“The point of spiritual practice isn’t to perfect yourself; it’s to perfect your love.”
— Jack Kornfield
My kids started school this week, with all the attendant excitement and nervousness. Their feelings around it were somewhat complicated: a mixture of gratitude about getting back into a rhythm with friends and teachers, plus excitement about new opportunities for learning and expanding and socializing, combined with the dread of homework and the loss of free time to follow their heart’s desire that summer represents.
It is always a bittersweet transition as a parent, comforting and upsetting at the same time. I am always left wondering if I have done right by my kids, by requiring them to spend the better part of their waking life in school, despite my own internal resistance to how the education of our children is often approached and handled.
Thankfully, this somewhat anxious wondering always transforms after time into a remembering of one fundamental truth: we cannot “protect” our children from life. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we cannot create the “perfect” life — in terms of external circumstances — for our kids. We need to do our best to set them up well, and then realize that heartache will come, in one form or another. And that this is not bad, and it doesn’t mean we have failed. It just means we are — all of us — alive. And that as long as we remain authentic and present for and madly in love with them as they go through life’s challenges and ups and downs, this is truly all that is required.
One of my favorite books is When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron. Notice that the title reads “When” rather than “If”. Things WILL fall apart. Our job is to continue the work of “perfecting our love” so we have the best chance possible of meeting the tough times (our own, loved ones’, and those of strangers, too) with understanding, compassion, acceptance, and truth.
And just as we cannot actually protect our loved ones from pain, neither can we protect ourselves from bad things happening, or from our difficult feelings. We do ourselves no favors by armoring ourselves against the pain of being human. We do ourselves far more favors by opening ourselves to the tenderness of being alive — learning how to sit with difficult feelings, learning how to let go of control of circumstances outside our control, learning how embrace ALL of our experience.
This is what meditation has the power to teach us, through repeated practice of simple techniques like staying with the breath, bringing our mindful awareness to our difficult emotions, learning how to accept our thoughts but not be dominated by them. There is huge relief and healing in these practices. And when we practice — really practice — we find, bit by bit, that we are perfecting our love.
Meditation Tip: Take Time Out for Difficult Emotions
The next time you feel a difficult emotion coming up, actually put effort into carving out some time to just sit with the feeling. It could be a feeling of sadness, anger, frustration, jealousy, grief, loneliness, anxiety, worry, or anything else uncomfortable. Rather than pushing it away or down (denial), being upset that it’s happening (aversion), or moving into story about it (enmeshment), just sit with the feeling itself, allowing it time and space to have it’s natural movement through your body and heart. Resist attempts to disappear into thoughts and ideas “about” the emotion (a running commentary analyzing why you feel this way, whose fault it is, how you’re going to fix it), and instead stay with the energy of the emotion in your body: what does it feel like? where in the body do you feel it? is it changing, staying the same, growing, shrinking, disappearing? Just “hold it”, like you would a crying baby, caring for the feeling with a non-attached, kind, strong and patient love and presence. And see what happens!