A lot of the time, we keep on doing the same things, over and over, even though they don’t serve us well. Those habits are so deeply familiar that they feel safe to us, though in fact they kill off our spirit, deaden our ability to love the world. The futile continuation of these habits is called samsara in Buddhism.
I realized that clinging to my old job, with its secure income and recognized status and predictable challenges and endless stress is my own personal samsara. But damn it’s hard to give it up.
I got some inspiration this morning when I re-read a passage from The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chödrön. I know it’s a bit long, but bear with me. I think it speaks not only to my experience but to that of many of us trying to break lose of old patterns of relationships, of self-hatred, of hiding in our addictions and our little dark caves of emotional pain
The essence of samsara is this tendency that we have to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to seek security and avoid groundlessness, to seek comfort and avoid discomfort. The basic teaching is that that is how we keep ourselves miserable, unhappy, and stuck in a very small, limited view of reality. That is how we keep ourselves enclosed in a cocoon. Out there are all the planets and all the galaxies and vast space, but you’re stuck in this cocoon, or maybe you’re inside a capsule, like a vitamin pill. Moment after moment, you are deciding that you would rather stay in that capsule. You would rather remain a vitamin pill than experience the pain of stepping out into that big space. Life in that capsule is cozy and secure. We’ve gotten it all together. It’s safe, it’s predictable, it’s convenient, and it’s trustworthy. We know when we walk into our house exactly where the furniture is, and it’s the way we like it. We know we have all the appliances we need and we have the clothes we like. If we feel ill at ease, we just fill in those gaps. Our mind is always seeking zones of safety. We’re in this zone of safety and that’s what we consider life, getting it all together, security. Death is losing that. That’s what we fear, that’s what makes us anxious… The mind is always seeking zones of safety, and these zones of safety are continually falling apart. Then we scramble to get another zone of safety back together again. We spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to re-create these zones of safety, which are always falling apart.
I feel like staying in my job has been like staying in the vitamin pill. It’s safe and predictable. I know how to do the job, and I’m good at it. There is always work to do, and the electronic paycheck lands in my bank account at the end of every month. I have a routine, and that makes me feel safe. Except a lot has been changing at the workplace, including a constant speed-up of the pace and stress. This has been going on for a long time, and I adjusted and tried to make it safe again, eventually at great personal cost.
The opposite of samsara is when all the walls fall down, when the cocoon completely disappears and we are totally open to whatever may happen, with no withdrawing, no centralizing into ourselves. That is what we aspire to, the warrior’s journey. That’s what stirs us and inspires us: leaping, being thrown out of the nest, going through the initiation rites, growing up, stepping into something that’s uncertain and unknown. From that point of view, death becomes this comfort and this security and this cocoon and this vitamin pill-ness. That’s death. Samsara is preferring death to life… When you find yourself with these old, familiar feeling of anxiety because your world is falling apart and you’re not measuring up to your image of yourself and everybody is irritating you beyond words because no one is doing what you want and everyone is wrecking everything and you feel terrible about yourself and you don’t like anybody else and your whole life is fraught with emotional misery and confusion and conflict, at that point just remember that you’re going through all this emotional upheaval because your coziness has just been, in some small or large way, addressed. Basically, you do prefer life and warriorship to death.
I’m feeling frightened and grumpy and exhausted and horrible about myself because I am breaking out of my cocoon. It’s terrifying. I feel like I’m flying through the air at a million miles per hour, expecting at any second to be slammed up against a brick wall. And that’s normal. I’m resisting the comfort of the familiar, which means death (emotional or even real physical death, with all my medical problems) and hoping to find life.
Resisting death and preferring life, that’s what therapy is, of course. That’s what it is to tell the truth about what happened to you. And that is what it is to stop living in a way that is ultimately killing you. It’s the rejection of samsara.
This is supposed to be a good thing. I didn’t expect it to be as challenging and painful as it it. My longing for security and predictability if provoking an intense internal chaos. Is it all worth it? I have to believe that. But in reality, I don’t know, I can’t know now.
One more thought from Pema Chödrön:
Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
Painting by Sara Genn.