Lessons From the Döns

zendoguardian3I’m a perpetual optimist and naturally pretty content. Research says I’m lucky to be that way, but it has also gotten me into trouble at times. Seeing experience through rose-colored glasses is not clear seeing at all and unexamined contentedness can devolve into complacency. When our world view is clouded by a Pollyannaish attitude and something really painful happens, we can be blindsided, thrown off course, and beset by all kinds of afflictive emotions. This often results in actions that cause suffering for ourselves and others.

Fortunately, life has a way of offering up powerful lessons – if we can be open to them. In Tibetan Buddhism, the döns are obstacles that tend to arise, especially during certain times of the year, bringing depression, irritation, anger, and anxiety to those who aren’t mindful of them. Recently over half of this country was faced with a really big Don – one that many of us didn’t see coming and that we may have dismissed with characteristic idealism. Now that “dön season” is here, we can choose to face our obstacles with courage, understanding there also exists an opportunity for awakening and wisdom.

As a psychologist, I learned that human beings are susceptible to persuasion and illusion. We have certain reliable characteristics that can be exploited if we aren’t mindful. When we live life on autopilot, thoughtlessly reacting to immediate circumstances, we tend to make short-sighted choices. We are even more vulnerable when we are suffering. When we are driven by passionate emotion, we act on desires and fears, rather than responding to what is true. We can be wooed by messages that promise fulfillment, overemphasizing data that supports our wishes and minimizing or dismissing evidence to the contrary. We also tend to rage reflexively against what hurts us if we haven’t trained our minds to make space for careful consideration. If we don’t know ourselves and our tendencies, we become slaves to habit and conditioning.

Humankind has weathered countless dön seasons throughout history and there will be many more ahead. We cannot get rid of the döns, but we can prepare ourselves for them by cultivating mindfulness in our daily lives. When we know ourselves and our habits and when we have learned to make space for wise responding (even under pressure), we can face obstacles with greater skillfulness, resulting in less suffering for ourselves and those around us. This takes consistent practice, but the consequences of doing otherwise can be quite painful, reverberating across generations. We have been presented with a 4-year experiment in which we can experience its unfolding and learn from it – are we willing to be open to it and face it with compassion and courage?

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—equal seekers of sweetness. Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium. The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever.
Mary Oliver, The Messenger

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