As we turn toward winter, at least in the northern hemisphere, some start to feel a bit isolated, depressed, or uncertain about the coming months. Even aside from restrictions or fears about illness, winter can bring on either a contented introspection or a sense of gloom and foreboding.
Meditators practice simply noticing or engaging with gratitude practices to bring us to the present moment and become aware of our freedoms and endowments (Tib. dal jyor). It is always good to remember what we have in terms of leisure, privilege, and health. However, it is also important to acknowledge all that is, including sadness, fear, or uncertainty. Gratitude practice must be authentic and not used as a deflection from grief or other states. All emotions are impermanent, positive and negative. Rather than cultivate or ignore them, we can simply acknowledge what is true and let the clouds of our emotions move through the sky of the mind.
Two days ago, I experienced a Wrong Socks kind of day. I realize that does not sound like the end of the world. It sounds like something minor, but when you are not sleeping, and you are having strong mood swings and despair, depression, or anxiety, and then you wear some kind of really thin socks in your loose boots, it can be the last straw. The socks will just not stay pulled up and so you walk around, clumping from one place to the next, with these balled-up socks around your ankles inside your boots. It is just kind of the last symbol of low-grade misery that tops it all off—the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. A poignant reminder of how things are often not as we wish.
One of the most supportive teachings by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is on the genuine heart of sadness, intertwined with rediscovering our “basic goodness” as human beings. The point is to come back again and again to our present moment, here and now, alive and interdependent with all living things and our environment. It may or may not feel good, but it is true:
When you awaken your heart in this way, you find, to your surprise, that your heart is empty. You find that you are looking into outer space. What are you, who are you, where is your heart? If you really look, you will not find anything tangible and solid…If you search for awakened heart, if you put your hand through your rib cage and feel for it, there is nothing there except for tenderness. You feel sore and soft, and if you open your eyes to the rest of the world, you feel tremendous sadness. . . It occurs because your heart is completely exposed.*
I was driving in such a state today—between errands and a doctor’s appointment—when suddenly, in front of me on the road, wandered a family of nine deer. The last one was trailing behind and limping badly. My heart just simply broke—that straw that had been laying across my camel’s back. It was more than I could bear and my floodgates broke loose into sobs as I sat in my car in the middle of the road. All of us in samsara are enduring our own version of the wrong socks or worse—especially this mother deer wounded, trailing behind her family as they waited for her. Gracefully, all the traffic had stopped and the drivers were not impatient that day. Maybe their hearts were breaking open too.
We are all dying, no matter our age, condition, or location. There’s so much toxic positivity or incessant deflection from this truth. I want to feel better—for the mama deer in the road, clearly headed toward death, as well as everyone driving in our cars, who will also die sooner or later. Most of us do not know what will kill us or when: disease, accident, or simply old age. Not that there is anything simple about that. Between fear and fearlessness is the cultivation of awareness:
Conventionally, being fearless means that you are not afraid or that, if someone hits you, you will hit him back. However, we are not talking about that streetfighter level of fearlessness. Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.**
This underscores the genuine heart of sadness.
Even in the recurrent frustration of having chosen the wrong socks that day, I recognized that we are rarely totally comfortable. Samsara is always, at best, a little bit uncomfortable, and at worst, a real nightmare for many beings. If you too today chose the wrong socks, or did not have any socks at all, or even any shoes—or if you are staring down your own death with a sense of terror or calm, alone or with loved ones, my heart feels your heart from across time and space wherever you may be. In the reciprocal dance of living-dying-being, may our tender hearts each find our needed medicine.
Medicine comes in myriad forms. When I feel the utter heartbreak of being alive and can find no other comfort, music soothes my heart and spirit. One song has proven invaluable again and again. I listen to it on repeat and sing along. While I am alive, and can still breathe and sing, all is well in this moment, this day. If you can sing, sing. If you can dance, dance. Not only for joy and for sorrow but for communion with all living beings.
Endnote: Louie Gonnie is a Zuni descendant:
I was born in the Diné (Navajo) Nation at a place called Antelope Springs. Singing by the age of five under the guidance of my father and uncles, I was taught to respect my elders and the healing ways of my people. A major influence in my life is my grandfather, Haastíín Gonnie, a noted medicine man, for his never-ending devotion to humanity. It is his teachings that guide me on this journey through life. The prayer is my canvas, and the songs represent the colors that become my art. As a third-generation singer, with traditional values kept in mind, music has a profound impact on my daily existence. Singing is who I am.***
* The Genuine Hart of Sadness (Levekunst)
** The Genuine Hart of Sadness (Levekunst)
*** Louie Gonnie (Buffalo Jump Records)