Back to School

I feel a touch of anxiety around Labor Day because the first day of school begins shortly thereafter.  As the weather begins to cool, a cold shiver creeps up my spine and I feel the collective anticipation of every kid. I think this is a very old pattern for me. When I was young, the new school year forced me to face the unknown, to get up early and walk into halls mostly filled with strangers. My few friends could not compensate for the fear.

My 65-year-old mind still experiences this autumnal shift in awareness. But now I observe it as an old friend reminding me of something that long ago wore out its welcome. Those of us prone to anxiety have many such reminders. I have grown to understand much of this pattern comes from being an introvert. It is natural for me to be more comfortable on my own or with a few friends. The other part of it, however, is fear of what is unfamiliar.

The comfort our ego mind seeks depends upon making things familiar. We want to have at least the the illusion that life is under control. But from a Buddhist perspective, as well as that of modern psychology and common sense, nothing is ever the same. This fact seems to be confirmed by the mind’s capability of adapting (neuroplasticity) to change. The brain’s health actually depends on experiencing the unknown. So you could say our original mind is familiar with the unfamiliar. We have a natural capacity to roll with whatever arises.

In the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, the practice of generating and dissolving a visualization grants insight into the process of making something unknown familiar. And then, so as to avoid over-identifying with the image, the dissolving phase releases the form of what we have generated. Even though this is a natural function of our brain, we can override it by filling our mind with habits and distractions—obscuring our natural light.

It takes consistent practice to overcome habit patterns and reclaim the gift of our luminous mind. As I witness the play of anxiety in my own mind, I see that it is quite familiar. I also understand I am attached to this familiarity even though the feeling is unpleasant. Practice offers me the opportunity to surrender my attachment, to adapt to an ever changing world without suffering the annoying habits of mind. Clinging to things with no substance is a waste of precious effort that could otherwise be spent for the benefit of others.

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