In the past months, we have witnessed one of the great declines ever in the stock market, our personal wealth, and means of livelihood. As wealth in our homes and investments has all but evaporated, as many of us have lost jobs, we wonder if what little left in the bank account will still be there tomorrow. No one who has had a 401k decimated or a child’s college fund nearly obliterated can escape the feeling, could wiser action by me have prevented this terrible debacle? How could I have chosen a career so raw and exposed, rather than choosing a safe job, and leaving my savings in something safe like Treasury bills, or even under the mattress?
Watching more than half my retirement account wiped out in two weeks, all I myself could do was writhe in pain, calling to mind as best I could the fervent prayer of King David in the Psalms: “Let not the waterflood overflow me, nor let the deep swallow me up, nor let the pit shut her mouth upon me.” There is no way, alas, to quickly recover the losses themselves, or to fid your job right back tomorrow, but you can recover something much more important-your own abiding self respect and a sense of inner peace. If you are one of those who has suffered grievous and irremediable losses, here are four ways not just to escape harsh judgment of yourself and others, but to find that opening to greater self awareness and peace amidst the fear and the rubble:
- Rewrite the tape playing in your mind: Loss is tough, and uncertainty almost worse. Tumultuous feelings of doubt and inadequacy can circle furiously and endlessly in the mind like a cat chasing its tail. When markets fall precipitously and we are losing hundreds of dollars per minute, or the worth of our house falls below what we are paying on our mortgage, it’s hard to turn the mind off; the worst will happen, we are sure, so we furiously materialize one disastrous scenario after another. Plunged into loss and panic, our own worst inner demons appear and plague us endlessly. But even if you cannot beat them, you need not give into them. First thing to do, is feel the chaotic and negative feelings; don’t try to run away, just let them chase each other and wait. This is very painful, to be sure, but it will give you the sense of being a witness and watching, rather than being the victim being torn into shreds-“even in tatters, you will be fully renewed,” Lao Tsu says.
- Open a slot into something positive about your life: When sensations of inadequacy and self-castigation are powerful-particularly when our job of many years is no more– the positive thought is weak and feeble, hard to hold onto; but try to. I respond to Buddhism, so even as I watched helpless as my account went down precipitously, I called to mind the name and image of Kuanyin, the lovely and infinitely giving female bodhisattva of compassion. For someone else, this positive charge may be a memory of a pleasurable scene by the lake with your family in childhood, or a riveting scene from a movie, or maybe the vision of that person who was there for you at an equally tough, critical time. When harsh visions of desolation and hopelessness try to smash you, hold onto this positive image, which will introduce a spot of brightness in the gloom. If the violently lurching thoughts won’t let you hold it, breathe deeply, and take up a pen and write about this positive beacon. “There is radiance and glory in the darkness,” says the Italian saint Fra Giovanni, “could we but see, and to see, we have only to look.”
- Don’t swing back into grief and paralysis: Any loss rips apart the dependable and predictable world we knew. Things will certainly not be like they were, and when times are bad, it is hard to keep the mind from swinging back into negativity and desolation. So now is the time to take that small spot of positivity and amplify it. Instead of bewailing the losses, think of using the now smaller resources to make new savings that can change life for the better. Weigh factors like whether a particular trip is necessary; whether the front lawn can make way for a garden to help feed the family (or if you live in an apartment, whether your potted plants out on the balcony can be turned into vegetable food crops), or maybe even converting the second car from engine to batteries to save high gas bills. When the feelings of doubt and mistrust of everything return, as they will, feel these feelings in fullness and move through them. Keep your efforts on rebuilding and you will be able to hold both the darkness and the light together, as the two sides of the reality we all face.
- Fearsome danger opens out into great opportunity: When things are going well and predictably, life is pleasant, but awareness does not have to expand much. Catastrophic loss, however, exposes unknown layers within us. With little help from the outside, we are compelled to get to know deeper parts of our self that are panicked like a frightened child because they never have had to show themselves and develop. In ancient Greece, Plato said in his “Republic” that the philosopher could not find deep love and wisdom without being forced to do so by unpleasant experiences and hard choices; these test us to our depths. With the palpable losses we have suffered and the steep recession that doubtless lies up ahead, the changes all of us will be compelled to make need not make us unhappy if we accept these fearful parts are us, too, as well as the capable ones, and work creatively not just with the good parts, but with the whole. As we invite our fears and weaknesses, too, aboard our life journey, we find we awaken to our true self and grow immeasurably in happiness we can share with others.
About the Author:
Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran’s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal has published numerous articles on such sites as Beliefnet.com and Healthywealthynwise. Visit Stephen’s work at www.directawakenings.com.