The last month has been a whirlwind of events beyond my control. I’ve faced challenges in my environment, my career, and my heath. Ten years ago, I would have collapsed under the weight of it all, surely assigning blame to external factors and wallowing in self-pity. Thankfully, over the last decade I’ve discovered Buddhism and Stoicism. Both have taught me that a bad day the a creation of my overactive mind, not of the circumstances.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” –Epictetus
I’m currently reading Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True, in which the the skeptical intellectual builds a bridge between evolutionary psychology and spirituality, sharing both scientific research and personal anecdotes. I just finished the chapter on non-attachment and was particularly intrigued by the idea of “full emptiness.” This concept suggests that we absorb the world around us in bits and, when in a state of mindfulness, we forget the essence of an object and simply notice the colors, textures, and beauty. For example, Wright was at a meditation retreat where adjacent construction work meant he was listening to chainsaws for eight hours each day. The noise was jarring at first, but as he released his concept of “chainsaw,” the sound became almost musical.
Non-attachment is defined as a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment to desire for things, people, or concepts of the world with the aim of attaining a heightened perspective. I’ve been practicing yoga for ten years and been involved in numerous discussions on how to not only release my attachment to things (e.g., health), but also my attachment to beliefs surrounding those things (e.g., I am healthy). I have a tendency to cling to how things “should” be and the resulting disappointment when reality doesn’t meet my expectations.
It was a real blow to be diagnosed with valley fever, again, after overcoming the disease three years ago. I was told I would be immune from the infection, and a full team of doctors can’t figure out why it’s returned. I’ve been sleeping twelve hours per days, and have spent my waking hours asking how and why this happened to me. I lament the wasted hours, resent the laboratory that his lost my samples (twice!), and worry about the long-term implications.
Between reading Why Buddhism is True and listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast, I’ve come to step back, reevaluate, and re-frame the situation over the last week. Though I eat incredibly healthy and was working out until the fatigue was too much, I had to ask myself whether I was doing everything in my power to support my well-being. When I sat down and was honest with myself, I’ve been “sticking it out” at a job I can’t stand for a year, as I search for an equally high-paying job. Maybe that deep-seated dissatisfaction is having a stronger affect on my health than I realized–a stronger negative effect than healthy eating, daily exercise, and meditation could counteract.
As my boyfriend says good night to me at 6 PM each evening, I apologize for not being able to stay awake and spend time with him. I want to up, and cling to the idea that I should be able to stay awake until at least 8 PM. He reminds me that my health is our top priority right now and snuggles up with me until I fall asleep.
A few days ago, I woke up to a gorgeous bouquet of flowers and a sweet card–a reminder from my boyfriend that he loves me, appreciates me, and wants to see me get better. I was immediately reminded that we create our own reality. Reflecting back on the past month, he’s been at my side through all of the chaos. He’s made me laugh when I was sad, cooked dinner when I was exhausted, and justified a day of binge-watching Better Call Saul when I felt especially ill. I think, perhaps, I’ve taken that for granted.
Learning to lessen my need for control has been one of my recurring life lessons, along with practicing gratitude when things aren’t going as planned. Yesterday, I received a call from my infectious disease doctor on Day 10 of a 10-day lab test. I was informed that the lab mishandled my sample and we would need to start over. On the day I was supposed to receive confirmation and next steps, the universe said, “Sorry, tough luck!” I closed my office door and cried.
Earlier that morning, I had noticed two dozen birds crowding around a bird seed bell in the front yard. I stood just outside my car and watched as several rosy-faced lovebirds perched on the bell and tossed seeds down to the quail, doves, and sparrows below. The wild parakeets sang joyfully as they bobbed their small bodies up and down, nuzzled one another, and shared food with those who could not so easily fly and perch. I watched them for a good five minutes to confirm that those little birdy benefactors were, in fact, giving away their loot.
I don’t know what those birds have been through, but I’m sure friends have been captured by hawks and rattlesnakes or died of old age; I bet they’ve been hungry or found their nest taken over by a bigger bird. Yet, these sweet little bird sing day in and day out despite any unfavorable circumstances. They share affection with one another and practice compassion towards other creatures. The birds don’t fret over yesterday or worry about tomorrow, nor consider the opinion of others. They don’t cling to anything more than the branch they’re perched upon.
The birds’ colorful disposition bring me joy and reminds me, once more, that even the worst days contain glimmers of hope, love, and sunshine. Even though I don’t feel well and the laboratory messed up and I’m sleeping most of the day, I can’t complain. I have amazing health insurance, a strong support system, and a hard-working immune system that’s kept me basically functioning.
As I continue to meditate and muse on the ideas of non-attachment and full emptiness, I plan to keep those rosy-faced lovebirds in the forefront of my mind–a reminder that no matter what happens to me, I control how I choose to respond.