Reframing life adversity as expansion of awareness: insights from a whole year of regular meditation
Journal of Psychiatry Reform vol. 10 #12, November-December 2023
Caroline Giroux, MD, FRCPC
Professor of Psychiatry, Psychiatrist, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Sacramento, California, USA. [email protected]
About a year ago, a meaningful experience popped up in my mind. Sometime before the pandemic, a friend had told me about the Dharma center in Sacramento and invited me to join her there. The weekly group event consisted of a 30-min sitting meditation followed by a tea break, and then a Dharma talk. I was immediately enchanted by this setting woven by the kindness of people from various backgrounds, the majority being older than me. As I was facing major challenges in my life that seemed to precipitate an existential crisis on a daily basis, and inspired by a resident who had shared that her parents, one of them being also a psychiatrist, had decided to turn to Buddhism to “reduce suffering” from a son struggling with substance addiction, I wondered what had become of this marvelous place.
I was delighted to find out that this Buddhist temple was quite alive and well. I decided to join the Thursday evening insight meditation again. Sitting in silence might sound easy, but that reconnection with the space of awareness overwhelmed me somehow. I was not prepared to be so hyperaware. I was flooded with unpleasant experiences, to the point that I was rather dysregulated upon getting home, making my significant other wonder what kind of “meditation” that was? I eventually understood that it was purging and a very normal phenomenon. My subsequent practices were not as painful, and some were quite enlightening. But the most remarkable progress seemed to occur between the sessions as I incorporated more mindfulness into my daily life. I also started noticing gradual shifts in me: more gratitude, more acceptance and better mood regulation. Both the silence from the sitting meditations (and also daylong retreats I have attended at the center) and the words from the Dharma speakers continued to create a path in me, generating deep reflections as I spent more time in the solitude of my days observing myself and connecting more deeply with the suffering of others. Initially painful and aversive, my solitude became a fertile ground for my own spiritual expansion. I even saw a change in my dreams at night. I have always been a dream empath, a vivid dreamer, but what happened recently was an awareness phenomenon like I had never experienced before. Within a week from each other, I had two poignant dreams involving my children. In one of them, I had experienced a wordless awareness, a fullness of consciousness like I have not ever experienced in my waking life as far as I can tell. It was about seeing the whole truth in a global way, like a huge, compact, dense perception, without the linearity of the verbal mind made of a sequence of thoughts, thoughts that often get in the way of our judgment, and also of our sovereignty of decision coming from the simultaneity of all the sensations or input. As a result, appropriate action took place (immediately jumping in a hurricane after my son to save him). In the other dream, I was interacting with my oldest son, and at some point, I lived the dream as him. I was in his skin, looking through his eyes, trying to connect with a girl who had gone to a museum and who he decided to follow and get acquainted with. It was an incredible sensation and privilege to experience life through his own senses. I woke up, in complete awe, elated because this was confirming what must be taking place in the afterlife, what I had heard about and what I knew (but only on a cognitive level until then): we are not separate.
In between those two dreams, I had an unpleasant experience on the road: I had a flat tire on the freeway in the evening. I was quite irritated and flustered, as I was on my way to bring birthday presents to one of my sons. But everything that was happening (the police showing up with a huge flashlight like in the movies, my ability to eventually gather my thoughts and think about the logistics and problem-solve etc.) landed in me very clearly and even though I was not really liking the situation, my gut feeling was telling me that this was meant to be, that this was a teaching, and an opportunity to practice (being mindful). As a result, a creative recycling of the event occurred to make the best out of this situation and use this as a teaching moment for me and others.
So, over the past year or so, I gradually went from frightened, perplexed, disoriented to more clear-headed, grounded and grateful. What a shift. The life circumstances that generated what I experience as suffering are still very similar. My deep sorrow is also, to a degree, quite palpable and overwhelming at times. But what the meditation has allowed me to discover is that I can access awareness more easily now, and crises have therefore less power to destabilize me. Regular mindfulness practices help us clear the way to access the space of inner calm more easily when we are in crisis mode.
At some point during my journey at the Dharma center and beyond, I also started to feel more connected to other people’s and the whole of humanity’s suffering. Our life circumstances are different, but the core suffering is very similar, and we can be bonded in solidarity for the deep feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, shame, regret or despair we all go through at some point. What the storyline of the specific forms of suffering in others does is that it teaches us important lessons and as a result, we can expand our consciousness even more.
I am such a big fan of expansion of awareness now that at every opportunity or challenge, I approach it as a potential for expansion of consciousness, whether it is in preparation of a 10k I ran, or dealing with a flat tire, being in court for my litigious divorce, or facing rejection from a person dear to me. This is all that matters at that point and allows a deep feeling of peace to bathe me, soothe me.
And the broader the awareness, the more obvious it is that we are not separate, because we are extensions of a one and only consciousness, to which we shall return after our material life ends in this world.
When I woke up from my second dream, I couldn’t help but think about these narratives from people who had a near-death experience (NDE), as they recalled feeling all the pain and emotions others had suffered through the NDE experiencer’s actions in their lifetime .
Meditating helps us bridge the material with the divine dimension. It helps us navigate adversity, which we at times experience as a mini death (major loss, grief, adjustment). It expands our reality and therefore dilutes the potency of the unpleasant or adverse. And awareness is the field where we can practice de-clinging, de-attachment: awareness is not finite, it is the “by default” of life, always there, in abundance, for everyone. We don’t fear scarcity when we become acquainted with it, therefore, no need to stack it, nor hoard it. Awareness is an antidote to greed. It unlocks compassion and open our heart to all aspects of the world we live in.
As a psychiatrist, I used to prescribe or recommend mindfulness to my patients at every new visit or problem for the past many years. Now, I can support that approach not only based on the theory around brain science but from lived experience. This is a practice that is creating a path between this moment, with whatever challenges or joy it is bringing, with our inner vastness of calm and regulation. As we practice this more and more, we embody peace, the only way to change the world. We start “fighting” (welcoming, opening up, standing up) FOR peace rather than fighting against violence (which generally breeds more resistance or violence).
Sorrow or adversity are narrow, dark hallways that lead to a bright and warm courtyard of spaciousness. Sadness is awareness.
And we are not separate. We all co-habitate and eventually gather in this unlimited peaceful continent called awareness. I am beginning to believe that this process of becoming more aware is one, if not the, meaning of existence.
1. Sunfellow D. The Purpose of Life: As Revealed by Near-death Experiences from Around the World. David Sunfellow; 2019.