I got fired. Well, I was asked to resign. Being “separated from the organization” is the clinical term. As with any time that the floor drops out from beneath you, it comes unexpectedly and leaves you spinning.
This was 4 months ago. I had been meditating for about 1.5 years. You hear people talk about “groundlessness” and it all sounds pretty good in theory. You let go, allow yourself to be present in the moment with whatever arises, not clinging to habitual patterns or reference points. But nothing teaches you groundlessness like the actual experience of not having any clue what just happened or how you’re going to respond.
I’ve had these moments before: when I came within inches of being clobbered by an inattentive driver while biking; when I had a panic attack while on a long flight to Tanzania; after my first “true love” (at 16 years old) broke up with me over the phone; when I found out a good friend had terminal cancer. These things happen in our lives.
My first response is usually to try to escape the situation, to seek relief, like a boxer tapping out of the ring. I’ve heard that there’s wisdom in the desire to escape suffering, even if we go about it in a way that backfires and ultimately makes the situation worse. The paradox of meditation is that you only reduce the suffering by working with it, not trying to avoid it our get away from it.
When it happened, I came home and called every last one of my most trusted advisors – wise people who I’d come to respect over the years. Gradually, it dawned on me that, although I had a lot of people there to support me, I was ultimately on my own. I tried to resist doing the neurotic thing – frantically sending my resume to any job posting that looked remotely relevant.
A friend suggested something that sounded ludicrous — why not go on a meditation retreat in Vermont for a week? Prior to resigning, I’d thought about going to the week long “Being Brave” retreat with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and several senior teachers. I had my reservations about taking my eye off the ball on the job search, but my intuition was telling me that it was where I needed to be.
So, I made the 12-hour drive to the beautiful Karmê Chöling retreat center where I joined about 300 others. We spent most of the day meditating in a converted barn and many of us slept on floor of a beautifully ornate shrine room on surprisingly comfortable foam mats. Our wake up call was the subtle tone of a blown conch shell. Time seemed to slow down and the environment felt incredibly spacious, allowing you to just be.
Even as I write this, I’m struggling to put into words the experience that I had that week, which felt more like 6 months. It was a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from near panic to overwhelming feelings of love, warmth, connection and gratitude. It was like a healing balm for the wounds I’d carried there with me: feelings of insecurity, unworthiness, stupidity for getting fired, anger and fear. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche emphasized the importance of feeling worthy: to be human, to inhabit this space on the planet, to just be who we are, without excuse or apology, without having to cower. As the week went on, I felt my posture becoming more dignified and upright. I felt worthy to be there.
I re-entered the world with new energy. As we left retreat, we were given strands of green yarn representing karma energy, which symbolizes activity and skillful means. I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, sending resumes, networking, researching organizations, arranging for coffee with people I’d lost track of and some I’d never have considered talking with, entering into a blitz of activity. I explored different options in various industries and even seriously considered starting a company. However, as anyone who has looked for opportunities in this economy knows, there are no guarantees, and effort is not necessarily correlated with outcomes.
After three months of my best effort, I had some good leads but was still jobless, and beginning to lose patience. The lojong slogans that say to treat whatever arises unexpectedly as part of the path, drive all blames into yourself, and abandon any hope of fruition all look great on paper, but aren’t things supposed to work out eventually? I mean, some ego reduction had definitely taken place. And what had that led to? Was I just deceiving myself believing that this was all part of a purposeful path?
When it happened it was no big deal. I got cold called by a good company. I went in for an interview, and I was offered the job. It is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now, although it’s not necessarily what I had in mind. All of my supposedly brilliant effort, scheming, and activity did not produce this. It was an auspicious coincidence that they found me (I still don’t know how), and that everything came together right as I was reaching the limits of my tolerance for groundlessness. In a strange twist of fate, theoretically I could have taken a 4 month vacation and just waited for the phone call.
To conclude – I highly recommend being forced to resign from your job and having at least a few months of groundlessness. It will immediately strip away the unimportant worries and minor complaints that occupy much of our time. It will humble you and remove the illusion of being in control. It will force you to divorce your sense of identify from your profession. It will make you incredibly grateful to the people in your life who, sometimes in very small ways, radiate generosity and goodness. It will remind you that the world has a way of supporting your growth and practice and giving you just what you need, whether you realize it or not.
There’s also a large element of choice involved. I shudder to think how I would have reacted if I hadn’t been marinating in these teachings for some period of time before this happened. This could easily have turned into a prolonged period of flailing, anxiety, and anger. Instead, it was a lesson in embodied groundlessness.