I made a new friend this morning in the YMCA locker room. She and I got to talk about meditation. She tried it once, she said, but decided it wasn't for her. "I could not sit, I got restless . . ." The ability to sit with anxiety, or any other unpleasant emotion, does not come naturally, and its lack thereof is one of most often cited reasons for not pursuing meditation. Speaking from my own experience, I know it is also one the greatest challenges of day to day meditation practice. How to continue to be mindful, through the grief, and the powerlessness, and the fear, and the anger, and the myriad of difficult emotions that are an integral part of human living? This begs the question of how to cultivate that important quality, what Norman Fischer refers to as forbearance:
Though it is not very popular or exciting, forbearance is the greatest of all spiritual qualities, because without it all other good qualities, intentions, insights, and powers will be wipe away as soon as the first leopard, serpent, or boar appears in the vicinity. You can be strong, intelligent, kind, say your prayers every day, meditate till your legs fall off. You can have beautiful spiritual experiences, meet God face to face, serve your neighbor with compassion and zeal. You can be creative and talented in many ways. But if you are not ready and able to hang in there when conditions suddenly and fiercely change, then your spiritual practice, however devoted or brilliant it may be, is in the final analysis pretty useless. It's the changes, the constant shifts and sudden reversals, that prove us, so we ought to appreciate them, even look forward to them, unpleasant though they may be at times, for it is thanks to them that we are forced to develop forbearance.
The Chinese ideograph for forbearance is a heart with a sword dangling over it, another instance of language's brilliant way of showing us something surprising and important fossilized inside the meaning of a word.
Vulnerability is built into our hearts, which can be sliced open at any moment by some sudden shift in the arrangements, some pain, some horror, some hurt. We know and instinctively fear this, so we protect our hearts by covering them against exposure. But this doesn't work. Covering the heart binds and suffocates it until, like a wound that has been kept dressed for too long, the heart starts to fester and becomes fetid. Eventually, without air, the heart is all but killed off, and there's no feeling, no experiencing at all.
To practice forbearance is to appreciate and celebrate the heart's vulnerability, and to see that the slicing or piercing of the heart does not require defense; that the heart's vulnerability is a good thing, because wounds can make us more peaceful and more real - if, that is, we are willing to hang on to the leopard of our fear, the serpent of our grief, the boar of our shame, without running away or being hurled off. Forbearance is simply holding on steadfastly with whatever it is that unexpectedly arises: not doing anything; not fixing anything (because doing and fixing can be a way to cover up the heart, to leap over the hurt and pain by occupying ourselves with schemes and plans to get rid of it). Just holding on for dear life. Holding on with what comes is what makes life dear.
Today, is about hanging on to the leopard of fear. It started on the dentist's chair, and has stayed with me on and off ever since. Fear of the root canal tomorrow, that rejoins all the other fears, big and small, that are attached to some of my present life circumstances. Heart open wide, breathing in, breathing out . . . through the fear.