Practicing During Turbulent Times
by Chas DiCapua, IMS Resident Teacher
Covid-19, BLM, uncertain elections, economic instability, climate crisis, and now the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg with the balance of the Supreme Court on the line—what are we to do? How does one practice, how does one be, during these very difficult times? In order to answer that question, first it may be helpful to explore a different line of inquiry. That is, what habit patterns do I have in my heart and mind in relation to these external arenas of life?
Understanding ourselves and how we respond and react to life when it becomes turbulent is an important first step in becoming clear about how best to practice during these trying moments. What really happens internally when we are pushed to the edge of where we are comfortable, or beyond?
There are two main arenas of dharma practice and embodiment. First is wisdom, which sees the patterned, dependently unfolding and empty nature of our world, including our own hearts and minds. The second is compassion, which connects with and responds, inwardly and/or outwardly, to the challenges and the suffering of this world.
People generally incline towards one practice or embodiment more than the other. Various personality traits, upbringings, and a long list of other factors bring about such proclivities. Once we see where our inclinations lie, we can then more clearly witness our edges. A couple of examples may be helpful to flesh this out.
Example 1: In your dharma study and practice, you incline towards the teaching of emptiness. You take retreats based on this teaching, read books that deal with this topic, and gear your formal practice towards seeing the selfless, empty nature of all phenomena. In and of itself, this is not a problem. Yet, two weeks ago, when your friend’s father died, you were at a loss. You felt uncomfortable reaching out. You didn’t know what to say. You found an excuse to avoid the wake and did not call. Yes, it’s all emptiness, but not acting felt bad. So, what practices will support you in being a good friend? Practices that engage the heart—lovingkindness, compassion, reaching out, and taking the time to bring mindfulness to your own inner life.
Example 2: Ever since you can remember you have felt things deeply—your own feelings, the feelings of others, and the joys and sorrows of the world around you. When your friend’s dog had to be euthanized, you felt the loss as your own. You feel the loss of species from this planet due to the climate crises and ecological collapse as a heavy weight on your heart. When your sibling and their partner had their first child, your joy was overflowing. In and of itself, this heartfelt connection to the world is not a problem—this level of connection with life is quite beautiful. Yet, with all the social, political and environmental tumult that’s been happening, you’re feeling overwhelmed with anxiety and panic, believing that things have gone terribly wrong and that something must be done about it, now. You’ve been calling your friends and asking them to write their members of congress and demand this or that action. When they don’t show your level of urgency, you get angry with them. How could they be so complacent? Don’t they care? The heart and mind are stuck in reactivity. So what practices will support you in restoring balance to your emotions? Practices that allow you to temporarily pull back from the details of life and give the heart a chance to rest. Grounding, mental relaxation, and a larger view may be helpful.
In both examples, we can see that change is one of the dominating conditions of life. Dukkha is another. Yes, people and other living beings will suffer and die. Yes, the supreme court may be shifting towards the conservative. It has shifted in the past and will shift again in the future. So have the earth’s tectonic plates, the weather, and the moods that run through the minds of all thinking beings. Life is not going to be the way we want it to be. It has been like this since time immemorial and will continue to be like this for all times to come.
Opening to this view of life—a view that is so much larger than the individual—is a way to ease our suffering. Ultimately, we have to practice with all of life if we want to be truly free. We can come to understand a larger, more absolute view of how life unfolds in a conditioned, impersonal way, and connect deeply with the relative aspects of life, including our own joys and sorrows and those of other living beings.
It is wise to acknowledge that privilege is embedded in the luxury of these explorations. Those who are in immediate danger, those who don’t have enough to eat, and those lacking a secure place to live, may not have the freedom to investigate these contemplations on existence. So, it is even more essential that those who have the current capacity should learn the habit patterns of heart and mind, and where to place energy, so that we can better serve society as we continue cultivating the Nobel Eightfold Path. We may then use the very circumstances we find ourselves in, outwardly and inwardly, as the conditions for our own awakening and to support the awakening of all beings.