Recently, one of my dearest friends lost his partner of over 15 years. It was a difficult death on just about every level – the man was young, he suffered a good deal of physical pain from metastasized Stage 4 melanoma and there were lots of moments of hope that were later dashed. He came very close to dying and was brought back to life with a new gene therapy. Then the therapy stopped working, the cancer spread and he died. My friend, who is normally pretty indestructible, was laid flat by the whole experience. This is a person who teaches upwards of 20 yoga, spin and fitness classes each week in the hardcore, competitive environment of LA. By the time his partner died, he was on auto-pilot, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
When I asked if he was doing his yoga practice, thinking it must be a balm in this time of great grief and upheaval, he said, unequivocally, “No.”
In truth, I know this feeling well. When things are in turmoil, getting to the mat or the meditation seat is never more difficult even as it is never more important. It is one more reason why we need community or sangha. In Buddhism’s list of the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha), sangha usually gets short shrift. We understand the importance of both the historical Buddha and trying to realize the buddha that is our own nature. The teachings, or Dharma, also carry a natural kind of authority. But sangha? You mean I have to be with other people? And, like, it’s really important? Not so much.
I remember during a Zen workshop, one participant described how she felt like she was doing well with her meditation practice. “Then,” she said, “someone comes and sits beside me……”
My teacher asked her, “And you felt like you are not as good as them?”
She replied, “Well, not always….sometimes it’s the other way around.”
We all laughed because who hasn’t been there? There is this idea that each of us is like a rough stone. In sangha, we are tossed together and bump up against each other and, in this way, we polish each other’s rough edges. This is a very important aspect of working with sangha. But it isn’t all about the hard stuff – sangha also can offer us motivation and inspiration when times are difficult. It is there to remind us that we do not have to carry the whole load, all the time. Being alive in the world is a group endeavor. There is no reason why you, or anyone, should be carrying everything all by yourself. In fact, to behave as if this is so is quite simply a misunderstanding of how things truly are. As my friend who lost his partner like to chide me when I am doing something especially stupid, it is Wrong Thinking.
The whole interconnectedness thing can be quite a pain in the ass sometimes. Who hasn’t experienced unexpected or unintended consequences? On the other hand, we can also use this fact of our all being deeply and inextricably woven together to receive help in our times of difficulty and challenge. Trees do it via their roots. Heck, even mushrooms take care of each other!
It is so hard to do the right things for ourselves when our world has been turned upside down by illness or death (or divorce or moving house). But if we can remember that we don’t have to carry the whole load all the time, then reaching out for help is a lot easier. When my friend said that he wasn’t doing his practice, then that was the time for me to say, “Hey, come sit with me tomorrow.” Sometimes all someone needs is just a little enticement and then they can carry on from there. Sometimes they might need more. The most important thing is to offer something, even if that something seems small. Don’t underestimate how supportive it can be to just sit in silence together.
Giving – and receiving – are not complicated. You can do this!