Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Why Practice? The Darkness Always Falls

This morning we had a contractor scheduled to come to our house to take a look at a couple of leaks that we have been putting off dealing with. Up until he arrived at 11:30, I was working on the outline to a possible presentation I will be giving on hope and mindfulness. Though I tend not to use the word “hope” very much, I was curious about the subject and so I spent the morning hours exploring ideas around it and how it relates to mindfulness and Buddhism. I wanted to find what rings true or not about my experience with hope. I was on a roll and felt inspired as I worked. I found relevant quotations from teachers. It was starting to feel like a fascinating subject when the doorbell rang. The contractor had arrived. I put the computer aside and invited him in. He took a look at the bathroom and, more or less, said the pipes are very old and likely shot. They are leaking into the concrete and though we could patch it, ultimately, the whole bathroom needs to be gutted. This means plumbers, electricians, permits, inspections, a non-functioning bathroom for 3 weeks (and our only full-bathroom) and the worst 

I have two vulnerable spots. Well, probably more, but two that I know well. Places where I can go dark most easily. Finances have always been one of them. When difficulties like this arise, I can’t imagine how it will work out; I feel alone with it, though I am not; I see no possibility; I can’t reason or think logically. Basically, I go to a despairing place. After the contractor left, I watched myself sink into that hole. It was dark. Was this the same woman writing on hope 30 minutes earlier? So much for all those words, right?

Not really, because this is what I found next. Mike and I went to the woods to go do our usual Sunday ritual. I went running on the trails, as I do. It wasn’t a mindful run by any means (no being in the moment feeling the ground underneath me, experiencing the trees, etc.). But, as I ran, I did watch my emotions gradually shift. Endorphins were being released, energy expelled, thoughts worked out, and by the time I met up with Mike, I was much more like myself. I was still overwhelmed, don’t get me wrong, but not despairing and not dark. In the past, that might have taken me out for days, not just the despair itself, but then the shame about being in despair (which was even worse!).

I share this to remind us of two things. 1) We say it often in mindfulness and meditation, all things change. Our emotions which feel so strong, so permanent, do shift. This is what we are asked to observe again and again when we meditate…not to attach to our thoughts and feelings, not to push them away, but to experience them with kindness and compassion and let them move on. We can trust that they do. Circumstances change, people change, our bodies change, minute by minute. 2) This one, I can’t emphasize enough. It is so easy to think that what we are after in our meditation and mindfulness practice is to get to a place where we don’t get so dark, where we don’t feel things as hard as I felt them this morning for an hour. But it is not true, we will always hit these lows, these bumps, these places that feel impossible. That is a given. It is life. This is good news. It helps us stay humble and it connects us to our common humanity. And when we haven’t had any bumps in a while, it is easy to think, we moved passed them, until something rears its head and we find ourselves knocked down again. A sickness, a job loss, a divorce. But there is a difference between practicing a mindful life and not practicing and it is a significant one. What we are doing when we practice is training ourselves for these moments. Because even when, in the thick of them, it feels as though all that wisdom is gone, what we find is that we move through the mud more quickly and it doesn’t scar us. This work we do in meditation, work that can seem so subtle like…“I’m just sitting here and watching my busy mind,” is actually much deeper than that. The training is underground working and will help you when you need it. Not help you always feel peaceful, but help you find your way back to what peace is. So keep sitting. Hope is at work when we do. 

"In practicing meditation, we're not trying to live up to some ideal -- quite the opposite. We're just being with our experience, whatever it is. If our experience is that sometimes we have some kind of perspective and sometimes we have none, then that's our experience. If sometimes we can approach what scares us and sometimes we can't, then that's our experience. 'This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it is always with us' is really a most profound instruction...Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives."  --Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Monday, September 2, 2019

Inner Life

Every summer when we go to Maine, I have my kids take an electronics break. They get screen time for the whole 10+ hours it takes to get there, but once we arrive, everything goes away. In place of screens, it has become a tradition that they pick out a new puzzle to do in their downtime at the house where we stay. Over the years, the puzzles have gotten more complex and much bigger. We now do 1,000 piece puzzles and have 6 days to get it done. From the get go, my daughter seemed to have advanced puzzling skills. She can quickly tell whether the shape of one piece will fit with another by a simple glance and the shake of her head at me. I am more like the sous-chef of puzzles. I help find all the end pieces, the ones with the flat edges and I hand them over to her. Then, I start grouping by color. Every time we start the puzzle, I have the same experience. It seems completely overwhelming. How we could possibly get these pieces, which all look the same with only slight deviations, to form a whole picture. There is a part of me that wants to give up before we even start. But then I remember my job. Just gather the frame of the picture and start grouping large sections of color. I start to see what might work, one piece at a time. When I find myself getting stuck, when no pieces have come together in a while, I move to a different color. When I come back, something magical happens, and I find the pieces start to fit again. In those moments, I cheer myself on and say out loud, “go mommy!” The kids chuckle (or roll their eyes) at my self-enthusiasm.

I never did puzzles growing up. I see now, with my adult eyes, they are the perfect metaphor for the unending process of “growing up.” Unlike a puzzle, we don’t have the box cover that shows us what the whole picture will eventually look like. Instead we just get to take steps and maybe we have a vision. We find that some pieces start to come together. Sometimes we are convinced we found the piece that will work and then realize it doesn’t actually fit. It happens in schools we choose, marriages, careers, places we live, all relationships, our spiritual life, etc. Everything is an unfolding and a discovering of what fits and what does not. What moves us in the direction we want to go and what does not. At almost 45, I can start to see a blurry picture, but I can’t know the final version. When I am 70, 80 or 90 will it come into clearers focus? Maybe. What I do know is that taking time to reflect on what the whole picture looks like so far is a worthwhile practice. It can tell us a great deal about ourselves, our inclinations, our habits of judgement, our tendencies toward something. Only then can we ask ourselves if we want to repeat a certain thing, yet again. Only then can we see how much we have gone through and how it shapes who we are and what decisions we are making now. Only then can we appreciate ourselves and everything outside ourselves which has made us who we are — all of our experiences, the ones that felt good and the ones that were challenging. We can be grateful for them all, for the qualities, insights, gifts we now have. It also reminds us to enjoy the process, to not be in a hurry to see the picture. Like a puzzles, we don’t get to take it with us anyway. It gets dismantled when we leave. How often do we take the time to simply reflect, recall, appreciate, and process — not so that we can rehash old stuff, but so that we can see the larger picture, the evolution of our beautiful life?

I think it is no coincidence that this post starts with the removal of electronics to bring us to piecing together a puzzle, a whole picture. How can we have time to be with ourselves, truly be  with ourselves: reflecting, ruminating, imagining, constructing the pieces if we are always glued to a screen, to a constant influx of readily available news which, in the past, would have come in much more slowly, if at all. How do we have an inner life, as Sebastian Smee so articulately expressed in his 2018 essay, Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age. If we don’t diligently reserve time for our inner lives, make that conscious choice, we can get lost in the pieces and miss savoring it all. This is what we could call Right Effort (Right Diligence) on the Noble Eightfold Path or could easily fall into the category of Mindful Consumption, the 5th Mindfulness Training. How are we doing this life and what are we consuming that waters wholesome or unwholesome seeds? 

When we went away, I got in touch with seeing wholesome and unwholesome seeds in me when I, too, disconnected from my phone, from social media. It felt like a relief. I knew I was watering wholesome seeds because it felt spacious. Having that experience was important information for me to pay attention to. To do things like write, meditate, walk without a purpose or direction, to dream is to have an inner life. What I know is that if I do these things with my phone on me, or with the feeling that I should check my email, or capture a picture, I am not really connecting with myself. There is a part of me that is still attached, still being driven by the endorphins that get released every time I open my email when it dings, click a “like,” check the weather, etc. 

What I am finding is that to keep this going now that I am home and back to my busy life requires making a deep commitment to myself to be clear what it is I want and, like going on a diet, not to lose weight, but to get in a groove that feels right once it becomes a way of life. I’ve been listening to a number of Tim Ferriss’ podcast interviews with very accomplished entrepreneurs. What I am learning from them is the clarity they have around what they do, how much they do, what they don’t do, and their schedules. Whether it is about watching TV, checking emails, posting on social media, not being on any social media, reading, journaling, sleeping, limiting the number of engagements they say “yes” to, they are clear on what matters to them. It is inspiring and I do think they are on to something. It feels challenging to change these habits. Anxiety arises about being out of touch, of people leaving, of not doing enough, of not being enough — the usual players come in the arena. I also know that once I get in the routine, those feeling will diminish which will bring the whole fallacy to light…the notion that I “need” to be in the know, to be connected in that particular way. I am working on what that schedule looks like…when I allow myself to be online and when I don’t and to practice Right Effort and Mindful Consumption. There is joy in this as I feel excited to return to this other way of being in the world before I let phones and the internet control it. 

You can try it on for yourself...what would it look like to reserve more time for your inner life in your daily life? It might not have to do with your phone or social media. What would you do, or not do, to have more space for yourself? You can start with asking what brings you some anxiety, or often feels urgent, or has some dependency associated with it? If there is something there, then maybe this is a place that needs watering or a place that needs to stop being watered. What, if any, commitment would you like to make? It can’t be half hearted, but it also can’t be so rigid it brings suffering. Right Effort should be joyful. It should feel good to commit.  It will take some time for me to figure out what my boundaries are, what I want to put in place, what I want to eliminate. I am starting by writing it out and then…I am going to get myself a puzzle.