Dealing with Overwhelm

In her book, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron shares, “Once I was changing jobs and houses at the same time.  I felt insecure, uncertain, and groundless.  Hoping that he would say something that would help me work with these changes, I complained to Trungpa Rinpoche about having trouble with transitions.  He looked at me sort of blankly and said, ‘We’re always in transition.’  Then he said, ‘If you can just relax with that, you’ll have no problem.’ ”

But how do we relax when we are feeling anxious and overwhelmed?  “Tapping into that shaky and tender place has a transformative effect,” says Pema. “Being in this place may feel uncertain and edgy but it’s also a big relief.  Just to stay there for a moment, feels like a genuine act of kindness to ourselves.”  

Breathing into the sensation of overwhelm with loving kindness, without using strategies of the ego to run away, is what softens and transforms our experience.  “We can begin anything we do--start our day, eat a meal, or walk into a meeting--with the intention to be open, flexible, and kind.  Then we can proceed with an inquisitive mind.  As my teacher Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, ‘Live your life as an experiment.’” 

When Pema was 6-years old, she learned this from an old woman sitting in the sun.  “I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved, and mad, kicking anything I could find.  Laughing, she said to me, ‘Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.’  

“Right there, I received this pith instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us.  We always have this choice.”

The love in our hearts is much like the bubbling up of energy found on the ocean floor between tectonic plates that are spreading apart.  Magma from deep in the earth rises up through the gaps and faults, forming new sea floor.  This continuous upwelling of hydrothermal activity is home to a great biodiversity of marine life and minerals including gold, silver, and copper. 

It’s the nature of love to continuously rise and flow and spread even through our faults and cracks.  Love creates new ground and provides warmth, new life, and riches.  Even in difficult moments, even during overwhelm, love is our greatest resource.  It is boundless.  Breathe into it.