The Space In-Between

So the cookie jar. From the moment I saw it on the store shelf, recognized it as a nostalgic vessel from my childhood and then left without buying it, I’ve been hanging out in that itchy space between craving and grasping.

A place that is very familiar territory.

Anyone who has ever kicked a habit that doesn’t serve them anymore knows the place I am talking about.

This space is where you pitch your tent and set up camp when you are trying to quit smoking or drinking or whatever vice you’ve been using to shut down the chaos in your head.

I huddled around the campfire in this twitchy territory, almost thirty years ago, when I crushed out my last cigarette.

I returned just over ten years ago when I quit drinking.

Other things I try to put down in this space, but with far less success. I set them down only to return to snatch them up again; rushing across the Grasping Line with my prize like a quarterback clutching a football. Things like chocolate, worrying or material objects I want but don’t need, like a cookie jar.

What happens in the mind between thinking about  a peanut buster parfait or the purchase of a material object, be it a cookie jar or a pair of new shoes, and the having of it? What happens when you choose to just stay in that uncomfortable twitchy in-between territory and breathe?

This is the foundation of meditation. This is the purpose it serves.

Most Buddhist teachings focus a lot on this middle ground. This place that is so rich and fertile with possibility every time you find yourself in it.

To begin with, most people run through so fast they don’t even realize this incredible space inside them exists. The idea comes to have a snack and you get up and have one. Done. From craving to grasping in fifteen seconds or less. At no point is there a pause. A meditation, if you will.

The first time you slow down enough to find yourself in this strange in-between space and recognize it as such, your world opens up just a little bit wider than it was before and nothing will ever be quite the same again. Your numb-out vices may remain, but now you know there is another space you could choose to hang out in instead. Suddenly you have options.

To begin with the in-between place feels like a torture chamber. Why not have the thing you crave? It’s right there. What’s the harm? Just take it already.

It’s only when the craving and the grasping itself becomes its own form of torture that you start to pause in the between space. You’re so stressed out, so exhausted, so unhappy and nothing is helping, so before you grasp, you think, I’m just going to hang out here for a while. You set down the bag of chips, the bottle of wine, the vial of drugs or the credit card. Or maybe you’re addicted to  ego, to worrying, to anger or to a judgmental mind. Whatever it is, you just let go. It feels really, really, scary. But it also feels really, really, good. You realize this is what freedom feels like.

Pair this with some quality tools like meditation, yoga, creative pursuits or perhaps recovery meetings or any spiritual practice or teachings that make sense to you and you will find you can hang out in this space for longer and longer periods of time. It’s like training for a marathon, but instead it’s mind training.

I stumbled across a CD by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, about ten years ago. Her gentle, often humourous, compassionate teachings launched me on a path of trying to learn more about this in-between open space. I’ve been moving along on my spiritual journey at a blistering snail pace ever since.

Titled “Don’t Bite The Hook; Finding Freedom From Anger, Resentment and Other Destructive Emotions” this CD quickly became a mainstay in my vehicle. In fact, the original set had to be replaced because I wore the first one out. And then I wore that one out as well. Today, I have a digital version on iTunes that I listen to. I have listened to her teachings so often I can quote bits and pieces by heart and yet, every time I hear them I learn something new.

This week I learned just because I have space on my counter for a cookie jar, doesn’t mean I need to put one there. I can just allow the space-and the memories-to be.

 

Peace Pilgrim

There are a lot of things a person could admire about Peace Pilgrim.

At the age of 44, she became the first woman to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in a single season. A year later, she set off on foot from Pasadena California on New Year’s Day with one destination in  mind…Peace. She would never own a car, live in a house, have a bank account or answer to her birth name-Mildred Lisette Norman-again. From that day forward she called herself Peace Pilgrim, or simply Peace. She wore a navy blue tunic with deep pockets that carried everything she owned…a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map.

“I own only what I wear and carry. I just walk until given shelter, fast until given food,” she said at the time. “I don’t even ask; it’s given without asking. I tell you, people are good. There’s a spark of good in everybody.”

And that is what I admire most about her. Not her reliance on strangers to support her quest, but her unwavering belief that there was a spark of good in everyone. She hated war because she loved people. All people. It was a love that shone from her and captivated audiences wherever she went. She didn’t care about your political leanings or what you believed in. She simply loved people, believed in peace and walked her talk.

World Peace didn’t happen after she crossed the United States from coast to coast the first time. Or after visiting all ten provinces of Canada. Nor did it happen after crossing the United States for the second, third, fourth, fifth or even sixth time. But she kept walking anyway. She wore the words Peace Pilgrim across her tunic and welcomed conversations about her walk with everyone she met; army officers, university students, politicians…she greeted them all with love and warmth.

There seems to be an innate human tendency to mirror emotion. We match hate with hate until we simply became opposite sides of the very same coin. I once heard a talk by Pema Chodron-a Buddhist monk-where she illustrated this concept with a joke about activists clobbering opponents over the head with their peace signs.

“You can laugh,” she said. “But it isn’t that far off the mark.”

Peace Pilgrim didn’t clobber people over the head with her beliefs; like Pema, she too believed in the exact opposite approach. The following are just a few Peace Pilgrim quotes.

“There is no greater block to world peace or inner peace than fear. What we fear we tend to develop an unreasoning hatred for, so we come to hate and fear. This not only injures us psychologically and aggravates world tension, but through such negative concentration we tend to attract the things we fear. If we fear nothing and radiate love, we can expect good things to come. How much this world needs the message and example of love and of faith!”

“No one walks so safely as one who walks humbly and harmlessly with great love and great faith. For such a person gets through to the good in others (and there is good in everyone), and therefore cannot be harmed. This works between individuals, it works between groups and it would work between nations if nations had the courage to try it.”

“In order to help usher in the golden age we must see the good in people. We must know it is there, no matter how deeply it may be buried. Yes, apathy is there and selfishness is there – but good is there also. It is not through judgment that the good can be reached, but through love and faith.”

“The positive approach inspires; the negative approach makes anger. When you make people angry, they act in accordance with their baser instincts, often violently and irrationally. When you inspire people, they act in accordance with their higher instincts, sensibly and rationally. Also, anger is transient, whereas inspiration sometimes has a life-long effect.”

 

On July 7, 1981, while being driven to a speaking engagement near Knox, Indiana, Peace Pilgrim was killed in a car accident. She was 73 years old, had been walking for peace for 28 years and was undertaking her seventh trip across America.

Given everything that is going on in the world today, one could make the case that her quest was all for nothing. I subscribe to the last line in the last quote listed above…inspiration has a life-long effect.

Almost four decades since her death, I am still inspired by Peace and I still turn to the book compiled by her friends after her death Peace Pilgrim; her life and work in her own words whenever I get discouraged, feel hateful, lose my temper or need a reboot.

Peace Pilgrim inspired me and she will have an effect on the way I think and live for the rest of my life and I know I’m not the only one.

A booklet titled Steps to Inner Peace taken from a radio talk Peace gave in 1964 was published during her lifetime and given out freely. She was adamant that people should not have to pay money to hear or read her message.

Her friends knew she would feel the same about the book they put together the year after her death, so they decided to give copies out for free for as long as they could afford to print them and when they ran out of money that would be that. Well, donations poured in and 35 years later it is still being given out for free. Her message continues to be both timeless, timely and inspiring.

I know Peace would wish for a world where her message wasn’t needed; where we all walked humbly and harmlessly with great love. But in the meantime-if you haven’t heard of her and if you’re interested-hers is a voice of sanity when it feels as if the world has gone mad.

Zen concept background-The balance between the black and white zen stones