My husband Kiran and I live in L.A., but we came out to New York last week for 10 days of work and fun. Kiran's parents and brother live in Long Island, where he grew up, so we set out to visit them for the weekend. We ended up staying overnight on Monday while Hurricane Sandy blew through, stealing our power and cell phone service.
On Tuesday morning, Kiran's mother bravely drove us back into Manhattan, where we thought we'd have greater access to electricity and communication. Instead, all was dark and silent at the Union Square apartment we'd rented for the week. Wandering the surrounding blocks revealed only a handful of delis open, running off generators. Every other shop was locked and sealed shut.
People roamed the streets with eyes wide, as if in a zombie apocalypse daze. When night fell, the scene grew even creepier. Not a single streetlight, storefront, restaurant or bar illuminated the darkness for more than 30 blocks of lower Manhattan.
After camping out for a day and a half in hotel lobbies and what few cafes we could find open north of 40th Street, Kiran and I gave up on NYC. On Wednesday afternoon, we retreated to a friend's house near Long Island City, an area unaffected by Sandy's fierce winds and waves. We hope to be leaving on our scheduled flight from JFK this afternoon.
Whenever I found myself getting frustrated with our circumstances over the past five days, it occurred to me that this "storm of the century" serves as an excellent reminder of several spiritual lessons.
1. We're not in control.
Throughout my 30s, the universe delivered this message to me over and over again. I got divorced at 32. I then spent years in a tumultuous relationship. As I neared 40, I struggled to accept that I had little control over finding a terrific partner with whom to have children -- my strongest desire in life. I took control of my fertility as best I could by freezing my eggs. I also used meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, and friendships to lean into the discomfort and uncertainty about my future.
I thought I had learned my lesson.
Yet when news reports made it clear that I would miss several important work meetings this week, the OCD, organizer, high-achiever part of my brain shouted, "But what about my plans?" I had to consciously remind myself: "You're not in control."
As annoying as it can be, it's also a relief to know that we're not completely responsible for everything that happens in our life -- nor is anyone else. It gives us permission to let ourselves, and others, off the hook.
In fact, what I've learned as a result of a decade of struggle is that the river of life not only flows on, navigating its way around obstacles in your path... if you let it, it can carry you in amazing, unexpected, and beautiful directions. If not for my divorce, I never would have ended up marrying the love of my life, Kiran, last year. If not for those relationship difficulties, I never would have learned to truly, deeply appreciate and care for myself. Ten years downstream, I'm so much happier thanks to the very challenges I once cursed for derailing my plans.
2. The world is much bigger than us.
This spiritual lesson goes hand-in-hand with "you're not in control," but it's a little bit different. Any act of God, natural disaster, or unanticipated large-scale event that derails our plans reminds us that the universe is so much bigger than we make it out to be as we busily scurry about our daily lives.
Hurricane Sandy delivered this message in a booming voice. As of Thursday, subways and trains in New York had only partially resumed service. Areas of the East Coast will take years to recover. The storm has spoken: We humans are just tiny sparkling specks floating ever so briefly in the vast kaleidoscope of existence.
Why is this fact comforting? Because surrendering to our relative insignificance gives us permission to stop taking ourselves so seriously. We can laugh at our failures. We can forgive ourselves for the ways we've disappointed ourselves and our loved ones. We can stop imagining that every accomplishment or mistake carries such great weight. We can relax, enjoying the moment and allowing ourselves to just be.
3. We can be the calm in the storm.
"Nothing goes away until it has taught us what we need to know," writes Buddhist nun and bestselling author Pema Chodron.
Several days after Hurricane Sandy and her aftermath, as New York City struggles to return to business as usual, it behooves us to ask: What does this storm want us to learn?
Even though we often convince ourselves that our lives are stable -- that we know what will happen tomorrow and the day after that -- it's only an illusion. There is no such thing as certainty.
Given the unpredictable nature of reality, the most reliable place to find serenity is in our own hearts and minds. We can't control much in the world around us. We may be relatively small and insignificant in comparison to the universe as a whole. But we can be the calm in the storm. We can breathe, connect with our inner peace, and find a grounded, centered place within... even when life gets more than a little bit crazy.
4. There's always something to feel grateful for.
Whenever I feel my anxiety begin to ratchet up, I remember to count my blessings. An old trick but an effective one, it kept me going throughout my tumultuous 30s. "Sure, I may not have a family of my own," I'd say to myself. "But I get to travel and have incredible experiences."
Gratitude served as a valuable tool during Hurricane Sandy, as well. Whenever I'd start to feel unlucky to have traveled to New York during a record-breaking storm, I'd take a few moments to be thankful. "Lucky me to have shelter. To have been able to stock up on food and water. To be with my beloved husband and his family. To know that the government and many volunteers are keeping our streets and citizens safe."
Whether or not the storm winds howled through your neighborhood this past week, take a moment to consider what you are grateful for. It's never a bad time to appreciate all that we have.
5. We can shine our light in the darkness.
The streets of lower Manhattan may have been cloaked in shadows, but we can be the light casting aside the darkness. When those around us begin to complain about how awful Hurricane Sandy has been and how they're still suffering from lack of transit service or power, we can be the ones to express gratitude for what went right. How the weather reports gave us plenty of time to prepare. How people living in coastal areas were evacuated to shelters. How our news stations kept us informed.
In general, Hurricane Sandy or not, when those around us grow snappy at each other, impatient, frustrated, or annoyed with their lives, we can shine our inner light into the gloom. We can point out what's right. We can express our love. We can be the ones to smile at a stranger. To offer a compliment to a neighbor, shopkeeper, or cab driver. To thank those who make our lives a little easier.
Always, we can choose to be the ones who bring joy, thankfulness, compassion, and appreciation to those around us. No matter what storms may rage.
Photo credits: Kiran Ramchandran
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