As we enter the month of December, I’m thinking about the number of times this year I’ve heard people wish for 2020 to be over. If you haven’t yet heard this wish expressed, just google “2020 over” to see the dozens of memes, articles, and even an entire website dedicated to the topic. The impact of the events of 2020 reminds me of the impact of a drought described in the opening paragraph of Abd-al-Rahman Munif’s novel, Endings.
“When drought seasons come, things begin to change. Life and objects change. Humans change too, and no more so than in their moods! Deep down, melancholy feelings take root. They may seem fairly unobtrusive at first. But people will often get angry. When that happens, these feelings burst out into the open, assertive and unruly. They can appear in a number of guises. As clouds scurry past in the sky, people look up with angry, defiant expressions. With the arrival of drought, no home is left unscathed. Everybody bears some kind of mental or physical scar.”
In many ways the year of 2020 has been a metaphoric drought for us, and none of us has been left unscathed by its impact. It is natural for us to wish for the year to end.
We might also look at the year 2020 as an intense training period, a sort of spiritual pressure cooker. During an actual spiritual retreat we intentionally place ourselves in a setting that disrupts our regular habits, routines and ways of experiencing the world. We sleep in an unfamiliar bed. We eat unfamiliar food. We follow a highly structured schedule over which we have no control. When we are immersed in this experience, we become more aware of how our emotions and thoughts operate within us. We can practice dropping away what is unhelpful and begin to see what remains at our core. We move from an intellectual understanding of Buddhist teachings to an embodiment of equanimity.
While the pandemic of 2020 has prevented us from physically gathering in retreat at a temple or practice center, it has brought us an ongoing stream of events to shake up our ordinary lives. It has forced us into a reality of disrupted surroundings and routines. Unlike retreat participants, we did not choose to put ourselves into these intense conditions. Yet we can choose to embrace 2020 as training. For me, approaching this year’s events as fodder for practice has helped bring stability amidst so much uncertainty.
This week we celebrate the awakening of the historic Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, or Shakyamuni Buddha, on Bodhi Day (December 8). On this holiday we recognize Shakyamuni’s energy and dedication to practice, and we recommit to our own practice in a similar way. Yet, embracing Bodhi Day as an opportunity for deeper practice doesn’t necessarily mean we need to do more than we already are. When we consider the story of Shakyamuni’s journey toward awakening, we know that he spent several years as an ascetic, practicing extreme fasting and self-denial before recognizing the benefit of a more moderate form of practice. According to legend he accepted a bowl of rice and milk from a local village girl to regain his strength and enter into his transformational meditation under the Bodhi Tree. No doubt the years of vigorous training led him to the moment when he was able to attain awakening; however, it was actually a practice of moderation and nourishment that supported the Buddha on the next step of his path.
2020 has sustained an intensity that may have us similarly ready for nourishment and moderation. We don’t need to push ourselves any harder. While there is value to fitting in an extra period on the cushion if you have time for it, this is not the only way to celebrate Bodhi Day. There is value in walking in the woods with your attention focused on exactly what you see and hear around you–watching the scenery rise and pass away as your body moves along the path. There is value in just pausing in a messy moment in the midst of your daily life, in slowing down your instinct to speak or respond and instead shifting your focus to noting what feelings and thoughts are arising within you. If there is joy, you can acknowledge that with gratitude. If there is pain or discomfort, you can embrace that too. There is value in just marking the passing of Bodhi Day by taking three deep breaths and holding gratitude for this rare and unique opportunity to practice.
When our sangha comes together in person on Bodhi Day, we usually serve rice pudding after the service as a reminder of the food that gave Siddhārtha strength to practice. The rice pudding is a symbol of the importance of moderation and of caring for ourselves and for each other. Although we won’t be able to eat together this year, we can still remember the story and use this time for nourishment. We can celebrate the beauty of a thin layer of snow coating the ground, of the holiday lights decorating our neighborhoods, of a warm cup of tea. We can offer friends, family and strangers a smile through Zoom or a friendly nod or wave when masked out in public. None of this means that we should deny the reality of what 2020 has brought to us. We just need to recognize that there is more than one reality existing in every moment.