Yesterday we saw a dense fog descend in these parts, reducing visibility and making driving last night a bit precarious, because of the difficulty in seeing signs and markings. Today dawned bright and clear, even though snow is expected later. Easy to apply this contrast to how we work with emotions in our lives, especially around Christmas and New Year. What I have noticed in conversations over the past few days is that this period has a capacity to make people question where they are, or to feel insecure in the direction of their lives. For some reason these dates become a time for measuring how we are doing, comparing our progress with either internal ideas or memories of a good Christmas or external images of what a successful or dynamic New Year should be like. We frequently have a concept of what success should be like and measure ourselves against that. And since we always like our mind to be clear and spacious, we get disturbed when some of the thoughts which pass through our mind turn our mood judgmental or melancholic. And then a commentary can take hold, telling us we have not “achieved” as much as we wanted this past year, or that we are not doing as well as we think we should be. And this tends to emerge in conversations as justifying – we hear why a person has done such and such or is going to change and do something else – reflecting an inner discussion about the “right” road towards progress.
However, such justifications are not really needed because passing moods are quite normal, and not worth taking too much interest in. Furthermore, realising that we have an underlying sense of dissatisfaction – more pronounced at this time of year – is a necessary stepping stone to wisdom. It is a mistake to think that we will always feel secure inside ourselves. Even though we are adults, a sense of feeling lost may lie close beneath the surface of our lives, and is quite normal. It is not an indication that we are doing anything wrong. As the current weather shows, periods of fog and cold are normal parts of a cycle. Not seeing the road ahead clearly does not mean it is not there.
So what, practically can we do, when these moments of fog and confusion descend? Firstly it is good to notice the underlying tone. If there is a hint of fear in them, we are most likely in the unhelpful presence of forcing and fixing. The second step is to try to see them, like all thoughts, and subsequent emotions, as things that arise and pass away, and not feed them by paying them too much attention. As always, our thoughts about our life are not the most reliable place to anchor our sense of self. We cannot really see the road towards the future and we have a proven inability to predict clearly. Therefore we return to the only place we can be sure of, our awareness of the present, and a curiosity about whatever is going on there, even if it is troublesome emotions. This refuge of awareness is normally much kinder than our fear-driven judgments about the future.
To look for progress is a setup — a guarantee that we won’t measure up to some arbitrary goal we’ve established. Traditional teachings tell us that one sign of progress in meditation practice is that our “kleshas” – our strong conflicting emotions – diminish. Though the teachings point us in the direction of diminishing our klesha activity, calling ourselves “bad” because we have strong conflicting emotions is not helpful. That just causes negativity and suffering to escalate. What helps is to train again and again in not acting out our kleshas with speech and actions, and also in not repressing them or getting caught in guilt. Progress isn’t what we think it is. We are talking about a gradual learning process. By looking deeply and compassionately at how we are affecting ourselves and others with our speech and actions, very slowly we can acknowledge what is happening to us — which is one sign of progress. We then discover that patterns can change, which is another sign of progress. Basically this is instruction on disowning: letting go and relaxing our grasping and fixation. At a fundamental level we can acknowledge hardening; at that point we can train in learning to soften.
Pema Chodron, Signs of Spiritual Progress