"I Learn By Going Where I Have To Go"

One of the things that has been interesting about embarking on the Buddhist path has been how much more sensitive I have become to the little shifts in my internal landscape of emotions and well being. As is common with novices, I think I had a subconscious expectation that my meditation practice would somehow stabilize my experience of life such that my ups and downs dissipated or even largely disappeared, leaving a smooth, almost untouchable, peace in its wake. And while I would say that I am not as reactive as I used to be–I’m not as likely to be derailed when my bus is running late or to feel overwhelmed by an exhausting workday–the more existential crises that come up as I navigate this life not only haven’t abated but have almost seemed to intensify in the last several years.

Of course, the crises themselves are not new: I’m just not running away from them *as much* as I used to, so my experience of them has become more heightened. Though I cannot characterize this intensity of experience as pleasant, it does somehow feel better, even easier, than the almost 30 years of denying these fluctuations to myself and others. For so long, my determined label of “happy” didn’t include the bouts of loneliness, anxiety, fear, disappointment that flashed through my experience, so I expended a lot of energy dismissing these feelings as self-indulgent, unfounded, not allowed. Establishing a regular meditation practice has meant making an appointment with many of these feelings every day and then recognizing them with greater clarity when they visit me off the cushion. I’m beginning to realize just how much my definition of “happy” necessitated resisting, avoiding, or denying all of the internal fluctuations that are part of engaging with one’s experience.

In Chögyam Trungpa’s classic text, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, the original, unconditioned state of being is likened to that of a “cosmic mirror,” one that reflects the world exactly as it is, “from the gross level up to the refined level.” Looking in this cosmic mirror, or cultivation of direct perception of reality, actually allows us to relax with things as they are, freed from the pressure to dub what we perceive as “good” or “bad,” free to open ourselves up to a larger curiosity about this life we’re living. From this standpoint, if I find myself even more aware of the ups and downs I experience in any given day, I no longer have to worry about what these ups and downs mean with regards to my long-held title of “happy person.” If how I feel in any given moment is simply how I feel and regarded as yet another mysterious aspect of this human condition, then it ceases to be a threat to my well being and is, instead, just one more moment to be acknowledged and then let go to make way for the next moment, the next feeling.

Just as meditation gives us an opportunity to “practice” letting go of one breath by paying attention to the arising of the next, inevitable breath, paying attention to the fluctuations within our own emotional states gives us the chance to let go of the anxiety and concepts and depression that normally bind us (to paraphrase Trungpa). In line with this letting go is the Lojong slogan, “Abandon any hope of fruition,” which reminds us that we can’t experience reality directly if we are living in the constant hope that the future moment will be better than the one we’re in right now–the dream of the future distracts us from fully experiencing where we are, and how can we move forward with clarity if we refuse to locate our starting point?

It’s funny, in a way, how easy it is to slip into using the language of of journeys, navigation, losing and finding our paths, when attempting to articulate what it is to live this life, to “find ourselves.” These metaphors suggest that there is some specific point we’re trying to reach, even as we realize no such point exists. And yet, I have, at various times, a felt sense of being “on track” and also of being “lost.” Probably my favorite articulations of the space that is possible between the the illusion of a definite path and the aspiration of openness to uncertainty comes from the last stanza of Theodore Roethke’s poem, “The Waking”:


  • This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
  • What falls way is always. And is near.
  • I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.
  • I learn by going where I have to go.

These lines give me permission to stop regarding “this shaking,” as experiences that do not fit in with the stability I try to cultivate. Rather, I can think of these experiences as part of what anchors me, what helps me stay focused on what is here and sense when I slip away into mere imaginings. In so doing, I can relieve myself of the burden of knowing, exactly, “where I have to go,” for I can actually just “learn by going.” And who knows? Maybe someday where I am will actually be no different from where I am trying to go.

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