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Learning To Eat Rice

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We cannot do it all on our own. We are not isolated fragments of matter. We are an intimately woven web. We all need each other.  But so often, we forget these common truths.

 As many of you know while I teach yoga, my foundational spiritual tradition was and is Buddhism. The story of this one man, who may or may not have lived 2000 years ago, is a story that resonates so deeply and so easily in my heart I consider it the luckiest chance of a lifetime to have stumbled upon it. What I've always loved about the story of the Buddha is that it is an archetypal tale that describes an ordinary human being who, through the circumstances of his unique life, found his way to a profound understanding of the nature of reality. He was not a god or a supernatural figure, he was an ordinary human just like you or I.

In the story of the Buddha there is a tender and beautiful scene that has always emotionally affected me from the first time I heard it. In his desire to be enlightened the Buddha engaged in many harshly austere practices to deny the body in favor of understanding a transcendental reality free of the body's concerns. Eating a grain of rice per day, sleeping on nails, and sometimes meditating for days on end he hoped to conquer his body and discover enlightenment.

The Buddha wound up sick and ultimately incapable of the focus he so needed to meditate. And one day, a young woman Sujata came across the Buddha and with simple generosity held out a bowl of rice, "Here", she said. "Eat."

And so the Buddha took the rice and ate, he strengthened, and he not long after found his way under the Bodhi Tree. After a night of confronting the deepest darkest aspects of himself in meditation, he had his earth shattering realization of the nature of reality, what we call enlightenment.

This story always serves as a metaphor for me about how we can so easily, intentionally or not, deprive ourselves of so many of our basic needs because we harden ourselves to life. We think we can do it all on our own, that we don't need the help of others. We often justifiably lose our trust along the way, we shut off our hearts, and we turn to all manner of outside gratifications to try to fill the deep void of our self-induced deprivation. Our wounds are not imagined, and when we closed it all down it probably was necessary to keep us feeling safe. But then, we get stuck in that place. The fear of repeated pain is a powerful force in our brains that biologically works to keep us walled off for fear of the same experience happening again.  We wind up much like the Buddha was, starving for love and affection, yearning for the deeper connections that bind us and sustain us as human beings. We're hungry for the tenderness of touch, the safety of connection, and the security of knowing we are truly not alone.

I know for myself I spent many years shut down inside. I could look open and charm you with my smile, but inside I was walled off. A once open heart had been subjected to too much chaos and pain, and I kept it tucked far away behind a stone wall of smiles and a fortress of "looking happy". I genuinely thought I could do it all on my own, that I didn't need anyone to help me, that if I could just figure out how to not rely on anyone I would finally be safe.

But the ultimate result was an inner life that felt empty. It was a life that could look good externally, pretty decent in pictures, but that internally was bereft of love and empty of tenderness. It was at this point the story of Sujata came barreling through my head. I realized the love that surrounded me, the close friends and family who were offering love to me every day that I would deflect off my internal walls. I thought about how much I tried to always be the hero for everyone else, but hold away the love I was offered.

I thought about how arrogant it would have been for the Buddha to swipe away that bowl of rice. How heartless it would have been to push away a precious gift of tenderness. Who are we to push away the profound love someone might be trying to offer us, even in a simple passing smile or a shared laugh? It's our fear that keeps us closed, and our belief that trying to make it alone is safer than accepting the gifts that are all around us.

And look what happened to the Buddha when he did that; he was literally on the verge of death. His body could no longer take the deprivation. You know as babies, we do die if we don't receive love. Our nervous systems cannot develop properly if we are not held and nurtured. As we get older, we can convince ourselves that we can squeak by on a meager diet of fleeting external gratifications, but the core need for love, for deep nourishment of connection, will always be there.

And I remember how scary and emotional it felt to reach out, to ask my friends to lend an ear, how vulnerable it felt to simply ask for a hug, or to talk out a problem. I remember the wave of tears as the walls around my heart began to fall. But in the moment that wall fell, the life that had been trying to pour into my heart poured in with such force and grace that I knew in my head I could never go back behind those walls again. It was much like coming out of the closet, an experience that had no grey area or safety net, it only required that I have a little faith in myself and the beautiful people around me with whom I share my life. And with that experience fear began to slowly shift back to trust, and arrogant insecurity began to be humbled back into gratitude and appreciation.

So as the Buddha did, we must have the courage to accept the gifts we are offered and be grateful that we can do that. We must have the courage to accept the love that the whole universe so wants us to have and offers to us constantly. We must have the bravery to reach out and accept the help, and the humility to realize that none of us can do it all alone. We need each other my friends, and with the state of the world, now more than ever. We are an intricate web of connection, the same being in infinite forms, sharing grace within this web to nourish both the perspective of giver and receiver. Let yourself be nourished, and feel the constant love offered to you. At some point all of us will be the Buddha and all of us Sujata. We will all need to feel the vulnerable joy of receiving, and the vulnerable joy of having our gifts fully received. And when that cycle is open and flowing, it's a major step to the possibility of seeing something even bigger.

But that's another post.

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