Searching for the Right Tool

I got up after a sleepless night—well I probably got a few hours early on—and as most people would probably do, I got up, since there was no comfort to be had staying in bed.

When I got up, instead of making coffee I grabbed a bottle of water, since the dismal drama playing in my mind for half the night was that our water filtration system stopped working yesterday. And putting regular tap water into the coffee maker and kettle would have been an acknowledgement that our Reverse Osmosis (RO) system was broken.

Now I am torn between exploring this dilemma–because waking up anxious must be a common experience these days—and curtailing that impulse, in deference to those for whom clean drinking water is a mirage beckoning across the swamps of empty hope; and in deference to those for whom the next meal, an opportunity to return to work, and the ability to feel safe and healthy is on indefinite hold.

Perhaps a middle ground is possible: recognizing the deep suffering being experienced around the globe, while investigating my own anxiety this morning.

I’m not just talking about my personal discomfort with mechanical systems when they stop working. I’m talking about how this discomfort infiltrates my mind, pretending to be a situation that is life threatening.

Yesterday, since annual maintenance was past due, my wife and I spent many hours changing the four filter canisters, pumping up the air pressure in the tank, draining all the old water, adding a half teaspoon of bleach, and then beginning the 4-6 hour process of filling and discarding the first two tanks of filtered water. But the motivation for tackling this maintenance was that, for the past month, the system never shut off and kept trying to add more filtered water to a tank that didn’t accept it; water just went down the drain—like someone with an eating disorder who keeps eating when they are already full.

Most of the R.O. equipment (storage tank, filter cartridges, and the perplexing array of tubing and valves that feed filtered water to the RO faucet) is hidden from view beneath the kitchen counter–rather like the inside of my own body (with its vast fields of neural cells and cardio/vascular tubing) is hidden beneath an envelope of skin.

So when, during this maintenance process, instead of producing quarts, the system shut off after only a half cup was ready to discharge, the familiar cobra of anxiety raised its head (like when some persistent pain has me worrying about my own survival).

Now I am asking myself if I have any tools to address these negative emotions. And since those emotions seem to be beyond my power to dissolve once and for all, I ask myself whether I can learn to adopt a more balanced and proportionate response when they do arise—and when they threaten to infiltrate my peace of mind, like a virus.

This morning I tried meditating, hoping that would be such a tool. I say “tried” because it seemed that my usual repertoire of mindfully breathing, of opening and relaxing body and mind, felt like instructions written in a foreign language; and the fine spring morning with birds waking up outside was drained of color and song.

As I was sitting there in the predawn light, I had an image of the blue lever atop the R.O. storage tank which I had had to turn 90 degrees in order to remove the blue tubing, into which we inserted a half teaspoon of beach as part of the system’s annual maintenance. And I couldn’t remember turning it back before turning the water supply back on.

I immediately interrupted my sit, got up and checked. Sure enough the blue lever was still sideways to the water flow and I turned it back to the forward, operating position. Then I took a break from sitting in order to make a pot of coffee from previously dispensed RO water—in anticipation that in a few hours I would once more have access to abundant sparkling water, free of chlorine, arsenic and hard metals. After pouring and drinking a cup of coffee, I returned to finish my sit.

But, a bit later, when I returned to test the R.O. faucet for flow, I discovered that it still wasn’t accumulating more than half a cup of water before shutting off. (Apparently the direction of the blue lever was only an issue in removing the tubing.) So, after another hour and several more tests, I turned the whole system off and started to think of other options. (We have now have a Brilla jug which we hope is better than nothing).

Our world seems to run on hope, which keeps motivating us to rise above the surface of adversity:

My stimulus check may arrive today; perhaps the food line won’t close down before I reach the front like it did yesterday; perhaps I will be reunited with my young daughter this week at the southern border; perhaps that pain in my chest is just a cramp.

This morning, I’m wondering if I have the tools to treat discomfort as a messenger bearing a truth about life, and not an enemy to be expelled from my world at all costs.

The sun has now risen above the neighbor’s rooftop to the east, and I feel more balanced. Remembering how difficult life is for so many, I am able to once more view my own situation in a wider perspective.

I don’t know if it is in relief or from a deeper understanding, but for a moment I imagine that I could shed a tear for us all. But I don’t let this feeling go that far, and like our R.O. system there is no flow of water from me. But it’s a comfort to sense that there is an alternative to being wrapped up in tight coils that lead nowhere but back to their own beginnings; back to a place where I can only watch helplessly as lonely echoes keep cycling through their closed loops.

What a blessing to be able to loosen the hold of an obsessive focus on events and to recognize that they are all just eternity strumming on the strings of its cosmic harp.

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