Thursday, March 08, 2007
Standing fast in the current,
I feel it swirling around my ankles,
pulling me under.
The more I try to stand fast,
the stronger the water tugs me down,
Then I see the sandy beach,
and I move gently against the waves,
parallel to shore.
No longer am I struggling,
and the riptide loosens its angry grip,
and I free myself.
A theme common to the teachings of my favorite teachers—Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh and Lama Surya Das—is that the key to release from suffering and samsara is mindfulness, or what Pema Chödrön calls "learning to stay." It is not a question of no longer having negative feelings or cravings, but rather learning to gently and with lovingkindess understand the feeling or craving without letting it drive us into habitual behaviors of self-harm.
In Florida, there is a common and occasionally lethal ocean phenomenon called a riptide or rip current. A rip current is a strong flow of water returning seaward from the shore, and it can catch swimmers (and especially non-swimmers) unaware and push them farther away from shore. The majority of people who drown in rip currents (causing about 100 fatal drownings in the U.S. each year) do so because they exhaust themselves fighting the current.
One can survive (escape) a rip current in one of two ways: either by floating with the current until it subsides (which works if one is a strong enough swimmer to swim back to shore after being pushed 100 or so feet out) or to move out of the current by swimming parallel to shore. Florida beachgoers are warned that they should not under any circumstances attempt to fight the current, which can be very strong (as fast as 2.5 meters per second).
I think this advice works with cravings and negative feelings, too. Fighting them can create its own difficulties (e.g. guilt). Pema Chödrön teaches that when one feels the tightening, one should gently and without judgment acknowledge the feeling with curiosity, and that in this way one can avoid getting "stuck" or, using my analogy, being carried away by the rip current of one's own angst.