Hospital Dhamma. I've been in the midst of it for a week. In the plastic chairs of two emergency rooms, where lives spill over into each other. People pacing with phones. Sometimes I was one of them. Looking for quiet corners. Later, finding places to perch near the stretcher in a cubicle, marked as private by skimpy curtains. Long periods of waiting for news, for action, for movement forward. Drawing a chair up later to the side of a ward bed in a temporary “home”, making a kind of nest of possessions, marking a place to be ours for awhile.
In the halls more action in an hour than I'm used to in a week. A bustle of activity. An orchestra of sound, instruments and voices unfamiliar. Bodies stretched on couches in any lounge area. Too many cafeteria meals.
We've stepped for awhile outside of what we take to be normal, into a parallel universe. Surreal at first, it becomes a new normal in a short time. Keeping my sense doors open and my mind in my body, I am surprised by the shivering sense of connection with all those around me caught in this painful and undesirable limbo. I am here now and so, for me, this is happening only now. But when I moved day to day somewhere else before this and when I move back to somewhere else, it goes on. Life contains this too.
All this is happening all the time. The parents, the siblings, the friends, the wives and the husbands. Helpless and afraid as they hand over a loved one into the care of others. The uncertainty written large, tattooed on my heart.
Sometimes I recite mantras silently in my head during the waiting. Again and again coming back to the 5 Reflections and the one that has always spoken to me most strongly: “All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.” When I've recited this mantra before I have allowed my mind to scroll through the list of loved ones, of loved places, of loved activities. And here, in the hospital, waiting for news, it is my husband that is foremost in my mind as I begin.
But there are new nuances here. Our home. Our routines. Our plans. Our expectations. The way it will be. All that is mine. Who I am wound all around with him and our life together. I am learning deeply. Pushed off a cliff into the ocean, swim or sink. “I” is whatever I grab hold of and hold close. “Mine” is whatever I take for granted without even knowing I've made a claim. I am learning to float without looking for something to hold to, to breathe underwater perhaps. And that learning is assisted in the clear recognition that “I” am not what this is about, what or who this is happening to. Conditions are unfolding. Life holds this too. Both of us, my husband and me, we're part of this life, not exempt.
Anything can happen at any time, my teacher has said. Yes. Hospital Dhamma repeats the lesson. This is not a bleak lesson, but one that calms. It's the whisper of the universe that echoes what mothers say holding their wee ones close as they cry: “It's alright.” No injustice here. No personal attack. Life unfolding. Nestled there in the arms of life and listening to that whisper, the hurt is more bearable. Peace is possible whatever life brings.
Today, as I do each time I begin a blog, I try to choose what to share that will be of benefit to readers, to those struggling, to those in need of encouragement, to those trying to understand, to those just passing through in a moment of curiosity, perhaps even seeking distraction, the very source in so many ways of the fundamental problem of dissatisfaction. This morning I make a list of ideas that come to mind reflecting on my own practice of late: metta, bad days, fear, unskillful actions. In contemplating this list, what arises is the realization that we so often think of practice in pieces like this, as techniques for control of the weather of the mind. This frustratingly elusive goal is totally different from seeking refuge, a stable place within the weather of the mind, a place to watch the beauty and the strength of the storm without becoming its victim. So while we're fiddling with simple or even sophisticated techniques, we're like the scientist on the roof setting up a weather vane in the midst of a hurricane while patient observation from a safe and still place might tell us more. We risk our well-being in rushing defiantly into the storm, while a wiser course of action might be to observe and learn its patterns which are our own patterns after all.
As I contemplate my list, I come to see again that the pieces are not independent. Working with metta is not something different from dealing with fear. Noticing that I feel in the midst of a “bad day” is not different from noticing my own unskillful actions. The metaphor of a tool belt and techniques or practices that are useful for particular difficulties misleads me sometimes. Whatever tool or method or “trick” I am using, what I am seeking is the door into that place of clear seeing, the place with the unobstructed view, a place that is OK even when it is not comfortable, where I am at ease with the vagaries of the mind's weather, not permitting it to be destructive of my well-being.
Learning to find that centre and to understand that it is available to me in the changing circumstances of my life, in the sunshine and the rain and even the hurricanes my mind stirs up, is key. Whatever the tools are that I draw on: time in nature, listening to music, yoga, running, coming to the breath, chanting mantras, these are only roadsigns that allow me to find that center again.
The problem with many of the things we turn to is that they stir up new winds rather than pointing to the center. Even after practicing so long, I'm aware of the temptation to just zone out for awhile. This is not a way into calm. It's ignoring the storm, rather than watching it. I want to be more like that scientist I mentioned but in his observing role, studying and learning what is the case right now. I want to be able to see not just the circumstances around me, this moment outside, but also this moment within me, this moment inside. From there I come to understand what the mind is doing. It is creating fear over the fires threatening in California, fear and anxiety over the depression of a loved one, procrastination in the face of unwelcome tasks, blame when someone acts in a way that adds difficulties to my day. Zoning out usually means distraction, the ostrich head in the sand trick. What I don't see, doesn't exist. For me this might mean I take a nap, read a novel, play Scrabble. You'll be able to make your own list here. Any distraction moves away from seeing what is happening, away from the possibility of seeing clearly and acting skillfully.
When I make choices, it is important that they are real choices. Wise choices. Not just automatic actions and habits. Choosing to read a novel because it is a pleasure to have some down time, not so I won't think about some fear or some worry. The alternative, of course, is not just to think about the fear or the worry, either, which is just stirring the winds. Instead I need to know them and then to choose wisely what will carry the mind and heart into a better place again. The observing and the feeling come first.
Don't know what brought you here today, but if you were looking for distraction, I'm hoping instead you found a little nudge to turn toward whatever you're turning away from right now. We're all doing this work no matter how long we've been practicing. Maybe it helps to know that.
I used to be a chronic insomniac and it also returned for me for awhile during menopause. Now and then it will make me a visit and we get reacquainted. It's never comfortable. Familiar maybe, but not comfortable. The worry about not getting enough sleep, paradoxically can interfere with all your efforts to sleep. So the mind needs to release that worry...even the quiet whisper that fatigue in the day to come is probable and to be avoided. This is a kind of leaning out of this moment into what might/will be. It creates a clinging and aversion cycle.
The most effective strategy I've found is displacement of these worry-thoughts. In his list of methods for dealing with negative thoughts, one metaphor the Buddha uses is one from ancient carpentry, when wooden pegs were used instead of nails. We replace the old and ineffective peg with a new robust one, putting it in place and pushing or hammering it in until the old one pops out the other side. This is effort but not force, not fierce pounding but a gentle persistence. There is no one strategy that will work in all cases for all people. Scan through your mental menu and choose what seems appropriate and then work with it, with patience and continuity.
Move your attention to the breath. Try extending your exhales and then extending the pause at the bottom of the breath. Doing this requires more presence than regular breathing and so might help to quiet the mind and hush the background anxiety. This also impacts the nervous system giving the brain signals to relax. You might also lie on your back and place your hands on your belly, adding this tactile contact with the breath, further anchoring you in the body so that the mind slows its spin.
Work with metta. Loving kindness meditation has a natural inclination to relax and bring peace. Work with this in whatever way you like...phrases or images. You might recall a few you've been led in or have used before. One common instruction is to begin with a kitten or puppy or some other animal you love. The animal does not have to be specific individual, but stands in for a category for which you feel a natural fondness. As you imagine being in the presence of this being, imagine a two way flow of love and trust and acceptance. Let it fill you. You could visualize light pulsing between you, if you like to make this more visceral. Or you can begin with light. I often move to a pulsing light and then let faces begin to emerge...first of those I love, sending them love and kindness and feeling the return of their care for me. Add soothing and comforting phrases if you like, mentally repeating them as you would with a child who woke from a bad dream in the night.
Soothing imagery of many kinds can be helpful. If it's possible and simple, so that you don't have to get up and move around too much, stirring energy, this might be helped by audio input of ocean waves or birdsong or something gentle. Let yourself imagine a safe and peaceful place. Create it by building sensory detail. What's the texture under you (sand, grass, blanket, water)? What's in the space around you? What are the sounds and the smells? Do not worry about poetic wording or precise concepts. You aren't writing a letter but instead are inducing a feeling of ease.
Progressive relaxation, self-talk that moves through your body as a body scan, is another possible method. Here you are noticing what is...any tension or gripping, and then adding mental permission for each part of your body to relax and switch off, sleep and recharge.
Combining any of these is fine, but guard against overthinking and jumping around too much, adding to the mind's turbulence. If you come to a period in your life where a waking pattern is developing, don't leave these strategies until anxiety arises. Practice a bit with one or more of these during the day when you have a few moments to yourself. This provides a habit of mind that is available without too much thought. You won't spend so much time when you wake in the night searching for the fresh peg to begin your work.
When bedtime comes, set yourself up for sleep rather than falling into patterns of anticipation of waking later. When you go to bed at night, work out a mantra phrase or two. "I am safe and at ease. My body is ready for sleep. I will sleep peacefully and wake to my alarm rested and restored." This is skillful effort to reprogram expectation and defuse anxiety. You may wish to combine this bedtime mantra with the breath or with a visualization of light or your safe place. Then, if you do wake in the night, find your breath and return to the method you've chosen to bring relaxation back to the body.
Sleep restores the body. But even if you remain wakeful, rather than “fighting” throughout the night, these more skillful strategies will have eased the tension and fear and anger that leave their unpleasant residue in the day that follows.
I don't go to movies often but sometime ago when we did make our way to the local theater, we noticed that the “free” industry magazine formerly available in the lobby is no more. While others sat in the theater prior to previews, thumbing their cell phones, we chatted quietly, no paper magazine to thumb through as we were accustomed to doing. One bit I missed, oddly, was a page based on the theory of seven degrees of separation. It would begin with some actor and set out a web of mostly romantic relationships, showing the connections with so many well-known celeb names. It was always kind of fun to trace this. I'm interested in connections that make the world.
Lately I heard Keith Urban make a dedication in which he referred to country music (fans and performers) as a community: everyone who listens or makes country songs becomes connected in this shared endeavor. How many such communities of the heart are each of us part of?
I used to teach high school English for a number of years in Calgary. Students more than colleagues have remained evident in my life. Three are even part of my immediate and extended family at this point. In a novel, I recently read the name of another, famous in his chosen field now, and I laughed at this trivial and yet wondrous reminder of how my connections from times past trace out into worlds very different from the one I live in these days. Then today an e-mail from traveling family who find themselves on a Middle East tour led by another former student of mine, who was once a classmate both to the now “famous” one and my own husband. Gets tangled.
My point is a simple one. A teaching of the Buddha that I often refer to reminds us to look into our own experience to test the truth of teachings. These specific experiences that are my own web of connection remind me of how closely I am bound to all living beings. We may think our paths cross with some “stranger”, only to find him/her to be the partner or cousin of a dear friend. We might skim over a name in a news article not realizing a blood tie with a member of distant family. We might, the Buddha even suggests, pass by someone on the street not knowing he was once our mother. Why not? The connections are so real and traceable in this very life. What might be possible if we accept the idea of other lives before and after this one? A dance with everyone, a rearrangement of the shapes in an elaborate quadrille.
Human beings find it easiest to love what is identified as mine. There may be a mistake there on a number of levels. One, of course, is to imagine I have ownership. Another is to imagine I am something enduring in myself. And another might be not to see that I belong to it all as it all belongs to me. All of us connected in some infinite web that can't be drawn on a magazine page.
The point of tracing some of your own surprising connections in the world and extrapolating beyond this to imagine a larger and more intricate web is that we can make use of this natural inclination to protect and to be kind to our own. If this homeless being is a cousin to my well-liked neighbor, if this irritating CEO was formerly our mother's piano student, if that woman in handcuffs is the granddaughter of the elderly woman our sister taxis to doctor's appointments, then we see a bit more dimension, we acknowledge a bit more of the complexity of a human life. Rather than doorway shadows, talking heads, or blurred news footage, we see them as people. And we know the confusion of our own human hearts. Maybe in seeing others within the circle of what is related to me, we'll be less hasty in judgment, more generous in impulse. Maybe we'll see swinging doors instead of walls between our lives and the lives of others.
Sometimes the world seems to be a pretty bad place. The other morning, I emerged from meditation and went to the kitchen to make my breakfast. The radio was on. The morning news cast began. Three in a row. The shootings in Las Vegas. A car running through a crowd in Edmonton. An armed robbery here in this very town. This news dropped into the moment I was living.
Outside the window, there was a palate of amazing color. A skiff of snow on the grass, yellow leaves whirling in the wind. The dark green of spruce as a backdrop. Inside the house, the air was warm and comfortable. The kettle had begun to steam. I was enveloped in the scent of the sweet fruit I was slicing into a bowl. My mind and heart were open and soft and vulnerable. Yet, for a moment, all I knew was pain.
The world I live in is the world my mind believes in. And for that moment, I believed the world was a bad place. This is the beginning of the work. As I poured the water into my mug, I watched the steam. Air element, water element. I let this bring me to my own breath. And then I set down the kettle and closed my eyes for only a tiny moment. That moment allowed me to bring awareness inward. What is this? This is pain. This is anger. This is sorrow. This is fear. As the emotions washed through me, I noticed my own aversion to what was happening. The impulse to turn away. The deep desire not to feel this. Instead, I gently urged my attention to move from this labeling into what was going on in my body. The involuntary hunching of my shoulders. The burning that was beginning behind my eyes. The tightness of chest. The clenching of belly and bowels. The sudden lack of appetite and the closing of my throat.
These are the sensations that trigger a mental reactivity. A mind that wants to run with the pain, the anger, the sorrow and the fear. The mind that wants to tell stories about the need to escape or to punish, or to curl up in apathy and despair. The mind that uses words like “never” and “always” and is caught in a world where these horrors are all that is and all that will be for all time.
The Buddha teaches that it is here that we can choose differently. Here in our own heart-mind. Feeling the negative emotions that sweep through, recognizing the story-making apparatus gearing up, I can redirect or stop the process. If I am aware and alert. If I make the effort. One of the very helpful and simple questions I use is to ask “Where is this leading?” This story of evil people, or villains, of a dark and dystopian world. It is leading me to more of the same. To deeper pain. To greater suffering.
In the time it takes for my tea to steep and my toast to pop, I am working to change the content of my mind. Turning from the negative to a place of light. Love and compassion for myself, suffering here in my own bright and comfortable kitchen on this pretty day, as if I were trapped in a cold underground cell. Love and compassion for the people harmed and the confused people who do the harming. What causes and conditions led to these actions? In a world where we plant hate and anger and pain, where this is what we learn to see as normal and inevitable, such actions result. In a world where we plant love and forgiveness and joy, good actions result. In this huge world, both of these are unfolding. Here, I choose to contribute to the second.
So far as is possible, I will work to recognize the negative emotions that arise, to feel them and not suppress them, and to know the kinship between pain and fear, and blame and hate. To know I too am vulnerable. To accept the universality of this but not the inevitability. Attention and intention allow me to steer my heart in a different direction, to lay down what conditions I can in my own life for more love and forgiveness and joy to grow. If those who harm others had lived in such a world, their choices, I believe, would be different.
Experiences of the last couple of weeks have me thinking about pushing boundaries, of moving away from how I see myself. It has been a time of testing those definitions that become confining and too readily accepted...understood as “the way it is”. When “the way it is”, is something that is fluid and changing. Reading a science fiction novel recently I came across a theory. Is the theory actual or invented for the sake of the story? Well, unfortunately I've returned the book to the library and my memory will not dredge up its name so my searches on the net haven't been able to answer that question. Here's what I remember of the theory about time and causality. Time is rapidly cooling water in a cubical container. The past is the frozen portion at the bottom of the cube. The future is the still liquid water on top and the present exists in that ever changing touch point between the two. The idea in the novel was that it could be possible for the future to shoot narrow needles of interference into the ice of the past. I don't recall the physics that explained this, nor do I know how much of it was the author's conjecture and how much the conjecture of contemporary scientists. But the image is compelling. Thinking about this now, though, I imagine the inverse, how the ice of the past, our frozen preconceptions, rise up and shoot tendrils through the present into the future. I have had the actual experience of leaving water outside for our pets in the winter, and finding later that when the water froze, the surface didn't form a smooth plain but instead lifted in delicate stalagmites. That's how I imagine the rigid notions we've formed from past experience impacting the fluidity of the future. So it's wise to be aware of this. Another recommendation for constant vigilance, awareness of “what is going on now”.
This latest trip in the company of my decade younger sister, was such an experience. On the way to the retreat centre that was our destination, we stopped at an off-season ski hill and took a wild ride in plastic sleds down the mountain side. Each sled had a narrow groove in its underside that fit over a metal guiding strip supported several feet above the ground by a series of metal stands. This snaking path undulates down the mountain in curves and drops and turns that often tip the sled on its side. It's all reminiscent of a roller coaster, except the rider has a hand brake that can be used to slow the momentum of the ride. No helmets! I could hear Robin Williams in his voice as the grown Peter Pan shouting from inside my head, “That is so dangerous!” I also have photographic evidence of my worried mind scrunching my face into nervous determination to “get through this”. I laughed outloud when I saw how what seemed private (my thoughts) were really so very public (my face)!
I'd describe myself as mostly cautious these days, at least when it comes to physical risk. I've given away my saddle, and have no interest in loud machines spewing clouds of exhaust. I drive carefully and usually in silence. I have good winter tires and four wheel drive. None of this feels like fear so much as wisdom. It feels like choices arising from a deep sense of what is “right” for me. And I'm not saying this is a mistake. However, it's a good thing, I think, to have reason to reflect further.
The challenge to reflect further doesn't apply only to that mountain ride. For many years now every retreat I've taken part in, whether led by a monastic or lay person, was a meditation retreat in the tradition of silence. Much sitting. Little, if any, conversation. This retreat was different.Growing out of the Quaker tradition, it included the idea of sitting in a circle alone together. But the flow was from listening to singing to silence in myriad arrangements. The movement from inner observation and awareness to an external focus on another person's spoken and spontaneous reflections, without comment or judgment or response, was unfamiliar but revealing. Here were multiple doors into compassion both for the struggling self and for the parallel human struggle in others.
While I challenged my ideas of what I could/would do, when I climbed twice into that yellow plastic sled, the more significant learning from this trip as a whole is a reinforcement of the importance of keeping awareness fresh. I deepened my awareness of that slippery boundary between my past and my future, noting where spikes of ice had made invasive entry into the present, impacting what I thought was possible or right for me. At that juncture where past and future meet, I skated on familiar, tried and true perspectives and swam in unchartered waters. It all felt a little like dumping out my entire toolkit for exploration of my ongoing experience, not in order to jettison, but to be reminded of what's there, to clean and sharpen edges, and nestle some shiney new ideas among the well-worn and proven reliable.
My reflections post-retreat have often been accompanied by a mental image of the Buddha's knowing nod as he speaks familiar words encouraging freedom from fixed points of view, a clear heart and clarity of vision. Plummeting through unfamiliar territory invites fresh breezes to blow through the heart.
There's a natural ebb and flow to the seasons in Canada with our weather extremes, and a matching fluctuation in our energies often, and how we spend our time. Combine this with the changing demands of life, including family, home, work, travel, and even hobbies and volunteer commitments, and it can be difficult to establish something that remains relatively constant, which is the ideal foundation for practice. That being said, there are things we always take time for. We eat, we sleep, we brush our teeth. If you stopped to make a list of what happens pretty much everyday, wherever you are, you might be surprised at its length. Establishing a meditation practice as the support for your mindfulness practice off the cushion is a crucial element in forming the mindfulness habit.
I'm speaking from experience. Over a couple of decades of practice I've been able to see the difference from the early times when a daily practice was hit and miss, and what began to happen as I stopped allowing this to be the case. I stress the fact that I had some choice here. When I let meditation slip off my list, it was because I let something else fill the slot: sleep maybe, a good book, a phone call to a friend. I had to move my meditation time around in my day sometimes, in the same way that lunch can't always be on the dot of noon, and the sun doesn't always come up at 7:00. But when I made a commitment to sitting at least briefly every day, I allowed the power of habit to take hold.
My preference for sitting is in the early morning. I love that time of day. The problem at the beginning was that I had other early morning habits...exercise, reading poetry, writing in a journal. So I either had to have an earlier and earlier rising time or shift something. When I'd find the right mix, then one of the kids would have a sleeping blip and decide to get up early and chase away the quiet time altogether. It was a process. What I discovered though was that keeping this on my list to do everyday meant I found a window somewhere, even if it was to close my eyes and count breaths while sitting in a waiting room, or sitting for ten minutes before falling gratefully into bed at the end of a long day.
I've had the meditation habit for a long time now. Mostly I still prefer mornings and in retirement, kids grown and moved away, and a husband who likes to linger abed a little longer in the mornings, this is pretty easy to arrange. I've taken back and even added to my morning rituals so that most mornings I read and journal and do yoga and sit. It's luxurious. My sitting time has stretched into the space. If an early appointment or some other change in routine intervenes, I strive to keep the meditation and let the rest go. And on the very rare occasion when even that isn't possible...an emergency call perhaps that jump starts the day, I allow habit to be the force that assures I'll find space and time somewhere in that day.
The value of this is impossible to over-emphasize. Every time I sit I find my way to that quiet and clear center that can become obscured by the blizzards of doing. Everytime I make watching my breath and observing the nature of the mind a priority, I clear away some of the clutter. If we cut down branches and stamp down growth to make a walking path in the woods, it will stay that way only if we use it. Branches grow back, weeds and grasses are hardy. We do the work in meditation that keeps a smooth path under mindful feet in the travels and travails of daily life.
“What are you doing right now?” Searching for perhaps an appropriate wise nudge, I open a book of Dhammapada quotations I keep on a counter I pass many times in a day. It has been a good day over all. Nothing to complain about. But it's fall and things are gearing up and I find my mind moving here and there and little niggles of discontent arising like pebbles dropped in a pool or water-walkers on the surface of a pond, the kind of disturbance that is easy to miss. But missing them means I make way for the torrent of confusion that could follow if I am hit by a wave of worry or anxiety later. The work of practice is to gradually become adept at seeing these first miniscule movements.
So I open the book and find these words “What are you doing right now?” The short passage of Dhamma teaching goes on to invite me to look into the content of the mind. Where am I permitting myself to dwell? What preoccupies or diverts my thoughts?
Instantly I feel my focus sharpen. The indistinct sense of something not quite settled that is the ground of anxiety gives way to a clear view of planning mind. Not just the kind of planning mind that is necessary to live in the world: Checking the calendar, making calls, gathering materials, doing the work. But the kind of planning mind that wants to re-visit the plan time and again, to look for flaws, to anticipate difficulties, to create scenarios where I miss the mark in some way, do not meet the standards I've set when I define the boundaries of who I am. And then I have to smile. For there it is again. The self and its boundaries, the self and its vulnerability, the self and its expectation of being in control of everything, of having nothing go awry, ever!
What am I doing right now? I'm allowing myself to feed this human and habitual pattern. I'm not offering a feast...yet! But I've left a trail of crumbs the hungry ego can follow.
So what's the antidote? Although we believe we are multi-tasking as we go through our day, in fact we are simply moving very quickly from task to task, allowing the attention to move spasmodically or even steering the attention in quick turns and jumps. And in there somewhere, the light landing of the pebble or the water-walker of misgiving takes place. So I begin by noticing this. Acknowledging the unease in my mind and its trails in my body. Then I find a place for the mind to land for a few moments of stability. For me most often this is the breath. One Dhamma-friend I know makes a conscious effort to take three mindful breaths at various points throughout the day. This is her anchor. The place where the mind stills again for a moment and the mad spin is disrupted. For me, the triggers I leave scattered about my home, which is my workplace for most of the day, provide a reminder to come back. In this case the little book of brief teachings. Beside my computer, various stones and crystals that I pick up to hold awhile, dissolving into touch. Above my kitchen sink the row of fat laughing Buddhas (based on the ancient Chinese monk Pu-Tai) who offer a less serious perspective on the day, a reminder of ordinary joy. In the windows, prisms that catch the light and break it into rainbows. Shimmering jewels that invite me to stop and take them in and that being as they are, dependent on the angle of the sun, remind me of causation and uncertainty.
It doesn't matter really what the reminders are, but the world is pulling us out into busyness and activity and the future all the time. We need to arrange for some reminders to come back here, to look inside, to slow down, to feel what we're feeling before it surprises us by giving rise to some unskillful action, some irritated remark, some sleepless night.
What are you doing right now?
One of many “lists” in the Buddha's teachings has to do with four types of clinging: The holding on we do that leads us away from happiness and into pain, even though we believe we are holding on to what will make us happy. The list includes sensuality, the lure of the senses; views and opinions; habits and various practices we adopt; and theories or notions of the self or “who I am”. When you begin to explore this list, it's powerful and convoluted. Over years of practice I've become more and more interested in a particular tangle: how my views and opinions and my notion of who I am blur together.
When you choose a certain shade of paint in a hardware store and take the can for mixing, the viscous liquid in the tin is simple creamy white. The mixing ads only a drop of this color and a couple drops of that color but the larger amount of white is transformed. So it is that a view or opinion may color my entire sense of who I am. We tend to settle on a mix that is thick like paint, applying one color liberally, rather than allowing something less absolute, more like the shifting colors of light through multiple colored lenses.
This is evident in some of the simplest things. A difference of opinion over which kitchen drawer is appropriate for a new “gadget” might evoke an unexpectedly strong internal emotional response, whether or not I choose to voice my opinion, or argue to win my point. When explored it becomes apparent to me that I have claimed the kitchen as “mine” and whatever is so claimed becomes an extension of “me” to be defended. This may be a trifling and even silly example, but once I become aware of it, I see how it spills out into the world.
How things should be done, what things should be given priority, who is worthy of respect, who is overlooked. All of it stemming from “my” opinions and the sense of what reflects “me”. It's subtle.
In discussion with someone, I learn to pay attention not just to what is said, but to my inner emotional reactivity. In this way I notice my inner hackles rise if the speaker expresses an opinion contrary to my own. If I am not alert and aware of the cause of this response, I come to have a negative response to the person who voiced the opinion. Even as my own opinions are so intricately woven into who I believe myself to be, I come to believe this is true of others. Their opinon on a particular subject is who they are. This denies the incredible variation and complexity, the flow of change and contradiction that is each of us.
Some labels have more power than others. In my own experience, one repeating struggle for me is to loosen the grip I have on my sense of myself as a mother. Here's the thing about labels: They are not freefloating, but instead are stuck tight to a package of definitions, values and prescriptions for thinking and acting. “A mother is....” What I fill into this blank will depend upon my own experiences and often will mirror the mother who mothered me, or is informed by a reflexive opposition to that. Adopting those things appreciated, pushing away from what was painful or irritating, probably swinging between the two.
“Mother” is only an example here. In paying attention to our responses in the world, we might discover any number of identities that hold us stuck...a paint can rather than a prism of changing light. I learn to be wary then of even intimate inner talk that begins with “I am...”.
It is not “wrong” to hold opinions or views of the self. But it is swampy ground where self-righteousness and self-justification grows. Time and effort are well spent in exploring the workings of your own mind, discovering the way through the swamp on your own. A willingness to look closely and honestly, and some persistence in the endeavor is all that's required. Be prepared for switchbacks and detours. No journey to self-awareness is a simple one-way street.
A revelation...I slept 30 minutes more than I intended and the world did not end. Splashing water on my face and through my hair, slipping a sweater over pj's and shoes on bare feet, I was ready in time to stretch before the 6:00 a.m. group meditation. In a moment of serendipity I discovered a brochure in the foyer describing a labyrinth on the centre grounds! I hope to find it after lunch in personal meditation time...the directions look simple enough. I must have passed it coming up the drive and didn't notice it hidden in the trees.
Last night I was worried I would not sleep and my worries shaped the outcome in a few moments of panicky near nausea. Strange. The room was warm and a hall light shone through the door's translucent window. I struggled a little with a fan in the room but it squeaked and grumbled so that I knew not only would I get no sleep with it on, but neither would my neighbors. I settled for throwing off the blankets and snuggling into two friendly pillows. Still woke twice in the night. In those panicky moments I thought of home and what it must be like to live “institutionally” as a nun or monk in this kind of space all the time. Afloat. Anonymous. But this morning, what seemed overwhelming, feels comfortable. It's like a hot bath where one winces first stepping in and has to ease so carefully into the water, not quite certain, not quite liking it. As the water soaks cares and weariness and pain away, a deep relaxation and contentment is felt. Like that. I am grateful for my guys in the background waiting my return but for now this is good...a home in silence, solitude and practice.
The day progresses through mindfulness of the senses in a slowly consumed breakfast and a welcome shower. And moves into a second meditation session where the body is fine and the mind struggles. Not emptying myself of words in speech, I find them spilling onto these pages...as if I'm allotted so many each day and they must have somewhere to go. In the silence of meditation, words gurgle up like the bubbles in a boiling pot, my old passion for metaphor asserting itself.
Then lunch and the labyrinth which was easily found, not hidden at all when I had eyes to see. It's a simple structure of interlocking brick pressed into the grass in lines delineating the pathways. I walked in and sat awhile in its centre, the hot sun on my back doing its good work for aching muscles. The breeze and birds and two ducks feeding in a wet low area nearby doing their good work to clear the cobwebs of too much recycled indoor air. Walking back out, I am aware of no definitive answer to the perennial questions: why am I here? What is this gift of life for? But I am soothed by a sense of rightness and serenity with being in this place here and now.
Walking meditation outside in the afternoon...look up at the end of one pass and there is one of the rabbits curled and resting against the base of a still leaf-bare tree, maybe a dozen feet in front of me. Smile. Feel the joy. Later, again watching three of them playing on the lawns and a tiny nun in an old style black Catholic habit, tossing bread to the sides of the path she walks. For the rabbits? The birds?
Chatty mind continues in the afternoon. Hush, come back to the breath. Bhante speaks of the silence as a “containment” for what we're doing here. Keeping eyes downcast so as not to invite social interaction or distraction. This last is difficult. Like my chatty mind, my eye seeks to amuse itself. Watch the bunnies, read brochure titles as I pass. There are still several days to settle. This “wanting” is natural, Bhante says, but we learn in careful observation how it creates a sense of lack and leads to discontent, to suffering.
By the next day, mind is either devoid of words after yesterday's “festival” or just bored with them. Today only images arise and fall, less troublesome. The snake of self shedding skins as it slithers through hoops and tunnels, faces dissolving and changing into other faces, pulses of light, a horse in a field transforming into a deer and then a rabbit before vanishing.