This essay is an excerpt from Rabbi Jay Michaelson’s new book, The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path. Rabbi Michaelson is one of the teachers at the Elat Chayyim Meditation Retreat.
Often, when sadness, loss, loneliness, or other modes of heart- break arise, there’s a tendency to try and find reasons – to why. Suppose one were to look in a different direction—to what. That is, what is the present-moment experience of these “unwanted houseguests,” these difficult emotions that come, go, and sometimes come but do not go?
What might it be like to inhabit the experience itself, rather than the story accompanying it? Perhaps a constriction in the throat, or a heaviness in the chest. Possibly, in the mind, a certain flavor of consciousness, not unlike a flavor of food with more spice or salt than one might like.
It is unusual to do this. It is human nature to account for sadness by explaining it: I am sad because I have not succeeded in my career, I am lonesome because I am alone, I am crying because my mother has died. Such accounts can be helpful, but it is also helpful to stay, simply, with the present experience. What is going on? How many things can you tell me about what is actually happening right now?
And then, can you coexist with it? Of course, if you like, you can moderate the somatic expressions; if you find your jaw is clenched, unclench it. But what I mean is, is it possible to relate to these sensations, in body and mind, just as sensations of such-and-such a type, of this or that tenor or tone? Rather than something to be pushed away, might it be possible to simply let it be? To inhabit the truism of “it is what it is” and nothing more?
This is what I mean by what as opposed to why. The “what” is an ache, a pressure, a color of mind, a disposition of the heart. The “why” is a long, tantalizing narrative of how I got here, and how bad that is. The “why” may or may not be accurate, but it is much harder to live with than the “what.”
You might even notice that the mental resting of being-with, of relaxing out of the effort to deny, is itself quietly sweet. Just in the relinquishment of pushing away, even without more, is a kind of joy. It is an unwording of experience, a pause in mental excavation.
Ajahn Sumedho, a monk in a Thai Buddhist tradition, likes to say, “right now, it’s like that.”
It is possible to cultivate this deceptively simple orientation of mind.
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