A sunflower taught me about overcoming adversity

I know this title may raise some eyebrows but it’s really true.  As an amateur gardener I have had the pleasure of learning many lessons from my vegetable and flower garden most  recently as a result of hurricane Isaias. (I still can’t pronounce this name!!)

In Early May our town was giving out free packets of sunflower seeds.  They encouraged us to plant them as a way of uplifting our town during the Covid pandemic and seeing them would make us smile and brighten our day.  I happily picked up my packet of 12 seeds and followed the planting directions carefully.

After a few weeks of caring for the spouts the day came to plant them outdoors.  It felt like I was sending my children off to the first day of kindergarten.  I placed them all carefully into their spots and then constructed a make-shift mini fence around each one.  Can you tell what kind of parent I would have been?  I watched them like a hawk everyday.  Some faired better than others and 4 in particular shot up and had very strong thick stems and had the promise of turning into big flowers.

It took quite some time for them to grow to the point that they were ready to flower.  Then comes hurricane Isaias.  The wind was blowing so strong I could see them getting pummeled  and I was very worried.  I quickly threw on my shoes and raincoat and ran outside in an attempt to give them support with some tall bamboo rods.  The wind was dangerously strong  making it unsafe for me and I had no choice but to leave them on their own for the duration of the storm.  

The next day I looked out my window and to my amazement all of the sunflowers  in the front made it through the storm!  Then I looked out my back window and two out of three had fallen on the ground; one was completely severed and the other was bent with a large gash in it’s stem.  Naturally I assumed only one would survive. 

Three days later I looked out the window again and the sunflower that was severely hurt and lying on the ground was still alive.  To my joy and amazement its bud was still attempting to follow the sun.  I ran outside to see if I could save it.  The stem had a bad 8 inch split but I was able to support it with bamboo rods and a bandage.   She stood again injured but proud!

I watched as the other sunflower next to her bloomed into a large bud attracting all the pollinators.  I examined the bud up close and was stunned the the beauty of how mathematically perfect it was.  The injured plant carried on but was developing more slowly and gradually.  The familiar green bud appeared and then to my amazement I noticed not only was there one bud but there were 5 buds in total!!  My injured plant was going to bloom more than any of the others! Wow!! 

Not only is it true for plants that overcoming adversity and suffering helps them to open, strengthen and develop resiliency but it’s true for all living things.  It was so beautiful, simple and powerful to watch the sunflower flourish despite having endured such a test.  

I learned a lot from watching my sunflower.  It wasn’t thinking about its struggle it was just engaged in a natural process called life.  Life threw it a curve ball and it had no resistance and there was no need to process feelings or overcome past conditioning.  It was tremendously reassuring for me  to watch its progress and see that adversity and suffering is just a part of the natural unfolding of life for all living things.    It’s not only natural but an essential part of life that helps us all to thrive and grow even stronger than we thought possible.  Next time you have to weather a storm of your own be on the look out for the gifts you unexpectedly receive.

 

One Deep Conscious Breath

Eckhart Tolle’ reminds us to remember to take one conscious breath in order to help shift us out of an unconscious state and into the now.  It really is such a simple, profound and easy practice that can be done anywhere any time. 

“Shift into the now…”

What he is saying is take a breath and become fully present.   This means becoming aware of your inner body and how it feels.   This focus brings you powerfully into the present moment the now and quickly shifts your state.  Thinking especially ongoing or incessant thinking can be very draining and anxiety provoking so it’s great to have a tool that is so efficient.  

Here is how it works. Close your eyes and to move your attention within.  With practice you will see it’s possible to easily move your attention inside with your eyes open.  Take a deep breath and become aware of your physical body and the subtle pulsation of energy that lets you know you are alive.   I like focusing on the feeling of my lungs fully expanding with air and then on the exhale fully releasing the air.   It easy for me to notice the energy moving through my body because the breath amplifies it and my focused attention  makes it even more pronounced. 

“…sit with this awareness”

Everyone is different and some of you may have difficulty feeling the energy right away.  Don’t worry if this is the case simply become aware of the energy in your hands.  Close your eyes and notice that you are aware of having hands even when your eyes are closed and you can’t see them.  This is the feeling that I want you to pay attention to as you take a breath.   If you have time to sit with this awareness even for a minute,  by the clock, a few times in a day you will notice a  significant change in your energy.

I know it doesn’t sound like much but it’s like hitting the reset button because for one minute you unplug from whatever you are doing and simply allow yourself to be.  You will tap into the stillness that you naturally are that is always here but covered up by thinking and monkey mind.  It also  exercises and strengthens a new muscle that helps you to discern which thoughts, if any,  would you like to entertain.  You naturally move into your true position with your mind where  your mind is of service to you rather than you being of service to your mind.  

“…it’s like hitting the reset button”

The next time you are feeling bogged down try taking a deep conscious breath or two.  You may just find that inner peace and stillness is right there available to you any time.

Resist or let go?

Resistance, tensing up, saying “no” to what is or “no” to what is unfolding in the present moment.  We do it all the time when we don’t like, can’t deal or don’t want to face what is happening now.   I’m sure you know what I mean.

Sometimes we don’t know we are resisting but checking in with the body can reveal that tension is building. I guarantee it is playing out somewhere in your body.   Is the jaw or shoulders tight or painful?    How about your abdominal muscles or low back?   These are some very popular places where the body holds or braces itself against something undesirable.

We are taught that feeling good is more desirable than feeling bad but lets face it that isn’t how life works.  Everything will come at you; the good, the bad and the ugly and our job is to stay as clear as we can in the midst of it all.  

It’s good to keep in mind that resistance doesn’t actually do anything in the world. It doesn’t actually stop anything from happening.  What it does do is cause suffering.  The present moment will persist whether or not we resist it or flow with it. 

I love the spiritual teacher Michael Singer who wrote the book The Untethered Soul.  In it he says that you can become adept at noticing when the process of resistance kicks in.  He says, when you feel the body tense up make a conscious attempt to relax it.  Take a breath and let go and allow all the feelings to move through you.  When you do this the energy doesn’t build up in the body and cause physical or emotional suffering.  When you allow it you express it and feel it fully.  Then when it’s done it’s done instead of adding to the accumulated energy you are releasing it.  

Here is a quote from the The Untethered Soul:

“The Stuff that holds you down periodically rears its head.  When it does, let it go.  You simply permit the pain to come up into your heart and pass through.   If you do that, it will pass.  If you are sincerely seeing truth, you’ll let go every time.  This is the beginning and the end of the entire path – you surrender yourself to the process of emptying yourself.   When you work with this, you start to learn the subtler laws of the process of letting go.”

The part that takes some practice is noticing when you are beginning to resist because often we are caught in habitual behavior and initially it’s easy to miss.    Gradually you begin the process of freeing yourself and after a while you’ll notice that the body isn’t holding in the same old ways. 

What isn’t talked about a lot is that our accumulated baggage can weigh us down so much that we can’t see the world as it is, rather, we see the world as we are.  This can be a problem when life throws you a curve ball or tests come your way.   When you are consciously letting go you will just feel better in every way.   Just a small bonus for all your time and attention!  

The old saying what you resists persists should really say what you resist causes suffering in your body and mind…but it doesn’t have to!

 

Facing the Void

Facing the void is similar to what is referred to as a dark night of the soul. Don’t worry its not as ominous as it sounds. A dark night is generally regarded as a time of great personal challenge when everything seems to be lost.  It’s as if there is a cloud hovering over head making it feel like the sun will never shine again.    It is a time of struggle and challenge where we can feel  tested repeatedly and as soon as one lesson is learned another one arrives on its heels. It is experienced alone and often no one else can relate to what you are going through and you must continue with your usual responsibilities and daily activities.   Some people can spend much of their lives in a dark night and it is believed that these souls have incarnated to learn, grow and evolve very quickly.

“…it is believed that these souls have incarnated to learn, grow and evolve very quickly.”

I have never been alive for a time where collectively we are experiencing what I am calling facing the void.     I’m calling it this because there are certain things about this time that are very different than the afore mentioned dark  night.  Right now there is an emptiness  and uncertainty that is looming and everything has stopped.  This is a collective and personal experience and we don’t know when it will end or what our world will look like when it’s over.  Our everyday routines and jobs have evaporated or changed drastically.  The streets and highways are empty and stores and businesses are shuttered and we all know what PPE is and we are wearing it!!!

“the very nature of life is uncertain.”

I’m wondering about the benefits of facing the void.  To not know for a while.   After all when we get right down to it the very nature of life is uncertain.  We can make plans but they can be wiped away in an instant.  We don’t like to think about the fact that we are not really in control.  When we really think it through life itself is impermanent and fleeting and especially as we get older the days, weeks and months seem to fly by.  

“Sometimes I thought I would be overwhelmed by the feelings.”

Oddly, part of my spiritual path has been about contemplating death.  I know how this sounds to most people.  All I can say is that I didn’t choose it.  For  some reason having to contemplate the certainty of death was something that chose me.  Initially it was a real bummer and very scary especially as a fairly young woman but going through this has been one of my most valuable life lessons.   Some times I thought I would be overwhelmed by the feelings.  Just when I thought I couldn’t take it I would have a powerful realization or learning that would make it all worthwhile.  For me it was my long dark night and a void that I couldn’t avoid but had to go through.

“we learn how to fly.”

During this time I met a spiritual teacher, Andrew Harvey, he wrote the book and coined the phrase “Spiritual Activism”, and I asked him what to do and how to deal with the knowing that our time is limited;  that we will all come to the same demise and this is the inevitable truth.   He said to me, “you can either get lost in the sadness and depression or you can dance.”   I’ll never forget it and he pointed me to something very important.   Am I going to wallow in depression or am I going to laugh, sing and dance with whatever time I am alive?  Trusting that life is an adventure that we can not predict.  It will twist and turn and surprise us over and over again.  

 When faced with the inevitability of the unknown and we don’t have solid  ground under our feet this is when we learn how to fly.  We learn essential skills for living a truly fulfilling and happy life when we face and go through what feels like the unfaceable.  We don’t learn this when we are living out our everyday lives unchallenged and comfortable.   It’s the extraordinary challenges to our very sense of self, our security, our routines that expand our knowing of who and what we really are.   It’s true what they say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  It really does and we won’t go there unless we are forced to.

We are so much more than we consciously know and life offers us a profound opportunity for this learning.  

This crisis is our once in a lifetime opportunity and I am hoping we can embrace it as the powerful teacher that it is.  

Is lasting change possible?

Will lasting change happen as a result of this pandemic?

Several people have asked me this question over the last few weeks.  

Everyone at every stage in life is effected and everyone is experiencing some degree of loss and sufferring.  It is this kind of challenge that spurs the deepest spiritual growth.  It is not something that we would willingly choose because we are pushed outside of our comfort zone.  

We can’t wiggle out of this one.  In other words, there is no way we can change it. It is out of our control.  The situation has to run its course and until it does we will have to find inner resources so that we can get through this.    

If you are in a lot of fear I recommend taking all the  practical steps that you can to help yourself.  Use all the tools at your disposal like unemployment, mortgage assistance and any other program that might be available to you now.  Make sure you have food in your house and other essential supplies and don’t go out if you are vulnerable or dealing with health challenges.  Most importantly ask for help if you need it.  We are all going through this and we are in this together. 

After you have done these things the best thing you can do is take it step by step and day by day.  Don’t get ahead of yourself.  Your mind will always conjure up the worst case scenario.  The hard part about this is that there is no way to fight a projection of your mind.  It isn’t happening now so there is no way to effectively deal with it.  When you are faced with a situation in the moment you will know how to act.  Think about it for a minute.  Have you ever faced an emergency like someone you love getting hurt or a having an accident?  In the moment you jumped into action and many people report that they didn’t think it through they just intuitively knew what to do. 

Eckhart Tolle’ talks a lot about this in his work.  Stay in the now because there is no way to deal with a thought about a possible future problem.  You can only deal with it now.  Then he recommends once you become aware that your thoughts are causing you suffering come into your body and sense your inner energy field.   This brings you quickly and easily into the present moment.  First close your eyes and feel the energy in your hands it might be subtle but with practice you will be able to feel it.  When your eyes are closed you know that you still have hands and you know that you still have a body.  I know it sounds simple but it is an excellent way to take your mind out of troubled thinking and into the present.  It is also a very healing and restorative practice because you powerfully interrupt a negative and draining habit.  

Closing your eyes and feel the energy inside your body.  Practice makes it easy, enjoyable and restorative.

The other thing I want to mention is a concept Pema Chodron talks about a lot in her work called Maitri.  It is a Buddhist term that that means unconditional friendliness towards yourself.   If for some reason you can’t focus on your inner body or it just doesn’t resonate for you try meeting your feelings differently.  We don’t know why you are having theses strong fearful or anxiety provoking thoughts and feelings but meet them with love as if it were a young child coming to you for comfort.  It’s amazing how quickly this can quiet the internal storm.   No matter what you are thinking or feeling imagine you are hearing this story from someone that you dearly love and show that same love, understanding and acceptance to yourself.  This is a practice that reaps immediate rewards because you let go of the internal fight. You can’t have a tug of war if no one is on the other side tugging back.  

I love the idea of unconditional friendliness towards ourselves.  We rarely treat ourselves with such compassion and yet we require ourselves to meet others this way.  This becomes truly possible and less effortful when we practice Maitri.  When we can bear our own suffering we are more able to bear the suffering of others and the world and this is how change takes root.