Gift of the Pause

photography by Susa SilvermarieMy sister spoke today of getting up from her kitchen lunch counter after eating part of a meal, pausing the eating process to put her attention on something else. She shared how, upon returning to her plate, it was easy to have clear awareness of further hunger, or the lack thereof. The gift of the pause. We spoke also of another kind of pause, using whatsapp to talk to each other via sequential voice messages. It gives us a pause that lifts up our listening, a pause that elevates each communication into an island rising above the speedy waters of normal conversation.

A pause in a line of music, or a line of poetry, has the lovely name of caesura. Perhaps that’s what it is when I meditate, that pause that happens naturally at the end of each exhale. It is as if my body is waiting to discover whether there will be another, or whether this breath may be the conclusion of the Susa story. Pema Chodron teaches us to step into the present moment with a pause practice. Create a gap in your discursive mind, she says, recommending three conscious breaths anytime we feel stuck or need to bring forth awareness of behavior and thought patterns. Cultivating the practice of the pause can gift us with the freedom to chose a different pattern.

My Mexican life is full of pauses that emerge when expected events, as planned by puny humans, do not materialize. I am learning to experience this kind of pause with curiosity instead of frustration. The Mexican value of acceptance rubbing off on me is much deeper than its surface appearance of passivity. What opening am I being offered? What doorway into what unexpected wonder? Acceptance become a joyful, Beginner’s-Mind wandering into some unplanned experience.

It is not the path that is planned, but the path that unfolds which is holy. In an earlier time of my life, such pauses in the turn of events engendered resistance in me. Sometimes they still do, of course, but I emigrated from a culture that values control more than acceptance to one that holds close the spiritual wisdom of accepting impermanence. I am grateful to be growing into a softer attitude about all the pauses and changes that are a natural part of life.  I am also profoundly grateful that, in its wake, the gift of the pause brings equanimity, health and alegría!

Comfort Queen

At the retreat I was privileged to attend on my first weekend in Ajijic Mexico, Pema Chodron taught about the wisdom of leaving our comfort zone, stretching beyond our usual experience to enter our challenge zone, our learning zone. She drew a target circle with the comfort zone in the center, a challenge/learning zone around that, and an excessive risk zone at the perimeter of the circle. As a “comfort queen” myself, the teaching was immediately challenging! Then, ah, Pema reassures us that being comfortable is necessary for a human being sometimes, only counterproductive when we get stuck there, and stop growing.

The teaching is timely because coming here to live is definitely stretching me. Does my missing a comfortable chair and a bathtub and a few other things, interfere with my determination to keep growing? Well no, I did let them go to make this new life happen. And Pema reminds me that the comfort zone actually becomes larger, as we step out of it to learn and grow. I do experience fewer things as threatening now. More ease, even in situations (like flagging down the bus on the highway today to go to the hot springs) that previously would have made me uncomfortable— that’s a compelling motive in itself to step out.

At the retreat Pema taught that adversity or loss as a form of discomfort can also be a growthful edge. This I have experienced this past year in a powerful way. Though a painful situation looked the same as similar ones in my past, it became my big chance— and I changed, dropped a 50 year long habitual pattern of response. I am not grateful for pain or any harm done to me, but I am grateful for the results in me of the suffering. One result was that, because my response was different from my long pattern, I can now keep my heart open. Another was that my vulnerability empowered my connection with all other human beings experiencing loss. And I’m glad to report that, as Pema teaches, stepping out of my comfort zone in this loss has widened that zone for my own fussy comfort queen.

Pema’s teachings on comfort zone are so useful because we live in a time when threats bombard us through the media constantly. If we never step out of our comfort zone, it shrinks and shrinks, and more things become threatening. We can counteract this shrinking. We can reclaim our belief in basic goodness, or pretend it, for starters. We can open, an inch at a time, one day at a time, to a learning zone that will not only keep each one of us growing all our lives long, but will burst through fears to connect us to one another, and expand the comfort zone for the world.

Taking Heart

Two enormous and unexpected gifts come to me today. To try out a yoga class and get the feel of the meditation community, I walk 20 minutes to the Buddhist sangha address I find in the Lake Chapala Society newsletter. But there is no yoga today! Because the Pema Chodron “Online Immersive Retreat” which began just last night and continues through tomorrow, is about to start. So I spontaneously join the rest of the retreat ($20 for the weekend including catered lunch), and from 9AM to 3PM I am privileged to receive Pema’s teachings (via a large and perfectly positioned screen) from an intimate retreat video-recorded this year at her monastery in Nova Scotia.

Pema Chodron has been a special teacher for me ever since I read an early book of hers years ago, When Things Fall Apart. She is 80 years old now and today her teachings go straight to my deepest heart. Yesterday I was lonely here in my new country, longing for a bathtub and a comfortable chair, feeling lost. Today Pema reminds me to take heart, to enjoy (but not attach to) the smooth waves of my first days here, and to stay steady in the rough waves that inevitably follow in this ephemeral life. To use the loneliness and lostness as a seed of awakening compassion for all vulnerable beings, and in this way to connect with a shared humanity! I walk out at the end humbled and amazed that I have found my Buddhist community on only my third day in Ajijic.

Then the second enormous and unexpected gift comes. On my supposed way home, I stop at a lakeside restaurant; after sopa Azteca and a hibiscus drink, I decide to investigate a gathering I have spied from the restaurant patio. It’s a ceremony, about to begin, to support the Water Protectors in North Dakota! I spontaneously join in. For the next several hours I am part of another circle, a multicultural ritual circle in which each of the 50 people (including the children!) offer their personal spoken prayers and tobacco to the seven directions, on the shore of sacred Lake Chapala with white pelicans that winter here from North Dakota (!) flying overhead.

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Why do I share these gifts with you? As encouragement for you to open your awareness to your own gifts, the ones to which your inner guidance system wants to lead you.

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Off the Path: Retirement Five Years Later

SerenityYesterday at the Biltmore Estate, I climbed a hill off the path along the Bass Pond, and laid my ever-present mat down on last year’s leaves. I stretched out in the spring sunshine, ah, intending to listen to a Story Waters broadcast I had downloaded to my iPod. The bright light made it hard to see the screen, and somehow, the iPod kept shuffling my music content on its own!

Okay, I thought, I am to hear something else— let’s see what it will be. Instead of the broadcast, I listened to an MP3 of “All We Need,” a stunning art song composed by my honey Annelinde Metzner. Ah, but then, I got shuffled over to Pema Chodron in a podcast on “Shenpa,” with a funny Buddhist joke about three fish circling a hook and saying, It’s all about non-attachment. Finally the universe, via my iPod, tuned me in to a recording of a workshop I myself gave in New Mexico, called “How to Love the World, According to Mary Oliver.” Well! The experience was a successful microcosm of what I consider to be my only job in retirement: receiving what comes, flowing with each day, trusting reality to reflect what I need.

It’s nearly five years since I quit working for someone else. I do work I love, not “for a living,” but for the life-giving pleasure of using my gifts. Five years seems like time for what my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls looking deeply into things. How’s it going, this new time in my life, what I call my Third Trimester? Yesterday’s experience tells me I have learned to listen for and lean into what’s next. I have become more spontaneous, more curious. As time opens out, so does my sense of wonder. My explorer nature has been freed! I enjoy the hell out of synchronicities and the multi-layeredness of my days.

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My iPod shuffled from my partner’s song (“All we need is what we have”) to a spiritual teaching done with humor, to my own self via Mary Oliver reminding me to love the astonishing world (“I am a bridegroom married to amazement.”) I laugh with gratitude for the perfect balance of those three, and for the retirement phase of my “one wild and precious life.” At the five-year marker, I bow in recognition of retirement’s gift. Bring it on!Image 8