All It Takes

“I know I’ll be okay,” my client said, breaking the silence that hung between us.

He was wearing a smile I hadn’t seen before; as he spoke, the worry lines on his forehead seemed to melt away.

“I know somehow that I’ll be okay,” he declared a second time, referring to the possibility that his recent illness might prevent him from ever returning to a job which he enjoyed, and which supported his family.

It’s true, I thought. I understand what he’s found. I know the truth of that feeling.

In the silence that encircled us, our eyes met and we shared a smile.

My work with him is mostly done, I thought.‘Okay’ will show him a way… it’s all it takes.

That was yesterday.

Today, I am gazing out my office window at a thick pall of wildfire smoke writhing through the hill of live oak behind my house. My thoughts drift to the endless streams of news and alerts about the insatiable fires razing homes, lives, and wildlands across California, now including one a dozen miles west of my home.

Today, the planet aches and my world is anything but okay.

A dark longing and insecurity slips through the window and wraps itself around me. I glance at the pair of green emergency ‘go bag’ back-packs by the front door. When my wife and I packed them a few years back, I felt like a closet survivalist preparing for some ever-imminent, never-happening apocalypse. Today, next to the front door, our 2-Hour Evacuation Essentials list hangs — and on top of that, posted last night, a small sticky note: 5-Minute Evacuation list.

It could happen that fast.

In my current state of mind, helping other people navigate their path to purposeful lives of wellbeing looks like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose. And the ache in my lower back is proof that health and wellness have forsaken me: I’m a short, limping distance from permanent decrepitude.

I stare out the window, looking for rescue.

The stealthy arrival of my mood has caught me unawares. I’m convinced it’s real, so much so that I’m convinced it is me. One moment, I’m okay, the next, I am despairing. Without notice or permission, the darkness seems to be consuming me.

This particular mood I know from long acquaintance. While it’s been at least a decade since we last crossed paths; its reappearance frightens me, takes me back to years of wrestling with demons. It seems real; it could be me.

It’s like waking up in a dark dungeon, lit only by a small window high on the wall.

But now, something rises in me and awakes. A flash of light in the window above — recognition. Suddenly I have awareness of the despair I am feeling. The ‘I’ in that sentence is distant enough from ‘despair’ for me to understand that we are not one and the same. This I have learned: I and my moods are separate things. The mood is over there in the shifting shadows, but I am always here. One of us is temporary, the other, permanent, perhaps eternal.

Awareness is the doorway to freedom.

Now I have a choice. Energy always follows awareness, and what I direct my attention towards will always grow. If I direct my gaze into the darkness I will find only more darkness. Looking for cause and effect only fertilizes the gloom. Pushing the feeling aside, bargaining, any form of appeasement at best delays its eventual return in some form or another.

Only one thing works. Look away. Look for any light, any glint of a better feeling. Anything with even an iota more ease.

What am I looking for? Well-being and equanimity? Repose? Satori?

They all sound elite and out of reach.

I prefer ‘okay.’

Okay has no pedestal; it’s as available as the air we all breathe. Everyone knows okay. You can find it anywhere. Okay is a state of mind and it’s a direction to place one attention. It points at wellbeing and wholeness; it takes you home.

Okay is the light coming through the window. Only a glimmer at first, it heralds an infinite blue sky beyond the clouds of smoke. A sky that’s always there; it can outwait the fiercest storm and the longest night..

All it needs to show more of itself is my attention.

You see, I am the sky. Nothing more, no less. When I glimpse it, I’m headed homeward. When I follow the glimpse I’m on my way. To freedom, to being okay.

I look away from the window and notice that one of my shoes is untied. I stand and stretch. The ache in my lumbar is gone. I see the notebook and its daily to-do list, patiently waiting for some attention. Then the memory of yesterday’s client call comes to mind.

I sit and open the notebook to a fresh page.

I spell out ‘Okay’ with my pen. I push the nib into the paper, circling the word, feeling for the light to guide me forward.

That’s all it takes.