I was talking to my sisters about how meditation is like golf. "Say what?", you say. Yes, golf. If you've played for any length of time you'll know how absolutely frustrating the game is. You plan it all out, line up your stance, angles, club - eye it all up thinking, "This is gonna be sweet". And there it goes..... in the rough. Then you're furious with yourself, wondering how you managed to mess up that shot so badly. Which, of course, messes up the next shot, etc... There's lots of time between holes to think about how you stuffed up, to get involved in some rather unpleasant self-talk that leads to a whole host of emotions that make you swear you're going to give up the game entirely because, clearly, "you aren't good enough for it!" At the time, you're just angry. Later, when the game's over and there's a bit of distance from it, you can see how it all went down and how you talked yourself into how it all went down. But every once in a while you somehow manage to hit the most beautiful shot and that one moment keeps you going back for more... until the next shot which lands in the sand pit and the cycle starts all over again.
I've had some beautiful, blissful meditation practices.....and a whole lot of thought-bouncing, distracted ones that essentially were in the rough. We get attached to the practices that hit the 'sweet spot' of inner peace and calm. And I think it's ok to get attached to them, to want them and use them to heal you up - to use meditation to bring peace to a not so peaceful life. But we must remind ourselves that we are not "bad meditators" because we've had a distracted practice, that we are not "bad people" because that ball went into the pond.
Continuity of practice is key - continual witnessing of all the self-talk, self-judgement, the planning and hoping, the anger, the disappointment, all the thoughts flying here and there until we can see how it's all going down - how the mind works. Meditation gives us a new perspective. In witnessing we see that not only are we not our thoughts, we are not the thinker of those thoughts either. Meditation helps us step away from the thinker, the analyser, the player (as well as step away from the thoughts and emotions felt by that thinker and emoter) so we can step into our true essence as simple, pure welcoming witnessing presence. Knowing yourself as That, the game is just the game, the practice is just the practice and there's no attachment to how it all turns out.
A whole poem for you today - another from A Year with Hafiz (Translation by Daniel Ladinsky):
"Three-quarters of the world dances all night,
the waves moving as they do on the seas.
And when the wind takes a tree in its arms,
what happens then?
The green branches of the earth may seem to
reach out to touch us if we were near them in a forest,
a meadow, a field.
Does not all sway to a rhythm that began long
before we stood upright?
We are in the mountain's home, just guests.
Guests of the sky, the streams, the giving soil
we nurse from.
Would not you be happier following their
example - bowing in unseen ways, then rising
We like to think we're living life, in control. But isn't it maybe the other way around? Thinking we're in control of life, after all, is objectifying life, making it into something that is separate from us - a thing to be manipulated and outwitted so we get our way.
How can that possibly be the case? How can life be something we are separate from, something we can exert "our will" upon. The tree, the sun, the ocean, the earth, this body - all are vehicles of life. In iRest we ask the question, "Isn't life living us? Isn't life living through us?" We might say life is simply happening and all our suffering, all our discontent, discouragement and wishing things were different has no actual impact on life itself.
We are like a river. The river is always being moved. It is never the same, but what it is is essentially always the same. How absurd it would be for the river to believe it has chosen its path, its direction, or to believe it can exert control over where the water flows.
Imagine just that - a river that believes it flows along a course it has chosen. Of course, the stones, the mountains, gravity - they all know better. The course simply is. But for some reason this one river likes to think it's in control. It wants to flow in another direction - doesn't like the current path, man. Nope, not good enough. So it tries to alter the way things are, to improve itself out of a sense of not enough, to push in this direction and that. It has an ideal flow or path in mind and that's that. And for all its wanting things to be a certain way, it just keeps flowing along the path already there; being moved as it always has been. After all, how could it possibly be otherwise?
So I ask (through Hafiz):
Would you not be happier following [the example of the waves on the sea, the branches of the tree] - bowing in unseen ways and then rising up, swaying to a rhythm that began long, long ago?
"Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you."
So simple - so true. We all need a bit of r & r from time to time. But unplugging to me doesn't just mean going on holiday in Fiji. Don't get me wrong, Fiji is absolutely lovely (and one of my favourite places by the way). Isn't it true, though, that even before that holiday comes to an end we're already planning the next? Maybe we're even feeling miserable because it just can't ever be long enough. Too much work, not enough play.
There can never be enough vacations from "life" unless we go deeper and unplug from our habitual ways of being in the world, of relating to self and other when these aren't serving us any more. Having "time off" is not really the whole story is it?
Meditation can give us that much needed rest, but can also be a tool we use to check out the beliefs we're firmly holding on to - primarily the misguided belief in the "small self" that keeps us hostage, taking everything personally. One of my teachers recently instructed the class to feel into the "I" thought. This led to a series of new insights for me. So I'll pass this teaching on to you, readers: feel into "I" and question it's substance. Feel how empty and insubstantial it really is. But don't stop there. Instead ask, "What, exactly, is this thought arising in?" Here is the potential to discover what it's like to be truly unplugged from your "self" - this illusion we cling to.
At some point in the journey we have to be willing to question the very identity we've lived our whole lives with in order to make the ultimate discovery of our true essence - that unshakeable resting place that's with you wherever you find yourself, whether on that beach in Fiji or sitting quietly at home.
"Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm." - Thomas Merton
I've just returned from a seven-day silent retreat. And of course, the first thing I want to do as a human being is talk about it. The irony, right?
I often hear some of my students say that they find meditation boring. But the truth is that awaiting discovery in silence is a fullness and a richness that is beyond our capability of measuring or describing. It needs to be experienced to be truly understood.
Silence is more than soundless-ness "out there": it's what's always sitting in the background of our experience. Noise comes in many forms, including our thoughts, emotions, beliefs. The "I" that we take ourselves to be likes to chatter - either aloud or within the mind with itself. It's constantly narrating. Who, exactly, is it talking to?
The reality is that this "I" is just another thought, always late to arrive on the scene. There is just listening, breathing, feeling, living. And you don't have to take my word for it. Sitting a moment in quiet it is possible to observe how "I" appears after doing has happened to proclaim: "I have heard", "I have breathed", and "I have something to say about it". And, as long as we're engaged solely in this chatter, in sound and movement (internal or external), we fail to see the silence that's always been there even as movement of sound appears and disappears.
Pure silence is beyond just mere quiet. It is what we are before, during and after sound arises. But, and here's the beautiful thing, it's sound that showcases the silent stillness of our essence. After all, how could we possibly know one without the other? We don't have to push noise away. We just have to ardently inquire into what else is here other than sound. Ask yourself how it is you know sound in the first place.
So maybe take the time to plug into quiet. Become technology-less for a while, maybe an hour, an afternoon, a day. Discover for yourself what silence has to say: you are first and foremost pure - Still - Vast- Silent Awareness experiencing sound.
Rumi asked, "And you, when will you begin that long journey into yourself?" Notice how he asked "when", so it was not a question of "if", rather a certainty that the day eventually comes when we all start to wonder "Is this it - is this what my life is about, or was meant to be?"
This, to me, is the most pivotal and beautiful moment in life because it's when authentic living begins. That knife-edge point in life when there is so much suffering, so much discontent, so much about the way we're living that is un-centred that we might finally be motivated to begin the migration home - finding centre. This is when life begins to be lived on purpose.
Birds, seemingly miraculously, know where to fly during migration. North American monarch butterflies make their way over thousands of kilometres (from parts of the US and Canada to Mexico), somehow knowing where to go, even though they've never been there before.
Like all living things, we know when we're on course too. Like the flower and the tree, we know where the sunlight is. Like the bird, we know when we're on point in what often feels like a journey in life. And we know because the body tells us so. That constriction, that depression or despair, the feeling of heaviness that lingers day after day - they're body flares, an internal s.o.s signalling when we're off course.
But despite getting lost awhile, haven't you been on the path to centre all along? Once you start this explorative journey into yourself - finding the essence of your Self - you realise that there never was anywhere to go at all. Right here is everything. Right here is home. Right here, in the essence of each moment, is the perfection of what you already are. Like the expression goes, "Everywhere you go, there you are."
"You are the sky. Everything else - it's just the weather." Pema Chodron
There are so many layers of meaning within this statement but, ultimately, doesn't it invite the inquiry into the nature of self identity? So before you read on, maybe you could take a moment to answer this question for yourself: "Who or what, exactly, am I?"
We all have different answers of course, but my guess is you've responded with something such as: your gender and age, your job, education and marital status. You may have included whether you have children and how many. Some people might reply with - "I'm depressed" or, "I'm an alcoholic/workaholic/shopaholic". For most of us the list describing who/what we are would include the various roles we play within society (wife, mother, son, volunteer), the emotional tendencies we have and beliefs we hold dear, the ways in which we think, descriptions of physical appearance, etc... You get the picture.
We spend our lives wearing these labels, taking them on as though they are the very essence of what/who we are - our very identity, our skin. And we rarely, if ever, stop to ask if any of this is true. After all, one emotion is felt and another follows soon after - and another, and another, ad infinitum. This one thought (experienced now and deeply invested in, dwelled upon) might even be in direct opposition to the next. Doesn't all this quite naturally beg the question: "Is the essence of what I really am this role I play that once was not so? Or these emotions/thoughts/physical aspects that constantly change or come and go?"
So maybe ask again, but this time take a moment to just BE - before thought arises and between one emotion and the next. You'll find the essence of what you are in the space between breaths, between one "cloudy day" and the next. Feel into what's here when the emotion subsides or the thought is gone. Look to the silent, perfect vastness of what you are and always have been before the mind arrives on the scene to say otherwise. Then tell me if you're "the sky or the weather".
"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."
So obviously true isn't it? And yet I wonder how much we're generally aware of the impact of the patterned behaviour we live by, day in, day out - of the thoughts we're thinking, the beliefs we hold to be true which then shape how we go about living each and every day. How much time do we spend with blame (self or other) for instance? With shame, judgement, even self-loathing? How much time is spent re-hashing the story of who did what to who to cause the upset, of how it should have been different or, if only .... then?
We can spend our hours and days with such thoughts and beliefs. Before we know it, we've made life-long enemies of ourselves. The ego both hates its own self and believes it deserves better. So then we wonder, "How can I change myself then, since I'm obviously not doing this life thing right?"
And this, I think, is the realisation that's so transformational about meditation: we don't have to change a thing. The need to change suggests "not good enough" to the psyche all over again. We don't meditate to change, we meditate to be with what is in this very moment - to befriend ourselves by compassionately listening. When we sit with ourselves just as we are, observing the flow of our thoughts and behaviours, the constant flow of our feelings and emotions, willing to accept ourselves as we are, then guilt, shame and self-hatred naturally have no place anymore.
Still inspired by Hafiz's poem, "A Day Too Great a Force" and the line within, "A day is too great a force to bear without the heart open". Of course further inquiry leads to the question, "What exactly does it take to open the heart?" And how do we become willing to be vulnerable to the force of the day - to whatever it might bring?
Well, one thing to contemplate in answering these questions is yet another question: "What leads us to feel we can't handle life in the first place?" Obviously there's no single answer to this, but a sense of safety and self-trust, I think, are key. Some of us have been nourished, for whatever reason, in such a way as to feel naturally self-secure. But this is certainly not always the case.
For many of us, especially women, we're taught to be full of self-doubt and self-judgement, even self-hatred. There's no safety in hate and criticism, in saying "no" to who and what we are as we are. But when we meditate we learn to be with all of this - all the self-talk (the good, the bad, and the ugly). We learn to really hear ourselves, not in judgement, but simply hear what's being said and listen to what we need. The simple act of listening to and being with ourselves sends a message to the ego: "I'm here and I'm safe with myself." And this in turn nourishes a sense of safety in vulnerability, in openness to life and all it may bring.
"A day is too great a force to bear without the heart open."
This is a line from a peom I read yesterday from A Year with Hafiz - Daily Contemplations (modern translation, by Daniel Ladinsky). Hafiz was a 14th century Sufi poet with some rather interesting things to say. This line really struck me as, until now, I've lived my entire life in many ways closed off and walls up. Self- protective. I expect a lot of people can relate to this.
What Hafiz was suggesting is so contradictory to how we tend to live today: with closed hearts to protect ourselves from vulnerability, from being hurt by whatever the day brings. I've since learned through meditation how healing it can be to soften up to our hurt and allow it in. Life will happen, pain will happen, no matter how high we try to build these walls and close ourselves off from it. Could we welcome the hurt in with compassionate understanding instead? Be willing to listen to it, feel it, witness it?
Here's the thing: it's the needing to make it go away that gives hurt it's power. It's not something we have to fight with or push away when we know we have the capacity to be with it instead.
Pain loses it's power to truly harm and is transformed into a force of healing and resiliency when we welcome it in and face the day with "the heart open".