The Space in Between

“We spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to re-create these zones of safety, which are always falling apart. That’s the essence of samsara – the cycle of suffering that comes from continuing to seek happiness in all the wrong places.” ~ Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty

Yesterday morning, I sipped my coffee and stared out the window, allowing my mind to wander as I eased myself into the day,  It was one of those rare moments of pure appreciation: I was so grateful to have the leisure of sitting there, for the silence, for the warm mug I held in my hand. From there, my mind shifted gears to focus on the more concrete, overarching points of gratitude: work, partner, friends. It occurred to me that I just don’t have to work as hard to be happy these days, that I feel perhaps the most settled and contented that I ever have in my life up to this point. And then, in a matter of seconds after having this thought, I found myself experiencing a wave of anxiety, a little pocket of panic, that seemed to come out of nowhere.

This experience of sliding between immense gratitude and paralyzing fear is a familiar one for me. I’ve noticed it especially this past year as quite a few loose ends have come together after years of struggle. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that the better I feel about life in general, the more little spikes of anxiety pop up. And even though I know they are feelings/thoughts, as fleeting and impermanent as any other, it’s hard not to read into them, to wonder if these are somehow foreshadowing some heartbreaking upset of fortune, if some part of me knows that tragedy is just around the corner.

I’ve tried to dismiss these panics as a habitual pattern, a conditioning to worry born of so many years of uncertainty. I often attempt to distract myself with work or physical activity, inpatient for the feeling to pass and pressuring myself to get back to “normal.” And sometimes it works: I come back from a run and wonder at how I could have ever let myself get so caught up in a bit of dark fantasy.  And as time has passed, I’ve noticed that the strength of these attacks has weakened as I’ve begun to trust the good things that have come my way a bit more, little by little.

But yesterday morning, the potency of the anxiety took me by surprise. I felt it rise up in me so quickly that it almost felt as though it was too late to cope with it in any of my usual ways. And so I had no choice but to let it come, to feel myself eroded by a fear so intense that it felt like I was experiencing a grief for enormous losses that had not yet occurred. However, something interesting happened: when I surrendered, allowed myself to experience the grief without marshalling all my energy towards ignoring it or denying it or calling it names, a much broader spectrum of experience opened up for me. It was like sipping a drink of amazing complexity: up front and right away I tasted the fear–that I don’t deserve such good things, that they’ll be wrenched away from me any moment, tensing up for unimaginable pain; yet as I stayed with it, no one stab of fear took over, and gradually this fear softened into a recognition of the sweetness of that which I was so desperate to lose; this sweetness flowered into an appreciation for the substance of these blessings, a richness so often cut off from my day-to-day, surface level acknowledgment. It was here that the fear of loss and the appreciation for what I have merged into a kind of infinitely deeper gratitude that somehow fostered a comprehension of beauty which not only accommodated fear and pain and sadness but was dependent on these experiences.

There, sitting quietly by the window, letting my mind wander to its darkest places, I discovered that there is a space in between dwelling on the fear of impermanence and shutting down all at the first hint of change. It is possible to acknowledge these fears as imaginings of very real inevitabilities and to also harness this knowledge to see something much more complicated and enriching. I realized that, much more than even the absolute worst-case scenario,  what I’m most afraid of is that I might live my entire life tensing up in expectation of the very pain which is an essential ingredient to a rich, complex human experience. And that would be such a shame.


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