Practicing Awareness in Times of Uncertainty
***This is a teaching and practice from buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn
Last fall all of Marin and much of the Bay Area was plunged into darkness as fire fear descended on our part of California.
After the long and hot summer has dried the earth and vegetation that makes much of our open spaces, we move into fire season. Diablo winds (for Southern Californian’s these are essentially the same as the Santa Anas) push warm hot wind from inland out toward the bay and Pacific Ocean. The strong and dry winds have notoriously taken electric towers down, or brought trees down into power lines- both of which can create a spark that sets off wildfires and threatens communities where people dwell at the wilderness urban interface (such as my hometown of Fairfax).
In response to so much recent destruction and in attempt to discourage the ignition of devastating fires, the local electric company has developed a protocol of shutting down our access to power during the riskiest weather. At our apartment, warnings from our power/ electric utility had been coming in the form of texts and leaflets- warning residents in our area that they may conduct county wide shut downs up to as long as five days.
I really didn’t realize all that our power does for us until we spent the week without it.
The most important loss I felt was safety. Without our utilities, we can’t access our wifi. Many of the alerts that emergency and county systems use rely on our cell service staying intact. Without power we were cut off from communication at a time of great vulnerability.
My husband was still able to go to work as all way status quo just 20 miles away in San Francisco- but I wasn’t so lucky. I wasn’t able to see my clients. Gas stations and all methods of electronic transmissions (ATMs etc) were inoperable. People in Marin drove the 20 miles south into the city to fill up their tanks at crowded stations. Only one or two grocery stores in the county had generators to stay open- and they were ransacked by clients who were scared they wouldn’t have enough supplies. Meanwhile, food in the freezer spoiled.
Each night as the sun set earlier and earlier, we settled in for the long and cold silence of night. The strong dry winds rattled our single pane windows. The air was thick with ash from fires that raged around us. Each morning, though the dawn broke red in the ashy sky, a sensation of relief went through me.
We were really lucky- we didn’t have a fire in our county after all (though many surrounding counties were not so fortunate). In our apartment we have a gas stove and so had access to our stovetop to heat things up. We also surprisingly had hot water.
I was sitting with my friends outside the local health food store, which was empty and closed with no power, on the 5th evening of the shut off. The weather was turning from early to late fall, the skies darkening earlier and the night chilly. Suddenly, we saw street lights come on across the street from where we were sitting. We said our goodbyes and rushed home to see if the light was on in our homes. I felt ecstatic as I drove through my neighborhood and saw lights on, my neighbors silhouettes moving about their homes. I opened my door and threw the light switch on and light came on. It was very tenuous, a low energy return, but it was there. I was overjoyed! I checked my phone and once again had access to service. How I loved turning all of the lights on in the apartment that night. Later, I had never slept so soundly.
I had no idea prior to this experience how much electricity meant to me. How reliant I am on wifi for emergency broadcasts. How much I enjoy heat and a warm shower and living in conditions where fire threat is not high. I had been taking so many conditions that lead to happiness for granted.
When we have pain (anywhere in our body), we realize we have taken for granted enjoying not having that pain. If only we could alleviate the (back, tooth, shoulder) ache.
The concept of non-toothache is to take an experience that is mostly neutral for you- these things can be so mundane that we may even be partially checked out as we experience them- and enjoying the hell out of it! They can be things like brushing your teeth, breathing fresh air, lighting your stovetop with the push and twist of a knob, taking a warm shower. You can train yourself to look at the neutral experiences within the course of your day and notice the true miracle of these experiences. This practice transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. From the perspective of neuroscience, this type of practice strengthens the pathways related to joy and positivity. You are tending the garden of your mind so that it trends toward joy.
Here are some of the non-toothaches that I am aware of in this moment:
Getting to speak with my mom each day
Bootcamp class on Thursdays with Andy
Being able to email my sister in law in England
Having the ability to walk on the soft dirt trails near my home
Having the incredible wi-fi to help notify us of emergencies, provide entertainment, and allow for connection with my loved ones and friends
Having a cool shower on the hot day
Breathing fresh air
Moving around the area where I live and feeling safe while I do it
Our screen door and ceiling fan which keeps our room cool on these warm nights
Having electricity to light our way at night
Having a vacuum that runs smoothly and works really well to pick up dog hair
Does our capacity to touch joy or gratitude in the moment diminish the suffering or sadness that we are experiencing right now? Or does it allow us to witness more clearly the whole truth of our current situation?
I am finding, that in the midst of this undoing, the capacity to nourish and care for my own joy, to create my own reasons to get out of bed and wash my hair in the morning have been a deep source of nurturance during this difficult period.
If you are interested, please take a moment and sit. Think about all of the conditions that you interact with on a daily basis. You can reflect on the softness of your bed or the song of the birds when you awaken. The warm cup of tea you have in the morning. The non-smokyness of the air you breathe. Write them down or tell them to your partner or a friend. There is so much that can nourish you when you notice it.
All of the conditions are already present for you to connect with a sense of joy and delight in this very moment.