As I’m making my coffee, the camellia bushes shake furiously in bursts outside the kitchen window. Peering to see who’s in there, a tiny head pokes out followed by a pint-sized body and tail, inching its way… out… to-the-very…end…of… a really thin…branch….OH! He lost it. Ass over appetite falling through the branches and catching himself by one forepaw…swinging there, seeming to get his bearings, then back up on the branch and playing his way out again to the edge.
He’s joined in a minute by a sibling of about the same size…baby squirrels, exploring their new universe of Empress tree, fence and shrubs. Getting familiar with the territory, extending their reach and leaping skills, each foray to the edge expanding their comfort zone…Practicing.
I’m leaning- in now, grinning. Whoa! I would love to find my way back to that flexible, roll-with-the-bending-branches kind of stamina and agility and grace…
As I watch them try a new move, tip over and try again, take tentative leaps to that next farthest branch, I am witnessing two young masters in the art of play.
The title of this entry was going to be “Working with your Edge.”
And believe me, the words “working with” just flowed right out of my fingers without a second thought. If I’d been tuned-in I might have caught the assumption there; that stepping-in to the territory between known and unknown must be work, right?
The squirrels got me thinking.
When we talk about working with the “edge” in mindfulness practice, it can refer to a lot of things. Often, the edge shows up as some kind of obstacle, discomfort or limitation. It can range from feeling mildly fidgety, sleepy, or distracted on the one hand, to encountering difficult emotions or physical sensations associated with pain or loss or change…We naturally pull back from these kinds of experiences. Keeping our seat can be truly challenging.
The notion of turning toward the edge willingly, even inviting some curiosity and kindness, is a “radical act” to quote Jon Kabat-Zinn. It requires focus, self-compassion and determination. And it can be transformative.
To be sure, practicing at the edge of our comfort zone does not always feel like play. Nor should it. But in some cases, we may have more room to manuever than we think.
I recently came across a beautiful image, from Martha Beck, where she describes standing at the top of a mountain before skiing down, surveying the slope to discern a path forward: “There is always the line. It is the line that a small stream of water would follow as it slips and turns its way down the mountain.”
Moving like water. Engaging with the obstacles, not to overcome them or eliminate them, but in a kind of dance. Practicing meeting them not as enemies, but as potential allies. Allies that help us learn to read the landscape, build stamina, shift weight, cultivate flexibility, and sometimes, to fall in deep powder, laughing our way back to upright.
We become vulnerable when we truly play. Real play is fully engaged, and gravitates toward the edge between comfortable and compelling…that’s where the energy and the exaltation lives.
Now, to be clear, we don’t want to go hurtling ourselves over the figurative branch insisting we can fly…that’s not playing with the edge, that’s ignoring the laws of gravity. Mindfulness is not about pushing through the edge at all costs—far from it. But rather, turning gently toward, leaning-in, noticing the reflex to pull back and pausing… and when possible, inviting play. In this way we can both honor and expand our limits in a way that satisfies that deep down hunger to grow.
We live in relationship to our “edge” whether we like it or not. We sense it and we make decisions about how we’ll engage or disengage; stepping back, pushing through; or approaching mindfully, with the courage of a vulnerable heart.
So, getting back to those squirrels…For us mammals, play is purposeful; it’s the way we develop critical survival skills…and when we’re young, we go at it with DNA-driven determination. Those squirrels are playing like their life depended on it.
As I type these words I recall Jon Kabat-Zinn using exactly that phrase in his invitation to new MBSR students: “For the next eight weeks, I invite you to practice like your life depended on it.” Wow. What if we did practice that way? In the spirit of purposeful play…developing skills we might need to meet a critical circumstance one day…maybe tomorrow…or, maybe we came to this practice because that day is already here.
As adults, it’s good to remind ourselves that it’s not too late to play. We never lose the capacity…we don’t age out of it. We can choose our relationship to our edge, with practice, with curiosity, with the exhilaration that comes from getting out there knee deep in surrender…to play.
© 2012 Centerpoint Network LLC
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