Once, at a spiritual talk I attended, there was a man sitting in front of me with a t-shirt on that caught my eye. It was from some tropical beach somewhere, and it said “180 degrees from Everywhere.” The ultimate getaway, you would think.
A circle, of course, is 360 degrees around. Anything 180 degrees obviously is the opposite side of the circle. I thought what a funny idea – the implication was that it was as far away as you could get from wherever you are.
We all have that feeling from time to time – I’ve got to get away! Get me out of here for a week, or two, away from all this insanity that I call my life. Tension at work, nasty people on the roads, demanding family, frustrating relationships, bills to be paid. I want a good escape somewhere that makes me forget it all.
You know how it goes. You take off to this tropical destination, determined to leave it all behind. For a few days, or a week or two, it works. You find yourself in a whole other world and you let go of your stresses. But sooner or later – while on vacation, or once you’ve returned home – “it” catches up with you. “It” being your life… being YOU. As John Kabat-Zinn says, “wherever you go, there you are.” You might as well say that you’ve really travelled 360 degrees – which brings you back to exactly where you started. You and your life, as it is.
No matter how much we try to escape from ourselves and our lives, we take it with us – because it’s all happening inside of us, not outside. We cannot get away from our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or fears. Until we deal with what is here inside us, no amount of geographical movement will essentially change us.
Zen Buddhist and Advaita teacher Adyashanti asserts that the path to awakening is in This, not That. This moment, this experience, this thought, this food we’re eating, this conversation we’re having. Not the idea that I will become enlightened when I’m far away in That quiet ashram, or That time in my life when I’m less stressed out, or That point in the future when I’ve changed. It’s right here, right now that we can awaken, in every moment. Until we come into This moment, we never reach That experience.
Staying in This, whatever the experience is, tends to bring up a lot of resistance for most of us. Pema Chodron, author of “The Places That Scare You” talks about the practice of “learning to stay”. Much of life is spent attempting to avoid discomfort and to regain pleasure again. Hence, the desire to get away, whether
it’s on a vacation, sitting in front of the tv, or having a glass of wine at the end of the day.
Chodron says, “Thus, we become less and less able to reside with even the most fleeting uneasiness or discomfort. We become habituated to reaching for something to ease the edginess of the moment. What begins as a slight shift of energy… escalates into addiction.” Soon, we need to watch tv to wind down, we need that drink, we’ve got to start a new novel, we’ve got to jog for 10 miles in order to shake off whatever was bothering us. Even something seemingly “good” or productive, like exercise, becomes a means of escape and addictive when we’re trying to avoid feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, depression, anxiety, or boredom. Yet the path to enlightenment – or at least greater self-awareness and freedom within our own psyches – lies in dealing with those feelings and thoughts, not avoiding them. It is the ability to be with whatever is in This moment that empowers and frees us.
Trying to escape
Why do these things become addictive, even things that may have started out as “healthy” habits? If they are done to avoid what is really arising, then they are another attempt to subtly escape whatever is in the moment. And we know from experience that avoiding dealing with something only temporarily removes it. We eventually have to face it, and deal with the effects of avoiding it. It gets louder and worse the more it is avoided. As the volume increases, the compulsion to avoid it similarly does – and hence, the addiction or obsession is born.
We may not feel like doing the dishes. So, that’s fine, we let the dishes from dinner sit in the sink overnight. In the morning, we may get up and they’re still there, but we still don’t want to wash them, so we put the bowls from breakfast on top of them. Perhaps we don’t get our taxes done by April 15th, so we file an extension. And then we just don’t get around to it in a few months. Next year, we’re a year behind on taxes, and we feel this desire to avoid, because the issue continues to get bigger. Did you ever notice in school that when a paper was due or a test was coming up, suddenly doing the laundry or cleaning house became more appealing? Until eventually the pressure of the upcoming deadline takes over, and we have set ourselves up for anxiety and struggle.
It’s not often that we think of our thoughts and emotions in the very same way, but they work just like that. Whatever issue we’re trying to avoid won’t go away by doing something to take our mind off it. Sooner or later, it shows up again. And it will likely get a little louder each time, until we’re consuming a lot of energy in trying to avoid it. We become obsessive about bringing back the feeling of pleasure or ease and escape from the pain. We can run away, and run away so far that we again end up where we are – turning around 360 degrees back to face what we’ve tried to escape.
In one’s mind
So you can see that our experience of life isn’t truly about what happens to us out there. It’s very much about how we choose to deal with our reactions, thoughts, and feelings in here, in this moment. Because life is always going to happen. There will always be people that cut you off on the road. There will always be something that is not the way you want it to be. So how will we continue to deal with that? Will we continue to get indignant, righteous, despairing, avoidant? How does that effect each moment – do we miss something joyful, peaceful, precious when we indulge in escaping or ranting?
The Maitri Upanishad, a sacred yogic text, says “The mind is verily the world (samsaara). One should purify it strenuously. One assumes the form of that which is in one’s mind. This is the eternal secret.” Purification is the process of cleansing, healing, dealing with that which is impure. Heating the metal until its impurities melt away. This is not an easy process, but the result is gold.
If we can’t just take a vacation to find that inner peace or freedom, if we can’t simply escape This by watching tv, then how do we do this process of mental purification? Well, the great teachers over the centuries have given us many tools through yoga and meditation. Any practice that has us consciously looking at, exploring, and questioning what arises in our internal experience can be helpful. It usually involves turning up the heat a little – being with and looking at exactly that which makes us uncomfortable.
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a type of meditation practice he calls Stopping:
“Stopping is the basic practice of meditation…When things are not going well, it is good to stop in order to prevent the unpleasant, destructive energies from continuing. Stopping does not mean repressing; it means, first of all, calming. If we want the ocean to be calm, we don’t throw away its water. Without the water, nothing is left. When we notice the presence of anger, fear, and agitation in us, we don’t need to throw them away. We have only to breathe in and out consciously, and that alone is enough to calm the storm. We do not need to wait for a storm to begin practice. When we are not suffering, conscious breathing will make us feel wonderful, and it is the best way to prepare ourselves to deal with troubles when they come.” (from Touching Peace: Practicing the Mindful Art of Living.)
This is not avoidance, but rather being in This, the moment, with whatever is arising, breathing into it, and watching what results. We often find that simply being with the experience and not running away changes it.
Being with it
We gain a different perspective on something that is uncomfortable when we are able to be with it and see that it’s not really as bad as we make it out to be. By trying to escape, we are buying into the idea that it’s really terrible and awful. How many of us have avoided taking out the trash, vacuuming, or writing an email, and then when we finally do it we say, “well, that wasn’t so bad – why didn’t I get it done earlier?” Similarly, by being with and breathing through the emotions or thoughts, we realize they don’t have the power we thought they did.
It’s important, though, when we’re being with what is – learning to stay, stopping, being with This – that we aren’t doing it from the point of view of trying to fix ourselves; that there’s something wrong with us and we do this to make it right. This can subtly undermine the practice and turn it into yet another other way that you try to either punish yourself for having these feelings, or try to escape them by doing the “right” practice and therefore making things “better”.
Pema Chodron says it this way: “Trying to fix ourselves is not helpful. It implies struggle and self-denigration… Trying to change ourselves doesn’t work in the long run because we’re resisting our own energy. Self-improvement can have temporary results, but lasting transformation occurs only when we honor ourselves as the source of wisdom and compassion… Right here in what we’d like to throw away, in what we find repulsive and frightening, we discover the warmth and clarity of bodhicitta (the awakened heart/mind).”
It’s right here, in whatever happens, that we find that awakened heart and mind. It’s right in the worst of our problems that we can find the source of peace, love, and wisdom. Through being with whatever we experience within ourselves with presence, awareness, kindness, and compassion, we don’t avoid the pain, but we see through it to a deeper truth that isn’t affected by these fluctuations of thought, emotion, and circumstances. If we can get through to that place in ourselves, then it will matter less and less whatever comes up in the moment.
360 degrees from where you are can be helpful to remember. It implies that right here where we stand, we turn around in a full circle and see what we’re experiencing from all sides. Imagine making that full turn inside yourself as well as outside – seeing around behind the reactions to the place they arise from. Penetrate to what is behind the circumstance that makes you fearful or frustrated. All the searching and escaping leads us right back to where we began: the place in ourselves that is beyond the frustrations of life, and is not in reaction to them. We’ve never left home and we’ve never come back. The place we’ve wanted to be has always been right here, wherever we are.
Copyright © 2004, 2011 by Constance L. Habash