Last week I met up with a friend, only to find out that she has a second serious medical condition. Life is like that…we don’t know what is coming. News from the doctor’s office about someone’s health or a event like finding a new home. We think we can find stability, lasting pleasure and avoid pain – this is known as samsara, a hopeless cycle leading to even greater suffering. At times we look in the mirror: the person staring back at us might have an imperfect face with pimples, signs of ageing, our aggression, fear, lack of kindness etc.
The spiritual path consists of learning to live with the uncertainty and not panicking in the midst of chaos. Meditation helps us to see our thoughts and emotions clearly. To sit with our hopes and fears. It has been said that “we don’t meditate to become good meditators. We meditate to be more awake in our lives”.
Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Meaning the anxious mind is ineffective in devising a method to soothe itself.
In order to break habitual responses to fear, we have to reach for something higher. We have to set our minds in a new direction. Jack Kornfield wrote:
“I remember seeing a poster in a health food store in Santa Cruz in the 1970s of the Hindu guru Swami Satchidananda with his long, flowing beard, standing on one foot in a little orange loincloth in…tree pose. What was remarkable about this picture was that Swami Satchidananda was balanced…on top of a surfboard on a really large wave. Underneath, it said…, ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.’ The spirit of the practice of equanimity and peace is not that the waves will stop, but that our heart and mind can become so open and balanced, that we can behold…the world from a place of stillness.”
What would it be like to ride life’s waves with more grace? Whether it is anxiety about relationships, work, health or any transition, our task is to ride them. How? The key is a daily practice of meditation, yoga or another form of reflection to be in the present moment as much as possible. Too often, we worry about things that haven’t happened or we fixate on the past.
Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations – the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving himself advice on how to meet the responsibilities and obligations of his position. Trained as a Stoic, Marcus Aurelius stopped every night to practice spiritual exercises— designed to aid in facing whatever he was dealing with in humility, patience, empathy and generosity. Despite his privilege as an Emperor, he had a difficult life. From poor health to a multitude of troubles throughout his reign. But in these struggles he never gave up. He is an inspiring example for us when we are tired, frustrated or in the midst of crisis.
Marcus Aurelius is at his most profound on the acceptance of death. He reminds us that all of us will die, however, we only ever lose the present moment, because that is all we have. We shall soon be replaced and we ought not waste our lives being distressed. We should focus on doing good for others and reflect regularly on this reality with the unknowable amount of time we have left. This can result in some of the deepest understanding available, therefore death should be contemplated despite the unpleasantness. We should reflect on those who came before us, what is left of them now and what will later be left of us.