When I looked in the mirror this morning, I saw a furrowed brow, and had to laugh. Since nothing big was weighing me down, why so fraught? (What a relief to lighten up!) And how to let down the burden?
The first question I asked myself is: exactly what is the load you carry? Maybe there’s a lot still to carry, but sometimes the face remains constricted even after the burden was put down long ago. I’ve certainly had my share of emergencies as a single mother with three kids, but let’s look more closely. While each of us carries plenty of unresolved cargo, it’s useful to review the importance today of what life gifted us with yesterday.
When I ask what weighs me down, I think first of Duty—what life calls me to support and what I ought to do.
Then there’s Longing—the feeling that I’ll never get where I want to go.
And Neediness—along with a feeling of shame that I’m not totally independent.
Yet if I gave up the ought’s and shoulds aspect of duty, I might instead see it as service to those I love.
If I gave up wanting to be where I’m not—the angst for a perfect landing sometime in the future—maybe I’d discover the joy of being present to my life.
And if I could only accept that the most important thing in life is relationship, I could give up the grim need to be independent of everybody. Then I might learn that I is really WE, and that the energy I seek comes from our mutual support. It is an energy that flows through us all, like a river.
That’s the same river you can’t step into twice. And as I trudge along with my heavy backpack and large rolling suitcase, I could consider the suggestion that I build a raft and put my burdens on it. Then I could walk along freely, with a lighter step, while they float along beside me.
So I ask myself, “if I’m trudging through my day with the world on my shoulders, is it because I expected so much more than I’m getting? Are things not turning out the way I hoped they would?” Remembering the high school parties of my wallflower youth, it seemed as though expecting to have a good time destroyed its possibility. After the first few evenings of disappointment, I determined quite young to pull back. “Never look forward to a party,” I told myself firmly. “That way if you have fun it will be a lovely surprise.”
However, giving up expectations has always been harder than I thought, which calls to mind another river story: A Zen master and his disciple come to a river on their way to a temple. When the master starts to walk across it, the disciple begs to be taught how to walk on water. “It’s easy,” the master assures him: “As you step off the riverbank just do not think of elephants.” Oops! Like elephants, we can never forget.
So on the one hand, expectation is in the background of everything we undertake. Who would bother to go through four years of college without expecting a degree? Who would invest in a stock without expecting to make money? Who would call for help without hoping someone might come? But perhaps you’ve already noticed a subtle difference among these examples. At college I expected to work for good marks, and knew I could flunk out, so it was a reasonable assumption that if I did the work I’d graduate. As for investing in the stock market, any assumption is unreasonable.
But isn’t a call for help a situation in which we must give up expectations? Most help is conditional — it comes at a price. For example, I have a right to ask for help of the computer company, the refrigerator man, the plumber. And they have a right to get paid or, if the machinery was faulty, a duty to make our bargain whole. But in times of real need, help can come to us in the form of grace, reaching us where we are most helpless. I’ve found that, in such cases, what’s important is to give up any expectation. When I can go on no longer, if I’m able to acknowledge my ignorance, my inability, my helplessness, and open to the unknown, that’s when help comes.
Here’s the rub: In spite of the fact that we may need help, we are often too full of ourselves to receive it, weighted down by what’s going on in our lives. Thoughts whirl, emotional reactions jump, the body makes its demands, even as we long to clear away all the inner debris in order to be quiet and aware. Whenever we need to subdue the inner hubbub, why not go back to the river and float all the excess stuff that weighs us down?
Imagine a river stirred up by a storm — a big one. Once it’s gone, all the detritus from the riverbank floats along on the surface with bits of trees and bushes. The river itself is brown and thick with sediment from top to bottom. Not an inch of clear water. That image might apply to a stormy reaction or a moment of confusion in your day.
Then imagine that the sun comes out. There’s no wind, just a gentle breeze that kisses your face. Slowly, slowly, you watch the detritus float away down the river as the sediment sinks to the bottom, and the waters become clear and still and the quiet undercurrent flows on below. Just so, when you sit down to bring reason to your confusion, you can imagine that a river runs through you. As Deepak Chopra pointed out in Quantum Healing: “The material body is a river of atoms, the mind is a river of thought, and what holds them together is a river of intelligence.”
To find that clear, peaceful river inside, it’s helpful first to recognize all that’s been stirred up. Sometimes the whole body feels choked with weeds or sediment and there’s no free space anywhere. But if you watch how your thoughts shift endlessly like clouds across the deep blue of the sky, you can begin to separate from them. You are the sky, not the clouds. Hopefully your head will gradually empty as you invite the turning thoughts to sink down into your chest. That takes time, so give it time.
Our torso, seat of our emotional life, harbors any number of storms. So when your inner weather is stormy, full of sorrow, outrage, anxiety, annoyance, begin to pay attention to whatever is going on there. As you listen to these inner sobs, mutterings, and arguments, focus on the fact that that they aren’t out there in the world, opposing you. They are inside you. Yes, they may weigh you down, but they aren’t you. Once your heart realizes there’s a listener attending to its complaints, it may find solace. Sooner or later, as you wait and listen, your chest will empty its burden as the whirling chaos of thoughts and emotions sinks down into the belly. Then you may begin to feel more like yourself and less like a storm at sea.
Perhaps the belly is where all those reactions belong. As you sit there and continue to listen, think of the bottom of your torso as the bottom of a river. That’s where the sediment can mass and give weight to your life. Since you need weight to stay firmly on the planet, rather than float around in space like an astronaut, let the law of gravity offer you clear waters above and solid mass below. In stormy or even fair weather, as you stand and sit and move around, you can always remind yourself that a river runs through you.