Tag Archives: Gratitude

Just What I Needed

I threw a mini temper tantrum in the humanities office on Friday when news broke about new restrictions here in Singapore due to new Covid cases. It was not entirely unexpected, but still hugely disappointing, when a return to home-based learning was announced Sunday night. When I walked into work Monday morning, a colleague asked if I needed a hug.

Yes, I really did need a hug.

Earlier today, another colleague and I were joking about the persistent negative voices in the back of our minds, but it’s not really a joke. We have all, at some time or another, experienced lying awake at night due to thoughts that skip, hop, and jump, unbidden. Most of us have very little control over this, which I have recognized acutely through years of regular mediation practice. I find that it helps to know what’s happening in my head, even at those times when regular meditation practice is of little use.

Through my exploration of my own brain, I have also learned that I can easily occupy two minds at one time, a bit like cartoon shoulder angels having a conversation. About ten years ago, I started writing what I was grateful for at the end of my daily journal entry. Three things, every single day. This means that I try to go to bed focused on what is actually part of my world rather than dwelling on the past or living in the daydream of the future. It is not difficult for me to find the beautiful place of being fully present in the world as it is, and I cherish this very much.

Enter: The other shoulder angel.

Alongside the beauty that I seek out and always find, I also find it very easy to spiral into the dark place that is home to rather persistent demons. Nightly journalling isn’t always that helpful, and meditation doesn’t always do the trick, either. I understand why people turn to all sorts of maladaptive coping methods. It is not hard to go there, not at all.

Going through this pandemic alone, as well as trying to make arrangements for the future alone, has made me keenly aware of something I already knew: The things that upset me, upset me to my core. When I find myself in a bad place, it takes a heck of a lot of work to pull myself out of it. And there’s no one to turn to for help right now because there’s no one there.

People who love me would argue differently. They would say, likely correctly, that they are “there” at all times. But that is not the kind of “there” I mean.

This is why the hug mentioned above was so important. Sometimes, we need the physical presence of other people. And sometimes, they need us. So reach out. There are people right there who need you, even if they’ll never ask.

An admirably resilient tree – Green Corridor, Singapore – May 2021

Getting to Tomorrow

I met up with a former student last week and it was a delightful, gratifying, and energising experience. It is a real pleasure to see how much a young person has grown in a very short amount of time and to have conversation about, as a friend would say, life and the universe.

I’ll paraphrase and modify here, but we talked about what it means to be grounded and about believing in something to get through a difficult time. Some people rely on faith in a religion or religious figure and for the rest of us, well, there must be something, right?

I know what has carried me through times of difficulty in the past and I know there will be more of those times. After all, that’s living. In many ways, overcoming a difficult time has come down to perspective. Where am I really in the grand scheme of things? What can I cling to that will remain constant no matter what else is happening? What images need to be in my head while I concentrate on my breathing until my heart rate slows and my mind ceases racing?

There are several things that I find helpful and this post will share these. Perhaps you will find them helpful, too.

Tiny little me with a very tall tree in Berkeley, California – June 2018

One thing that I know is that the sun will set tonight and rise tomorrow. It might be cloudy and I might not be able to watch the sun disappear and reappear along the horizon but I know it’s happening. I know that today will end and tomorrow will come. Even if I’m dreading tomorrow, I know that, like today, it will begin and then it will end and I will walk tomorrow like I walked today.

Deliberately cultivating a certain attitude matters a lot here, too. I have spent the last seven or eight years writing down three things I’m grateful for every single day. There have been extended periods when this lists consists of a roof over my head, a hot shower, and a full stomach, but it helps to remind myself that I do have these things. I have something rather than nothing. And I have been lucky enough that those things are also constants for tomorrow. Regardless of what it is, the perspective of having something to be grateful for has calmed my mind.

Another image that helps me find my footing when the world is spinning more quickly than I can grasp it is to look at the trees. Really look, look carefully and silently and deliberately. Mentally trace the patterns on the bark, the shapes of the branches, the growth of leaves and flowers. Trees are strong and tall and solid and they withstand all sorts of weather conditions and human activity. The trees, too, will be here tomorrow and through the next storm and the next one. Touch the trees if you can. They hold a special sort of warmth.

I’m not a religious person but I think there’s an element of spirituality here, an understanding that I am part of a wider universe that spins and moves. The best I can do is spin and move with it rather than remaining rigid and uncompromising. Complaining and waiting have a time and a place but they don’t always get us very far. As my pen holder mug proclaims:

Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. – Unknown

Peace can be hard to find, there’s no doubt about that. Peace can also be fleeting. It can engulf in one moment and then completely desert in the next. But the important thing is being able to find it again, to develop those moments when peace is easy and fluid. This also means you need to look for it, actively seek it out, especially when everything is all right. Watch the sun. Write down a few things. Look at the trees. When all is well, the world has given you time to find who you are and ground yourself in the present. Doing so eases the transition to whatever world we awake in tomorrow.

A Note from Israel

Greetings from the Holy Land!

View from my hotel room

I’m in Tel Aviv right now on a free weekend while the students are off at host families. I spent the day at the beach, which was beautifully relaxing and rejuvenating. We will be on a plane back to the US mid-week. 

Over the last 11 days, we’ve had a stomach virus, several versions of the common cold, a camel bite, two sprained ankles, and dehydration. We’ve seen old friendships fracture and new friendships develop. We’ve crossed the country and spent time in the  mountains, desert, and three bodies of water. We’ve met new people and learned about ourselves and others along the way.

Being on this trip with students, like doing anything with students, requires a level of confidence that I don’t normally have about my own life. It means being optimistic even when I’m anything but hopeful, calming when my own stress levels are high, and compassionate when my patience has completely dissipated. 

Although the kids are constantly asking about what’s next, I try to remind them to focus on and enjoy what they’re experiencing now. Emphasizing mindfulness and gratitude for what there is now has been a helpful reset in my own mind, as well. For a change, I’m trying to figure out my own next steps. I’ve always been a planner and I’ve watched the plans I’ve made fall to pieces again and again. What has remained, however, is a feeling of serenity and internal peace when I am able to push the plans aside for just a moment. Those are the feelings I have been trying to help my students find on our whirlwind tour of Israel.

Today, think about today. Tomorrow will come when it’s time, regardless of whether you’re ready. Enjoy this moment for as long as you can hold it in your hands, and take that feeling, learning, and sense of awe with you to the next moment. Feel what you’re feeling, not what you think you should be feeling. Embrace the thoughts that come, recognize that they’re there, and use those thoughts to put yourself in a place where your current experience guides what happens next. Tomorrow will come when it comes. Now is already here.

Makhtesh Ramon