth. The obstacles within the prison remain, but I know I can only begin to face them effectively if my head and heart are at peace and in unison. So that is my daily focus right now. I will not let negativity and oppression win out. My education will fuel my advocacy beyond these walls. It will be those that my light projects from, and it will not outlast the negativity that attempts to suppress my opportunities. But it will also be the tool I use to dismantle that negativity, those beliefs, and the system that fosters all the filth that I’ve been feeling, and then replacing it with hope, opportunity and love and belief. And as I’ve used it to climb out of this recent hole, yoga and meditation will be the tools I use to stay centered and focused and to help others do the same. To help them pull the blinds open so that the light can do more than just heat their negative emotions but can send the darkness of those emotions into a hasty retreat.”
Remember that no storm lasts forever. What does last forever is that dimension of pure consciousness within you. It is here. You will always find an inner sanctuary of serenity that will outlast any storm the world can bring to you. Much health, much wealth, much love to you. Namaste.