July 31, 2023

When It Hits the Fan

Cara Lai spent most of her life trying to figure out how to be happy, or at least avoid total misery, which landed her on a cushion for most of her adulthood. She has worked as an artist, wilderness guide, social worker, and psychotherapist, but at this point she’s given up on being an adult in exchange for an all-out mindfulness rampage. Her teaching is relatable, authentic, funny, and sometimes crass, and is accessible for many people. She teaches teens and adults at Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, Spirit Rock, Insight Meditation Society, and UCLA. For more info or to connect with Cara, please visit her website.

This is a shortened version of a dharma talk Cara gave as part of The Path to Awakening retreat at IMS. In it, she talks about her experience on a yearlong, self-guided retreat, and how the chaos in our lives is, in fact, our deepest practice.


When I first started practicing, it was clear to me that this path was going to fix all my problems. All my patterns, anxiety, self-doubt, and relationships would get repaired. And I would learn how to let go and be peaceful.

I had this imaginary line graph in my head and the trajectory was smooth and upward—all the way to enlightenment. And I thought sitting retreats was the way to do it. So, I sat for three months, and then another three months, and another three months. And the whole time, I was thinking, “What if I do a year?”

A friend asked me what my ideal retreat length was. And I said, “I totally want to do a year. But I’m probably not going to do it until after I have kids and they’re grown up.”

My friend had kids who were grown, and he said, “You should probably do that retreat before you have kids.”

I thought it was a good idea, so I decided to do a yearlong retreat.

I was going to do it at the Forest Refuge and then Covid happened. So, I ended up doing a retreat by myself in a cabin in Colorado at a place called Tara Mandala.

And I came into the retreat with some health stuff going on. I had just found out that I had a chronic illness that I had been dealing with, unbeknownst to me, for a few years. I was experiencing a lot of fatigue, brain fog, and pain. And I thought to myself, “Meditation is the best medicine. I’ll just meditate a lot. It’ll be great.”

It turned out to be really difficult to meditate. I don’t know why, and I probably won’t ever know why. But for the first time in my whole path of practice, I couldn’t focus my mind no matter how hard I tried. I’d never had a problem with that before. It had always been relatively easy for me to concentrate.

My mind was also filled with a lot of negative emotions. I felt like I was drowning in it. One day it would be anger, the next day it would be shame.

And this thing that I thought was going to fix everything for me, the one thing that felt like my place of control, wasn’t accessible to me suddenly. And it was like freefall.

The Middle Way

It’s not always bad when unpredictable things happen. It’s not always bad when we can’t control things, or we’re untidy. I think that’s when we get the most authentic version of ourselves. And it’s easier to see the truth of the way things are. It’s easier to see anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta (not self).

This practice might look like it’s about being perfect, but it’s not. It’s about being yourself. Your real honest self.

If we think about this practice as becoming someone who never makes mistakes or does anything wrong, then we never get to just be humans. We never get to relate to other humans and understand suffering if we don’t ourselves experience that messiness.

So we learn how to connect with the truth of ourselves, the good parts, the bad parts, the ugly parts, and the messy parts. And that makes it possible to connect more deeply with each other.

But to do this means a radical kind of honesty—taking a good long look at who we really are. Not who we want to be, not who we think we should be, but who we actually are. And how this moment actually is.

Mindfulness doesn’t have to look controlled, measured, and peaceful. We can be mindful when we’re having strong emotions and when we’re expressing strong emotions. That is important to remember when we go into our lives—just because you’re experiencing or expressing a strong emotion does not mean that you’re not being mindful.

This is important because we can’t lie to ourselves to liberate ourselves. We have to look at our experience honestly and see what is authentically truthfully there.

The Buddha talked a lot about the Middle Way. This is the Middle Way. We’re not suppressing our feelings, but we’re also not being totally dominated by our feelings. We’re not letting the feelings dictate everything and be in control. We’re honoring the truth, feelings, thoughts, the reality of a moment. We’re making space for it, we’re acknowledging it. And that can be how we approach our experience when something strong is happening.

The hummingbirds

So, I’m on my year-long retreat, and months and months are going by, and I’m just trying to sit and walk, sit and walk. Trying to get back on that trajectory—the line graph I had in my mind. But it was hard not to have the idea that I was doing something wrong. Why isn’t it working? Why doesn’t it feel the way it usually feels when I go on retreat? If I was doing it right, I wouldn’t be suffering so much. I wouldn’t feel so lost.

Sometime around month five or six I thought, “It’s time to buckle down here. No more distraction—just continuous mindfulness. Pretend like there are other people here watching you the way there would be if you were at the Forest Refuge. Just do everything super slow and careful.”

That’s when I started crying every day for more than a month. So that wasn’t a good strategy.

A better strategy that foisted itself upon me was softening and moving with what was happening instead of trying to assert control over it. Just to move with what was here and let it guide me into where it felt more comfortable.

One day I was sitting on my porch, wearing a red jacket, and this hummingbird flew over to me and was inspecting me because hummingbirds like the color red. So, I made a hummingbird feeder out of a McCormick spice jar—the ones with the red caps.

In a week or two, the hummingbirds found it. And it wasn’t long before I had this whole gang of hummingbirds that hung out with me all the time.

One of them built a nest on a branch close to my porch. I watched this hummingbird from the first day that she started building the nest until she laid two eggs in it.

Hummingbird eggs are about the size of tic tacs. And baby hummingbirds are like hairy raisins. If a raisin had hair, it could easily be mistaken for a baby hummingbird. And this mama hummingbird laid these eggs and then laid claim to the feeder I had made.

And the other hummingbirds were like, “Yeah, but we like it too.”

Hummingbirds are extremely aggressive. They will kill each other for nectar. And this mama hummingbird would sit on her eggs all day and watch the hummingbird feeder. And if any other hummingbirds came by, she would dive on them. She was not conflicted at all about that. And it was very inspiring to me.

I want to be that unconflicted about my anger. I want to be that unconflicted about having boundaries. I want to be that unconflicted about all these emotions and feelings that I’m having right now.

My practice became watching her all the time. Eventually, the baby hummingbirds hatched, and I saw when they flew away. I saw their first flight out of the nest, never to return. It was so cool.

There was something about that maternal kind of energy that was inspiring for me because it felt like a sign from the universe. It’s okay to feel things and to love really hard and to want to protect and to be moved by the world. And it’s okay to be squarely in this world and to give life and to love life.

It’s also okay to make mistakes, and not know, and just be trying our best.

That retreat was a much different kind of retreat than any I’ve ever had before. It taught me what it really means to let go. Because it was a forced letting go, a different kind of letting go than the kind that I had had in controlled retreat environments. And it’s still something that I’m learning all the time.

On that retreat, I was thrust into this chaos, and had to feel my way. The image I had in my mind was being in a dark room, and I didn’t know how to get out. And I just had to feel all the time—feeling, feeling, feeling—for where to go. And it had to come from this inside place; it wasn’t a top-down thing.

I think a lot about that now that I’m a mom. I did what my friend advised and went on my year-long retreat before I became a mom. And I think that retreat taught me what I needed to understand to be a mom. It showed me that motherhood would not be a secondary form of practice. Motherhood was the real practice. Because on my year-long retreat, I had done as much retreat as I possibly could, and the universe was shaking me and telling me, “Your life is your practice.”

There’s this degree of chaos that comes with having a child. That chaos has to be your practice and it has to be fully embraced as real practice. I’m talking about parenting, but for each and every one of us, we have circumstances in our lives that are chaotic, out of our control, outside of the box of what we think of as practice. And that is actually your deepest practice.

Focusing inwardly is certainly a subtle, effective, useful, beautiful way of practicing and most definitely, I have received huge benefits from that and adore and love that way of practicing. But it’s also a privileged thing to do. And how could it be that the only people who get to wake up are the ones who get to sit on retreats all the time? How could that be the case? What a rip-off that would be!

Precious human birth

The Buddha talked about this precious human birth. It’s precious for all of us, it has the most exquisite balance of dukkha and easefulness. We’re not so overwhelmed by suffering that we’re lost and drowning, or we’re not so lost in the pleasure, either. It’s got this balance that keeps us needing to find a deeper happiness and having the resources to look.

This birth the Buddha talked about as the precious human birth is rare and it’s precious. And it’s precious for all of us, even those of us who don’t have the conditions in our lives to go on many or any retreats.

There’s something about practicing with the chaos of life, and the realities of our difficult, complicated relationships and situations that we’re faced with in day-to-day life that can move us very deeply and force us to feel things we might not otherwise feel. It also help us see that it’s good to be alive and in the world and feel it and really land in this human experience fully and recognize it as a shared thing.

Listen to Cara’s complete dharma talk here.