paddling through the sea of discomfort

Row Boat by Robert Reynolds

I’ve been laughing lately at how I just keep sitting with discomfort and yet don’t seem to get to an easier place. I learn and I practice, and yet my boat has not hit the shores of Nirvana. I haven’t even hit the shore of some beach house overlooking the Pacific! Some days my boat hits the Land of Amusement; many days it hits the Land of Gratitude. And, I’ve no doubt, it’s rowing further and further into a realm where calm and ease can be accessed more quickly. I carry tools with me on my boat, you see.

When I hit the Land of Insomnia at 2 am or 3 am — very late no matter how you slice it – I am often overtaken with anger or anxiety. I reach into the bow of my boat and take out my mala beads and I chant, walking myself through every room of Kripalu, one Om Namo at a time. Or I feel around for my headlamp and my book, reading pages or even chapters. And I breathe: six counts in, six counts hold, six counts out. Or – yes, my boat carries pharmaceuticals, too – I take a pill and float accept that this is not a failure, this is a modern alternative to four hours of sleep.

Sometimes I purposely row my boat into a shitty part of the sea – a part without any good wind, still and dank, and see what it takes to get out of it. This would be known as “Yoga Poses I Do Not Like” and they are a great time to practice — just like kayakers force themselves to practice rolls that could save their asses in the confines of a safe place — dealing with The Crap That Will Surely Arise. One of these is a series that simply requires standing on one leg – stretching the leg behind you, arms out to the side like airplane wings, then coming upright and stretching the same leg in front of you as high as your quad and hip flexor will allow, then returning the leg again behind you. It’s balance and patience and strength all at once. I hate it. And it helps.

Many days my boat rows into the choppy seas of Chaos in which both kids ask questions at the same time, a pot boils over on the stove, an unpaid bill sits on the counter glaring at me with shame for my incompetence, the cat leaps onto the table and tips over a glass of water, and oh yeah, I still really have to pee – just like I did the last time I noticed about a half hour ago. So I take one child’s question at a time, answering them clearly and concisely and saying, “No more for now, guys.” I turn down the heat on the soup, scraping at the bottom to test for burnt parts. I scoop up the cat and place him outside – challenging myself to do so as gently as possible. I put the bill some place where it won’t get lost – again – but will stop glaring at me. And then I sit and let the water leave my body, close my eyes, and breathe. Six in, six hold, six out.

“If you breathe, you’ll feel your arms again.”

“Really?” my friend thought, utterly surprised. This was all? 

Yesterday, I was talking to a friend about the memories of her divorce. She told about the period leading up to it, before she’d even uttered or thought the word “divorce” – all scary and undoable, a high sea she could not yet imagine navigating – and she remembered how she’d slowly started shutting down. “Like what?” I wanted to know, “What did you shut down?

“Like breathing,” she said simply. Eventually, this led to a panic attack. “I couldn’t breathe, and I was losing sensation in my arms.” She thought she was having a heart attack, so she’d had her husband call 911. The first responders turned out to be two large firemen, dressed in their enormous coats and boots who came walking into her house, filling the space with their otherworldly efficiency and capableness. One of them knelt right in front of her and looked her in the eye: “If you breathe, you’ll feel your arms again.” “Really?” my friend thought, utterly surprised. This was all? But it worked.

What was to come wasn’t fun. It wasn’t easy. It went on and on. But she’d learned a trick. She’d found, as many us do, that we have tools for sailing in even the ugliest seas. Once you’ve learned a few, don’t get too cocky, though – don’t assume that things will get easier or less painful, exactly, or that each day your boat will sail under calm, blue skies. Just because you own a paddle the water doesn’t stop moving.


“I often say about people who come to their first retreat or come to a retreat center that I really wish they’d have their breakdown first, because that kind of an opening that really gives rise to such desperate, really, a desperate, eager urgency about this business. Because otherwise we’ll just drift away and find something else that’s very short-term, that will give us some lift, a very short-term lift. But we’ll do that. And then eventually we settle back down to it. Life follows this. It’s an irrevocable trajectory. I mean there’s really no way out. And we grow older if we’re lucky, and we encounter hard Karma right on schedule. And so the significance of this really reveals itself to us as we go through life. It’s very fortunate, if we can, for some Karmic reason, for some reason come to this with a serious intent early in our life. I mean we’re really privileged if we do that. But for the rest of us, we have to wait until we fall apart.” Karen Maezen Miller on Buddhist Geeks


8 thoughts on “paddling through the sea of discomfort”

  1. I love this so much. Two years of divorce and a long list of deaths have had me contorted in the middle of the night on so many occasions. And what you say about our tools, I have found to be exactly true – I do all of this work and self-care, develop my practice. Then, just when I think I’ll be able to coast, that’s when the water gets rough and I find I have to surrender to everything again.

  2. thanks Jen

    no matter how gracefully you write about the pain, about the fear, it still hurts doesnt it? still frightens me, for sure… we learn and we learn and we do and theres still more to learn how to do. how to swim, or float gently along with it. or shove ourselves through, at some level, it feels like.
    I like Julia camerons saying ‘In this moment, we are all, always, alright’.
    And I know that generally, things will be ok, or have turned out ok in the past, so should be ok, or will be ok. Even if theyre not ok, they will be somehow be ok. but on the way there, the experience of being alive is something isnt it? sometimes its the middle of the afternoon, just a cloudy kind of wrinkled day, that sets it off. Breathing does help, for sure… and drawing a mandala … and a hot cup of tea!
    thanks for your lovely words

      1. Thanks Jennifer

        have a good rest of the weekend. That was a hard chunk of the week, for sure.. up and down and then another swim.. was so teary that day! improved a bit, always glad of a change… my older daughters just flying to your part of the world now – more chance for anxiety and also remembering to be calm…. sending her my strength and balance, the better option! 🙂



  3. Desperate & eager urgency. Oh yes. And your description of the seven seas, as it were–there is comfort knowing there are other little rowboats out there. xoxo

  4. Thanks you for the boat ride… what I find impressive or maybe even astonishing is how many offshoots, eddies and 50 foot waterfalls there are along the way of this damn wild ride!
    As one of my Mindfulness teachers points out. Every time we gain some freedom from the inner-critic or super-ego, it becomes more sophisticated and subtle in it’s attempt to hijack our experience of “basic goodness”.
    (I wrote about this recently, maybe you would like a quick read: “Stare down the dog”.
    Peace to you!

    1. Ok, the thought of the inner critic and super ego becoming more sophisticated reminds me of super bugs fighting all forms of anti-bacterials! Maybe we’re washing our hands – in some spiritual sense – too often? Have to ponder that one…

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