Monday, December 30, 2013

Endings and Beginnings: A New Year Meditation

To journey without being changed is to be a nomad.
To change without journeying is to be a chameleon.
To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim. ~
Mark Nepo 

There is a symmetry about endings and beginnings that have to do with cycles and time. 

We look back with perspective and look forward with anticipation, openness and curiosity. Experiences fill the foreground as the mundane fades into the background. In this time of betwixt and between, our year-end / New Year angst contains both our eagerness to cast off our old shells and the anxiety of embracing the unknown.

When I was in India, the spiritual head of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram told me that my problem was that I worry too much about the future. He said, "The future will come at you like a speeding train, you don't need to do anything to prepare for it, you have to learn how to live in the present." 

Easier said than done!

After all the books I read on living in the moment, I have still not mastered this lesson. Instead, I use an alternative meditation that holds off my worries. 

This three-step breathing exercise: 
[1] begins with an inhale, followed by holding this thought, "I don't know" and then exhale. 
[2] Inhale, hold this thought, "I am open and curious" and then exhale. 
[3] Inhale, hold this thought: "Whatever happens, it will be alright" and exhale. 

These simple affirmations have the effect of loosening your thought process so the mind doesn't keep spinning in the same old grooves but lets a new record play.

Instead of a New Year resolution, I heed the Dalai Lama's advice to attempt the impossible once a year, to go somewhere I have never been before. 

Stepping out of our comfort zone into a place of not knowing, not thinking, not putting thoughts into words forces us to be totally aware, present and conscious, our senses fully alive. The mind is terrified of not knowing. We tend to create thought patterns to comfort ourselves, to make sense of the unknown and to make us feel safe. When our mind cannot cling to something it can wrap itself around - this state of radical disruption interrupts our thoughts - opening up a space between one thought and the next so something new can slip in.

This year, my attempt at the impossible was walking the Camino in Spain. Walking was the treasure I gained from this adventure, the preparation for the journey, the building up of inner reserves to master my physical limitations. 

The practice of daily walks was liberating. I learned to let my mind run free and my feet do the thinking. Walking expanded my capacity beyond looking to actually seeing - the individual shapes of leaves, the clouds changing forms, the quality of light that suffuses the sky at sunrise. It made every thought that crossed my mind insignificant and magnified my sense of awe.

People ask, “What was it like? Did you feel spiritual?” The pilgrim path is only an external reflection that mirrors our inner journey. Preparing for a pilgrimage is an exercise in letting go. 

A pilgrim is meant to travel with as little as possible, to leave everything behind. Paring down to the bare minimum and compressing the essentials of my life into the smallest roll-along suitcase was liberating. I cropped my hair, left all jewelry behind and carried a half-empty backpack adorned with a pilgrim shell. When I returned, I loved the freedom of short hair and never put my watch back on again. My pilgrim shell remains on my altar to remind me to pay attention to my inner life.

The effect of the journey was the process, a slow peeling away of layers of self that create a small invisible shift inside. No one but me will notice that something has changed yet I know I am more open, attentive to small moments of joy, and faithful in my practice of letting go. 

I carry the seeds of my Camino journey with me into the New Year. 

The advice from Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, sums up my lesson learned this year. “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.”

I wish you a year of joyous transformation!