The expression “searching for true north” describes an inner
desire to know where we are and where we’re headed. It’s our search to find the way home, the place where we feel welcome and safe. The pandemic has gifted us (it doesn’t always feel that way) with the time to focus on it. Where do you want to go and how can you get there with the least amount of agitation? What makes you feel like you’re on track, exactly where you’re supposed to be? If you
feel off track, how do you orient yourself to face true north?  

Buddhist Pema Chodron, wrote a book called “Start Where You Are.” When I first got it years ago, I was looking for a more steady spiritual practice and a more solid writing experience but I didn’t know where the path started. I felt like I wasn’t ready to begin because I couldn’t find my center – my true north. Maybe I’ll feel more balanced tomorrow, I said to myself, and I can start meditating. Maybe I’ll be more focused next week and I can begin that writing project. But when I thought about the title, “Start Where You Are,” it
sounded like I didn’t have to wait for anything. I could be right where I was, take a step and the next one would follow. So I stopped waiting and I started breathing. I stopped trying to figure things out. I reminded myself that I was probably exactly where I needed to be and if I wasn’t, I could turn around, face the other direction and move forward from there. Wherever “there” was.

Walking the balance beam in gymnastics is a great metaphor for balancing your life. The wooden beam is four inches across, about sixteen feet long and it stands four feet from the ground. It’s a fine edge, the floor seems far away and the task is to find your center, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, breathe deeply, try to maintain your balance and make it to the other side. If you fall, you get back up there and start over.

I got up on the beam once. I made sure the areas around it were
padded, I stood tall with no hand rails and no one to catch me and I proceeded to try to walk across it. I kept psyching myself out. The thoughts came fast and furiously. “What if I fall?” I kept saying. Would I hurt myself or my pride? I felt paralyzed but I breathed, tightened my core muscles, I spread my toes, gripped the beam and put my right foot in front of my left. “I can’t do this,” I kept thinking, and then I put my left leg in front of my right. It was terrifying, I managed a few more steps (very few) but I was up there long
enough to understand that finding my balance was as much of a mental experience as it was physical. Maybe more so. It was living life on the edge, the ultimate experience of staying present with nothing to hold onto except my core. It showed me that I could begin wherever I was and carry on for as long as I wanted. When my writing students ask me where they should begin their stories,
I tell them to begin in the middle and forget about finding the beginning or the ending of something. “Just grab onto what’s in your reach,” I say, “a particular story or a person, write from there and you’ll find your way.”

When I carefully let myself down off the beam and got back my
land legs, I felt more present, like I was all in one piece. I also felt
courageous. I had taken the first step and a couple more up there and I had managed to stay upright. Ever since then, when I see gymnasts doing back flips and twisting Arabians on the beam, I marvel even more than before. It’s a seemingly impossible feat to do what they do but so is staying present and compassionate in a world that is suffering from a pandemic and toxic politics. That’s what we’re facing. As the world spins, as people make choices we don’t understand, I remind myself that we are all trying to walk the balance beam. We’re all looking for the path home, for the wisdom and inner strength to take care of ourselves the best we can as we keep moving forward toward our true north.