This is the second installment of a Q&A series with Lama Tsomo about how to navigate these trying times. We hope you find it helpful!
Many people may float between feeling great hope or great despair. What is your response to both of those states?
In Buddhism, we’re told not to fall into hope or fear. With either one, we’re setting ourselves up for misery by grasping for an outcome. If we are hoping for something, then we are afraid that something won’t happen. They’re two sides of the same coin. If we can just let go of the coin, we’ll be a whole lot happier.
This is one area where a practice like Shamata or Calm Abiding can help. When we’re cultivating awareness or just focusing on our breath, it isn’t necessary to indulge in stories of hope or fear. Instead, we get to give ourselves a mini-vacation and just rest in each moment.
What words would you have for someone who is feeling helpless? Is there a practice you would recommend?
I've experienced despair myself. Jung says that all neuroses are our attempts to walk around or avoid the pit of despair. If you can set up the right conditions or container, so that you just stop trying to walk around the pain or hopelessness but instead walk through and out to the other side—then you’re free.
Practicing intensely in retreat has been the right container for me to do just that. It’s intense and not fun in the middle of it, but I’ve found that if you keep going and have the ally of your practice, you fall into the natural grace of being as you really are.
If I thought I was fighting the feeling of being alone and lonely, I would realize that I was doing so, and I was also totally held by the universe. We are all from one source and we can always feel the connection that is available to us. If we are stuck somewhere we can’t leave and family is causing strife, we can relax and let go in the embrace of all beings and benevolence, pure love that sees us as we are. There is a way through. Then we can stand and know the truth because we have felt it.
Can you share some thoughts for someone who is battling doubt with their practice?
Yeah, this is tough, and my guess is that most of us have been there. We can’t say any words to make someone feel differently when they’re right in the pit of despair. But I can say that doubt is ok—it’s useful, even. I have had doubt on my way into despair. I have gone stomping outside, yelling to the sky—but the story doesn’t end there. I can share that I have had similar experiences of doubt, loneliness, despair, and have come through the other side with these practices as my ally.
At the time, I was tempted to avoid my practice and steep in my feelings of grief. But the truth was—that technique of avoidance and wallowing wasn’t really helping. I had to wonder if meditation would help. My despair was intense, so I brought that intensity to my practice. It was hard and it took courage, but in practice, I was able to find refuge in the ocean of awareness. The result was that off the cushion, I know for sure that I can rest in the great awareness because of my own experience.
Perhaps we have to choose our practice as our ally every day or even from minute to minute. And for some of us during the isolation of COVID-19, that may be our only choice. We can choose an ally, or we can choose despair. May we all be brave enough to choose our practice and move through our despair. We will get to the other side. Grant yourself and others compassion as we make our way through our own waves of hope and despair.
Please comment if you have a question that you’d like Lama Tsomo to address.