The Hot Air Balloon of Life

 “The key to staying happy is really very simple. Begin by understanding your inner energies. If you look inside, you will see that when you’re happy, your heart feels open and the energy rushes up inside of you. When you aren’t happy, your heart feels closed and no energy comes up inside. So, to stay happy, just don’t close your heart.Pema Chodron

If you prefer to listen

The balloon of the hot air balloon is filled with heated air (the inner energy) which makes it buoyant. The mouth of the balloon (the heart) is open so that the hot air can flow in.  Before flight the hot air balloon is held down by tethers (beliefs that limit us). In life, the hot air making us buoyant is kindness and joy.  We need to continually feed our supply of kindness and joy to be buoyant. To do so, we need to open our hearts to let the energy of kindness in. How many times has someone offered to do something nice for you and you declined?

Even when our hearts are open, we can’t soar unless we let go of the tethers that are holding us down. Often, we are unconscious of what tethers hold us down from living fully. Sometimes the tethers even keep us from being able to let in the kindness and joy of life.

The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau had a name for this state – he called it slumbering through life. As he saw it, we get so caught up in the shams and delusions of the mind that we miss reality – what is happening now and here. One of the purposes of meditation is to train our brains to see and accept what it really here.

Our brains are wired to cling to anything pleasant and worry about losing it, while sweeping anything unpleasant under the carpet. When we do that, we make our tethers invisible.  We can’t see them, but they are still holding us down. So, our standard strategy for pursuing happiness often backfires on us.  We fill the balloon with good things until it almost bursts, but we never fly because we never undo our tethers. If we can learn to become aware of our tethers, we can let them go and we can soar.

If we can learn to be aware of our thoughts and feelings without grasping them or pushing them away, they can move through us like the clouds moving across a windy sky.  Remember we have 2000-3000 thoughts per hour, most of which we are unaware of. Some of these thoughts are our tethers. The only way we can make our invisible tethers visible is to slow down enough to see them.  Meditation is about seeing into this stream of thoughts.  When we see the thoughts that are tethers, we become the master and the tethers lose their power over us. We don’t have to hold on to our tethers, we can release them.

Even though tethers are negative and limiting, we hold on to them for two reasons.  The first is that we are totally unaware of their existence. We don’t even know we have a tether holding us down. We have brushed it under the carpet. We think if it is not in our conscious mind, it is gone. But it’s not. It is still there holding us down.  The second is that we are comfortable with the familiarity of our tethers.  We would rather hang on to our tethers than to risk riding in the hot air balloon. We know what is going to happen when we hang on to that tether.

What are the tethers that won’t let us live our lives? What tethers are you so afraid of that you hang onto them instead of just enjoying life? What are you so busy hiding, rehashing or preparing for that you can’t just be in the present moment? Tethers are often core beliefs such as “I’m bad.” “I am not good enough.” “If I show my true self, people won’t like me.” “I’m stupid.” “I can’t do anything right.”

Usually, we are resisting the impact the experience may have on us if we let it in.  We put up our defenses so we don’t have to feel something that might be uncomfortable, sad or scary. We try to stop it from passing through our hearts and minds. Because if we let it affect us, we may need to change our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves or about those we love. Change is scary, so we hang on to the tether to hang on to what we know.

“The fact is, you’re generally using your will to resist one of two things: that which has already happened or that which hasn’t happened yet. You are sitting inside resisting impressions from the past or thoughts about the future. Think of how much energy is wasted resisting what has already happened. Since the event has already passed, you are actually struggling with yourself, not with the event. In addition, contemplate how much energy is wasted resisting what might happen. Since most of the things you think might happen never do, you are just throwing your energy away.

This is the human predicament. Events have happened and we continue to hold their energy inside of us by resisting them. Now, when we face today’s events, we are neither prepared to receive them nor capable of digesting them. This is because we’re still struggling with past energies. Over time, the energies can build up to the point that a person becomes so blocked that they either blow up or shut down completely. This is what it means to get stressed-out or even totally burned-out.” Michael Singer

Clinging to another person or continually distracting ourselves are also tethers. We think they will make us feel safe, but they often don’t. That the feeling of safety and security you want to feel doesn’t need to come from clinging to another person or from constantly distracting yourself. But we keep the tether hidden and hold on anyway. It is really hard to make our tethers visible and then let go of them. Acknowledging and soothing the fear within is the first step in letting it go.

When we first let them go, we are very uncomfortable as we are not doing the habitual thing.  Pema Chodron calls this the detox period. You have been doing the same thing over and over to get away from uneasy, uncomfortable feelings. And now you are facing them.  When you do something different, you don’t know what is going to happen. If you look at that scary feeling, will you be able to handle it?

It is easy to slip and grab on to that tether.  Practice taking your hand off it for a minute or two so you can build up your strength.  Eventually you won’t need the tether. When you grab the tether, that is the time to open the mouth of your hot air balloon and fill it with kindness.  You need this strength to be open and curious about where this will take you. You may find that by not fueling your discomfort with a story, you no longer need the tether. And when you are not using your energy to hold on to the tether, you have the energy to experience life. You can open the mouth to the balloon and let the good flow in so you can soar.

Holding on to your tethers is a habit.  And like any other habit, it can be broken. You can train yourself to let go.  Start by letting go of the small tethers, the small urges that control your behavior. The need to scratch an itch immediately.  See if you can turn toward the itch and just watch it. Sometimes it is very difficult.  Sometimes you can only do it for a second or two before you must scratch (grab your tether). Each time you delay your reaction, you are building your muscle.  

Another practice that I encountered with the coronavirus threat, was to let go of the urge to touch my face.  I read somewhere that we touch our face 90 times per hour. The first step is to recognize the urge to touch your face. Then realize that you have a choice.  Say, I don’t have to touch my face. Sometimes we think that if I don’t rub my eye it will get itchier and itchier until you can’t stand it. And if you are feeling contracted, this will come true. But if you just relax and look at the itch, you may find it goes away by itself.

By starting with these little things, you expand your window of tolerance for discomfort.  The reason we hold onto our tethers is that we have very little tolerance for discomfort. By starting with the small things, it is easier for you to not react to (or hold on to) bigger tethers.

Practice with not scratching itches or touching your face.  Then, take some time each day to notice whether you feel open or contracted. If you are contracted, you are probably holding a tether to keep you safe from a scary feeling.  See if you can just be with that feeling for a couple of breaths.  Don’t try to change the feeling or fix anything, just be with it. Refrain from pushing it away even if just for a moment.  Notice what happens when you turn toward it instead of pushing it away. Resolve to practice this once a day.

Keep in mind, there are two ways you can live your life: limiting yourself by holding on to your tethers or letting them go so you can soar.

Acceptance Meditation