Life is difficult. Even in the best of circumstances, before a pandemic shut down much of the world, the pressures were great. Sometimes the demands were so great, my friends and I would switch into warrior mode. Like Navy Seals, we plotted and planned and pictured, mentally rehearsing the operations to be executed, how to get from here to there and back again, maintaining focus and a positive attitude. But unexpected things still kept happening. And then came the Great Pause of the global pandemic, and something strange and wondrous was revealed: we can get triggered without going out at all. A memory, a news story, sometimes a change in the light or temperature, and our world is transformed.
Emotional triggers are amazing to behold—to notice mindfully, without judgment. The moment before we get triggered, we can feel like sleek and nimble ninjas, masters of life. We smell the spring air, feel the warmth of the sun on our skin, hear birds sing. This is mindfulness, we may tell ourselves. This is openness! But then comes unwelcome news or an extra demand and poof. Instantly it feels as if the doors and gates are being barred and locked. Instantly, and I do mean instantly, we are embattled little fortresses in a dark and unknown world. We are thrown for a loop, pushed out of the brain’s well-trod civilized pathways, pulled down into the ancient reptile brain, standing ready to fight or flee.
There is a powerful undertow to fear. It has stories to it, pulling us down into our earliest or most painful memories, down toward the primal fear of dying. We discover at such moments that it is not just physical death we fear but ego death, the death of who we think we should be.
But when life asks more of us than we think we can handle we tend to see things about ourselves that we don’t usually see. We can actually glimpse the ego defending us against pain and blame, experiencing it as a separate creature, a Rumpelstiltskin endlessly spinning a better, shinier version of ourselves. A teacher once who told me you never can really kill the ego because it was never really alive. That statement shocked me, but I have come to experience it as true.
The ego is a complex creation, an intricate set of defenses, as beautiful as clockwork, wired into us. But it is also inessential. We can be free of the ego in moments of emergency and love, moments when we seem to respond from our essence, from a direct experience of being alive and present to what is happening. In the very next moment, the ego will take over again, literally like clockwork, but that trace of another way of being will remain.
I discovered something else by paying attention in the hard times: under the mind that is freaking out, there another mind, vastly quieter and more receptive and responsive. We find this deeper mind when we let go. Letting go can feel like garden variety giving up. “Thy will be done,” we may say to ourselves. Or “Let it Be.” Or even “What the hell.”
This letting go is actually letting things be the way they actually are without resistance, taking off our armor, allowing essence to appear. The most amazing thing happens when we do this. A new energy and a new freedom can flow in to our lives. We see and hear more. We are here. Just for a moment.