It took up residence on my back patio, despite my objections. The long, thick black snake simply didn’t want to move, not when my dog barked at him, not when I poked him with a broom or made noise. Once, I got him to slither into a bush, but he quickly returned to block my patio door. I felt scared. I felt frustrated. I didn’t want him to be there. Wishing he’d just disappear, I finally fell asleep late that night. When I woke in the morning, there he was, as if he was waiting for me.
As I stared at him from inside, I realized that the snake’s presence was much like a lot of unpleasant things in life - challenge, struggle, life changes, circumstances that we wish we could just make disappear. Sometimes we avoid looking at an experience so intently, that we actually bury it deep down inside, where it creates dysfunction. We’ve all done it one time or another, some more than others. This is where our insecurity, irrational fear, patterns of avoidance or other disconnecting behaviors often originate. We pretend everything is okay or try to “wish away” our problems. Usually, it’s not until we openly accept and confront these obstacles and make sense of them in some way - or find meaning - that we are able to move through them with lessons learned and a new perspective.
Allow me to break that last statement apart, starting with this, “it’s not until we accept and confront these obstacles...” Wait a minute, you might think, what do you mean “accept”?
No one wants an unpleasant circumstance, any more than I wanted that snake on my back patio. No one wants loneliness, pain or loss. We want pleasure, happiness and contentment. We want things to go our way, right? Fact is, challenge, struggle, pain and uncomfortable circumstances are a part of life. There they are, whether we accept them or not. The benefit of accepting your pain is that THEN you can do something about it - then you can change or move through whatever it is. But if you can’t even acknowledge it’s present, if you’re always resisting it or trying to push it away, then it will always linger deep inside. Accepting is as simple as saying to yourself, “Yes, there is a big black snake on my patio. I am scared of it. But it is still there. I’m going to look at it and accept this is my current reality.” Not wishing it away, not putting energy into any internal, “why me?” kind of dialog. But looking at what is present for you and stating it simply. Grieving? Say to yourself, “I miss this person. My heart hurts. I feel so sad and overwhelmed.” Acceptance doesn’t mean you like something, it is simply acknowledging its existence.
The next piece of that statement is about making sense of your situation, or finding meaning in it. This might look different for everyone. For some, they might gain knowledge and information about their circumstances, as I did when I Googled, “snakes in western Pennsylvania.” But unless you take action with that knowledge in some way, it alone won’t transform you. Stepping back to look at a bigger picture, perhaps connecting with your spirit or God in whatever way works for you, can help you move through challenge. If I pulled back my myopic concern over the snake, and asked myself, “what does this snake matter to my life as a whole?” I’d realize, not very much. Maybe that would enable me to let go of tension around the circumstance.
Sometimes though, finding meaning through metaphor, or finding a lesson to be learned, can be the most helpful way of processing something difficult. On that morning, I thought of the snake as a metaphor. I even looked up the meaning of snakes in literature and dream psychology. I came to learn that snakes are symbols of change, transformation and healing. THIS! This I could find meaning in because this snake came on the heels of a relationship ending. I suddenly saw the snake as a symbol, something for me to soften around, accept and internally ask myself what I can learn from my circumstances. I found within myself new stores of patience, understanding and clarity that had been lacking. I let go of my fear - not just of the snake - but of the loneliness I had been feeling. Now, do I believe that God or the universe placed the snake there for me to research this metaphor and learn a lesson about my ending relationship? Not necessarily. But the fact that I found meaning in my circumstance, allowed me the grace to drop my fear, relax and learn something about myself in the process. And that, is why I believe we are here - to learn as much as we can - about ourselves and about the world around us.
No matter how you find or create meaning, it requires mindfulness or active attention to your present moment. Being alert to the subtle details of life can not only help you heal from difficult circumstances, but it can make life so much more rich and full. Frequently we might find ourselves in a state of auto-pilot: driving the car, while listening to the news, drinking coffee, reviewing your to-do list. We can’t find knowledge, apply it, seek out metaphor and allow for grace to help us through, if we are stuck in the spiral of auto-pilot and mental ramblings. This is where practice comes in. Sitting quietly every day - even if just for a few minutes - and focusing on your breath, or the feeling of your hands resting in your lap, is so important in cultivating a focused, mindful state of being. With focused mindfulness, you can be more open to accepting your circumstances and finding meaning within them to help you heal. It’s about knowing what you want, seeing what is present, and being open to whatever comes. All the while seeking out meaning and lessons to learn. Finding meaning can be anchoring, and to a ship in stormy rough waters, that anchor can make all the difference.
So what about my snake? He slithered away that afternoon, never to be seen again, but always to be remembered.