The phone rings in the night. The father’s heart, long struggling, has finally broken. He is gone. A spaceship explodes. Towers fall. A baby moves through blood and slime and pops out, alive and well. A tender moment of love with a demented mother. A surprise moment of grace with a perfect stranger. In the midst of our clinging and busyness, our unconscious identification with myself and the other and all that needs to be so urgently accomplished, we experience moments of enlightenment. When our unconscious insistence about life slips away and all simply IS and is known. It’s like this now, wide and spacious: in its own way, perfect. We open in compassion and deep care. Just this. We don’t forget the worldly dhammas of pleasure and pain and gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. They are all still there: this whole, sometimes horrible, catastrophe of being alive, living and loving, gaining and losing. Just this.
It is said that on the night of his enlightenment, Siddhartha remembered just such a moment when, as a child sitting under the rose apple tree, his mind and heart had opened as wide as the world. Awareness knowing it all. As he recollected this moment, the grown Siddhartha saw, then, that freedom from suffering was a middle way. Not trying to be rid of the pains and sorrows of this human world, but resting in wise and spacious, heartfelt and compassionate awareness of the comings and goings of all that arises, moment by moment, by moment. No struggle, no complaint, nothing to fight, nothing, even to accomplish. A heart that knows the joys and sorrows of this human life sees what response is wholesome, wise, possible in this moment, and smiles at the mystery of it all unfolding.
These moments come, seemingly unbidden, like gifts of grace, to each of us as the fruits of our practice. They are not produced by the ego, by our conscious mind. They are allowed and received as we learn to open and rest in awareness and mystery. As psychotherapists, we are able to rest with ease as a client struggles. Present and caring, but not caught in a drama, not identified. Not resisting what is, not running away from the other’s experience. Not resisting our own experience, even if unpleasant. Available to understand but not requiring understanding. Available to help but not needing to help, not needing to be seen as helpful.
Marie struggled with relationships, both external and internal. With a long-time and very sincere and serious spiritual practice, she tried hard to bring presence, love and care to everyone she met. And yet her intimate relationships remained relentlessly conflicted and they often ended badly. She was speaking in session of the anguish of her current relationship. This one, too: another failure. As I listened, aware externally, aware internally, I kept seeing my mind wander off. My efforts to stay focused were caught in struggle and, ultimately, failure. I investigated and saw the difficulty.
Shortly before Marie arrived, I had a troubling phone call. My elderly mother had been taken to the hospital and was in a medical crisis. Several decisions needed to be made. By me. Soon. No matter how I tried, my attention would not stay only with Marie; my problem-solving-for-my-mother brain was having its way. I told her. I said that I was distracted by something of my own and by a phone call I had just received. I knew that, whether or not I spoke of it, at some level she would perceive my lack of full presence. I told her that I wanted to speak of it so we could together bring it into awareness and so she would know that my difficulty being present wasn’t because of her and that it wasn’t her fault. “So focus,” she said. “Come back.” “I can’t, quite. I’ve been trying and I see that the best I seem to be able to do at this moment is to tell you what’s happening so you won’t feel responsible. It’s like this just now, for me, for you. It’s like this just now.” She became enraged, frustrated that I couldn’t be what she wanted just then. For her it had such a familiar feel: just like all those other relationships in the history of her life. I saw her anger, acknowledged it all to her and to me, and felt its unpleasantness. I knew my own wish to be there, also, and knew that the best way of being there at that particular moment was for both of us to know very clearly the limits of my ability. It’s like this just now. It continued for the rest of the hour in much this way and she left the session in a huff, irritated and frustrated.
I contemplated what I might have done differently, bowed to my limitations, and blessed us both. When she returned the next week, Marie had had an epiphany. After our session and still upset, she had courageously turned to mindfulness and then investigation of her troubling experience with me, slowly unfolding more and more clarity. She saw her own disappointment and grief. Moving even deeper, she saw her own relentless drive to always be some particular way: what she thought she should be at any given moment. Unforgiving expectations, struggles to be “perfect,” borne out of historical conditioning and conceptual mind, pushed and pulled her every thought, her every behavior. Embedded in her conditioning, she had simply assumed this to be the only way, the only choice. My willingness to be present and at ease with my own imperfections, to name them and not push them off on another, had ultimately given her a space in which to cultivate the same ease of mind with herself. And maybe to others. A gift of grace, borne out of mindfulness of the experience of this moment. Grace that is available to us all in any moment.
So we fix things when we can. We go back to the house for a jacket and we take our car for an oil change and a new tire. We make soup for our children and offer a loving ear to our friends. As psychotherapists, we learn valuable techniques to address childhood trauma and we study ways to help people with disordered thinking, biological mood swings and addictions. At the same time, we remain human and not, ultimately in control of what someone in a far off land might think to do with an airplane. Or even, what the Maries of our professional lives might choose to do with their experience in our offices. Or even, of ourselves. We trust that our own work is to “chop wood, carry water.” Over and over and over, coming back to just this moment, just this experience, just this. We come to trust that everything, in its own way is illuminated in the mysterious unfolding of life. We know our practice is to bring as much presence and care to our lives and our work as we can. And to rest our hearts and minds in the larger awareness and the mystery of the unfolding that is beyond individual comprehension and certainly beyond my own control.