How to Practice the Art of Return
On Friday afternoon there was a terrible accident in front of my house and I was reminded how quickly life can change, one moment to the next.
We’d been nestled inside a typical spring day around here. Lawn mowers buzzing and sprinklers turning on. The kids next door were jumping on their trampoline. A dog was barking somewhere further down the street.
I had just walked outside to get the mail when a big truck came speeding by. I remember thinking: “He’s going too fast”, just as he clipped a utility pole, knocking it to the ground and snapping a tangle of live wires behind it which fell onto the street like a nest of angry black snakes.
Many of us were home and came running out to make sense of the loud "boom" and the screams we’d heard. The driver had tried to flee the scene but another neighbor, who had been pulling out of her driveway, blocked him. Another neighbor started yelling at him, hysterically: “Oh my God! Look what you’ve done!!!!”, while another neighbor ran up the street to stop oncoming cars from driving into the dangerous mess.
One neighbor tried to walk from his side of the street to ours, traversing the wires which were still live and scattered everywhere. “Be careful,” we shouted to him. “Has anyone called the police yet?”, someone else asked.
Some people were hanging back, observing the disaster. Other people were explaining it as newcomers showed up on the scene. Leaders were emerging and helpers were following their leads. Blamers, consolers. fearful fretters, confident reassurers. The whole cast was assembling itself for our neighborhood show.
I thought about family systems. About how we assume these roles inside the dynamics and events which shape our early experiences and about how, if we're not mindful of them, they become ingrained parts of our personalities over time.
I thought also about how much is revealed in an emergency, when we tend to react more than respond. And I thought about how I used to live in emergency mode as my natural way of being. It felt like something was terribly wrong if something wasn’t terribly wrong.
One of the most important teachings I ever learned in all of my years studying Buddhist meditation has been the art of return. The premise of this teaching is that the amount of concentrated, uninterrupted, focused time on the cushion isn’t what matters most in our practice.
What matters most is how we handle the times when we slip into the past or the future, when we step outside the bounds of our own mindfulness. It’s those instances, when we become aware that we’ve left the present moment and we’re willing to lovingly guide ourselves back to it, that count the deepest.
In this context, the question becomes: Where do you go, when the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan? Who do you become when an afternoon turns upside down in an instant? When the plans change? When disappointment or tragedy strikes?
These are juicy, transformative questions for us. Are we able to stay on the wave when the wind picks up? Or do we fall back into automatic, habitual, unconscious mode?
Awareness of how we’re feeling is not something we practice exclusively on a cushion, inside our morning practice, or at a retreat center. Awareness of how we’re feeling is something we can practice anytime. And when we’re able to practice it in the heat of the moment, a wealth of information is offered up to us about who we really are.
These are the moments when the veil is lifted and we get a better look at our wounds, what scares us and what we most need in order to feel reassured. How we respond in an emergency is important but recognizing that we’re in one in the first place, and giving thought to what the process of resetting will be after the initial drama of it all subsides, are equally worth considering inside a meaningful life.
Till next time, beauties!