Straight and Level

In her recently published book on the secular dharma, The Buddha for Modern Minds: a non-religious guide to the Buddha and his teachings, Lenorë Lambert writes, on dealing with the problem of instinctive reactivity,

The challenge is to bring mindfulness… to this process so that we can see the mechanics of our own dramas being created. However, our mind takes the shape of what we rest it on. So being with the unpleasant process we’ve whipped up here makes us feel … unpleasant. We react by avoiding it somehow. Instead, we need to learn to hold our seat in discomfort, to be with it. Think of a rider on a horse-in-training. The horse is skittish and scared of the new experience of having a human on its back. It’s flighty and it bucks.

A skilled rider can hold their seat, that is, stay in the saddle, even though the horse is bucking around. Psychologists call this ‘distress tolerance’, the willingness to experience discomfort rather than ‘act out’ (do something ineffective out there in the world… to get rid of the unpleasantness).

Lambert, Lenorë. The Buddha for Modern Minds: a non-religious guide to the Buddha and his teachings (p. 154). Flourish Press. Kindle Edition.

My own unsought image for the process has long been that of the World War II torpedo bomber pilot, whose job it was to hold his aircraft straight and level, at a precisely determined height low over the water, come what may, until he reached the release point, a few hundred yards from the target. Regardless of anti-aircraft fire from the target ship and her escorts, regardless of enemy aircraft attacking from above, regardless of shell-splashes endangering his aircraft, he held his course. Frequently an aircraft, if it made it to the release point and pressed home the attack, would be so badly damaged it never made it back safely to base.

There have been times in my life, as there are in anyone’s, when some such image as this has been the aptest to come to mind. But distress tolerance has another, far quieter side, that too easily remains unseen. To stay still, in the midst of turmoil and loss, to sit with it, often seems a rare gift in our present time. In the March 1 issue of Friends Journal, Tricia Gates Brown writes,

Sprawled on handmade quilts in a grassy orchard, sharing an outdoor, physically distanced visit with my friend Karen under purple pear and transparent apple trees, I am nowhere near a desert. My Willamette Valley farm home is more Edenic than it is barren, devoid, or austere. Yet when Karen, a spiritual director, asks, “Where are the voices teaching us how to be in the desert?,” she put words to a question my heart has been formulating for weeks. We had been cringing at the online events of COVID season: Zoom video conferencing preschool for her daughter; Zoom outdoor school for my fifth-grade goddaughter; Zoom dinner parties; Zoom yoga; Zoom reunions; online plays; online church. We are zooming out.

Am I the only one who wonders if all this screen-staring and cyber-connection replaces anything at all? Real face-to-face connection is irreplaceable. Or who wonders if our online stand-ins are sometimes making us more off-kilter, keeping us from doing the work that might nourish us in this time? …

What if instead of grasping to fill the void, we embraced it? What if we settled deeply enough into this void, this desert, to learn what it has to teach? What if we recognized the powerful, metaphorical spiritual stage of the desert and that many of us are in it? …

It may sound heretical to suggest this: perhaps we should dive fully into this new desert and coach others on being there. Maybe we should stop trying to replace what cannot be replaced: school, social lives, organized groups, church, classes. Some might un-school the kids for a year; learn how to foster well-being while being alone; plumb deeply the question, “Who am I?”; take a full-on sabbatical from training and from organized sacred rituals…

The desert of the heart is an interior solitude, a place of healing as well as of grieving, a straight and level place amid the flying debris of so much that has seemed stable and dear, our “normal” lives. Our practice is our compass. Without it we are lost. Whether insight meditation, the Nembutsu, Centering Prayer or whatever we have found to be our path, this feels more than ever to be a time to sit with it, in the void that was our accustomed selves, and watch…

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