My stress level has been at an all-time high lately. I finished nursing school and passed the NCLEX (thank God), and started a new job as a nurse a few weeks ago. All of these things were stressful enough, but what made me the most anxious were the logistics of life as a single parent with young kids.
I have decided that 12-hour nursing shifts were not created for women who have kids but don’t have partners or helpful family that live nearby. Thank you Jesus for good friends and College Nannies/Sitters who have helped me out and significantly reduced my desperation levels. But even with these, I struggle on a daily basis to breathe and keep panic attacks at bay.
Each morning as I drive to work I have Pema Chodron playing on audiobook. It’s people like her, and Eckhart Tolle, and Byron Katie, and Ram Dass, and others who have pushed me forward these last two years…to be present, to get comfortable with discomfort, to find and embrace my edge.
Pema says in one of her books that her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, told her to learn to lean into the sharp points in life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like sharp things, and I especially don’t like leaning into them. I like smooth, soft, rounded, and safe. But I think I’m finding that when I do lean into the sharp places, and face them head on, I’m discovering that I can handle more than I thought…I’m braver than I used to be….and hard things don’t scare me quite as much anymore.
When I first moved back to Indiana and got divorced, I would flip out at much less than I do now. Two of my dear friends bore the brunt of this flipping out…the phone calls where I would be half crying, half hyperventilating, dropping just about every swear word and proclaiming that I absolutely couldn’t take anymore. Funny thing is, I took those things I thought I couldn’t, and then I took more. Those two friends have remarked that I don’t flip out nearly as easily as I used to. The things that used to set me off now just make me laugh or shake my head.
The sharp places in life aren’t just the painful things that come for us; there is also a razor-thin edge that must be walked to live truly awake, to wholeheartedly discover the kingdom of heaven, to be here right now. I’ve been thinking alot about Jesus and his remarks on the broad and narrow paths. I don’t think that Jesus was talking at all about paths to heaven and hell, or paths filled with a few good people versus a whole lot of bad people.
I think Jesus was trying to tell everyone that it is a very hard thing in life to “wake up” and stay awake, but a very easy thing to stay asleep or fall back asleep after you’ve gained some insight or awareness. It takes real effort to “be here now”, to live in the present, fully alive and unwilling to let every distraction overtake you.
In my mind, the narrow path is a tightrope, that must be carefully crossed. Tightrope walkers are fully awake: they aren’t worrying about the future or the past, and they don’t allow the crowds distract them. They are focused intently on what they are doing at that exact moment. If they do let themselves become distracted, they risk falling off the rope and missing their destination.
The broad path, on the other hand, is playing life safe…always making sure there is at least one escape route present…a contingency plan for when things go wrong. It is also the path of least resistance – doing what comes easy and not pushing past to one’s edges and limitations. It is about putting safety and security as the highest value in life.
It is my tendency, and I think that of many people, to pull away from the sharp points in life, to not even try to walk that tightrope, to pull back from our edges that look more like cliffs. We draw boxes of right and wrong, identity, and social constructs so we can climb inside and feel safe. We allow ourselves to be distracted by the most meaningless things, and we avoid all that we fear. As a result, we literally sleep our lives away, living in the dreamland of the past and future, and we fail to journey forward to find out what it really means to be human.
I’m learning that if you face your edge, that sharp place where you will either survive or go plummeting across the side of a cliff and die, somehow you make it and you find that your edge keeps extending outward. I have also discovered that the more you wrestle with the great possibility that life will indeed fall apart or that you might actually die, you become less and less afraid of it. A very real paradox for sure.
With the help of Pema and others, I am starting to believe that the sharp points in life are my teachers, and so in a sense, they are gifts. Where I used to bemoan hard things and say “Why is this happening to me? This isn’t fair!”, I am sometimes able to welcome them as the wisdom of life, bringing me exactly what I need to wake up.
A final note about sharp things: I think most of us tend to believe that once we can get all of our crap together, life should smooth out and get easier, less unpredictable. When things go badly we wonder what we did wrong, or why God isn’t working for us, or if Satan or someone else is targeting us. But the reality of life is, there is no static perfection. Things come together, and things fall apart. The trick is to ride those waves without attaching so tightly to the outcomes that we identify with them.
Logistics and scheduling in my life right now is a nightmare. But that doesn’t mean I suck as a mom/adult and did anything wrong. I could get everything figured out perfectly this week and it may all get shot to hell next week. The point then is not to run from the sharp places that are painful and scary, but to accept them, be grateful for them and their ability to open our hearts, and then release them when they go.
Yes, way easier said than done, but I think this is real truth.