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Category: mindfulness

Trust and the Practice of ‘Nothing’s Happening’

This article first appeared on mindfulnessmeditationforrichmond.net

I was on retreat for the weekend. Twice a year, a group of practitioners from the Insight Meditation Community of Richmond rent The Clearing–a space in Amelia County that belongs to the Quaker community. We spend two days in silence, practicing meditation and listening to recorded teachings.

I’ve been on this retreat several times. By Sunday afternoon I am usually feeling very still and calm. I’ve usually been visited by a couple of profound insights. I have usually touched into some deeper states of concentration.

Not this time.

This time, I spent two days trying to observe my mind, sense my surroundings, follow my breath. I spent some time walking in the cool early-spring woods. I practiced yoga. I cooked and washed dishes, sat meditation and looked at the stars.

I felt the usual tiredness that comes from halting our manically-paced lives. I felt the deprivation of my habitual comforts–books, an evening meal, privacy. Mostly I felt like nothing was happening.

Which is, in itself, not a problem. What was a problem were my expectations that something should be happening. That there was something “not ok” about my experience.

I felt about as mindful as I do on any other typical day. Which is to say, my mind wandered often–planning and worrying, remembering, complaining, doubting and chastising. Around and around it spun, a dog chasing its own tail. And I watched it the best I could.

Woven through all of this mental activity was a steady stream of judgment: Is this it? Nothing’s happening! No insights, no deep peace, no spontaneous joy. I must not be trying hard enough. I should really make myself sit the full hour without opening my eyes once. If I did that, I bet I would feel something happening. Or maybe if I walked slower during the walking meditations. Yeah, that would do it. Then I would be getting some results from devoting a whole weekend to practice…

I am reminded of a Zen story I encountered somewhere. The student approached her meditation teacher and asked, “How long will it take me to reach liberation if I follow the path?” The teacher replied, “10 years.” The student answered, “But what if I practice all day, every day and work very hard. Then, how long will it take me?” The teacher paused and replied, “Then for you it will take 20 years.”

This practice is not linear. There are predictable, observable results of regular practice, to be sure. But, we cannot simply plug our expectations in, sit down on the cushion every day, and receive exactly the solutions we ordered.

That is meditation practice in the service of the ego. And, even if it did work (which it doesn’t!), how limited would the benefits of practice be if they were stuck within the bounds of our personal sense of what’s possible?

What was needed in my practice over the weekend–and what i so often needed–was an action of letting go and trusting.

In Pali, the language of the Buddha, the word often translated as “trust” is “saddha.” Saddha also means confidence or faith. And the texts are very clear about the trajectory of saddha over time. We move from bright faith, into verified faith and onward to unshakable faith. First we have to trust others who claim to have reaped the benefits of practice. Then we learn to trust our own repeated experience of practice. Over time, we see that there is nothing we cannot meet with mindfulness, nothing which is not a part of our process of waking up to what’s here. Even “nothing’s happening” is ground for practice.
We trust that, in ways our minds cannot always understand, the practice of returning again and again to the present moment is all that is needed to realize our freedom. We do not have to have some specific kind of experience. We just have to pay attention to whatever experience we are having in the moment.

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How Sitting Alone Can Connect Us to Others

This post first appeared on mindfulnessmeditationforrichmond.net

The benefits of mindfulness meditation seem endless. There is no part of my life that the practice has not touched and transformed, including my relationships with others.

It seems obvious to expect that as I feel more peaceful, clearer, more centered, less reactive, my close relationships would see benefits. My ability to love and accept myself and others provides the necessary grace and freedom for true intimacy. My improved relationship with myself, improves my relationships with others.

But the practice has not just affected my closest relationships. It has expanded my sense of relationship and miraculously, seemingly without effort, collected a web of beings around me in support of my practice. My life, thanks to meditation, is full of authentic and joyful connection.

I am not a naturally social person. In fact, I was a painfully shy child, and have struggled with some level of social anxiety ever since.

We all have this anxiety to some degree and it makes good biological sense. Human beings need community for their survival. Exclusion from the tribe, for most of human history, was a death sentence. So we had to be concerned with our likeability and social status.

But, like many of our evolutionary adaptations, the fear of faux pas had become more painful than helpful for many of us. The constant self-assessment, the effort to project certain qualities, and to hide others, is exhausting and takes us away from the present moment.

Meditation practice inspires a certain kind of faith in ourselves. We attend to the present moment, we attend to our inner landscapes, and over time we learn to trust that relaxing into the present allows our most heartfelt and wise responses to emerge. This degree of ease and warmth opens a safe space in us. And those around us can sense this safe zone.

When we are open, present, and kind, we allow others to drop their armor as well. We connect to others naturally. We find ourselves having lovely conversations with strangers, or surprising and genuine interactions with acquaintances. We find that difficult family relationships begin to shift and heal without us having to force anything.

Attention and love are not divisible. To pay full attention to someone is to love them completely. So mindfulness, though described as the process of learning to “pay attention” to our lives, is in actuality an invitation to love our lives in the deepest sense. To not judge or separate or condition our relationship to all of life–including our relationship to ourselves and to others–but to untether it, to free it from constraints.

The Invitation of Suffering

This post was featured on www.mindfulnessmeditationforrichmond.net

Many of us come to mindfulness meditation to feel better. The suffering that drives us may come in different forms–for some it is the acute grief or strife brought on by catastrophic loss, for others the experience of a persistent dissatisfaction with life. Or perhaps it is some combination of the two.

But we all come to the cushion out of desperation. Our attempts to deny our pain or escape it haven’t worked. So we agree to stop trying to run and sit down–with our teeming, swirling brains, with our aching bodies, with our heavy hearts. Maybe we get a honeymoon with meditation practice. For a while, we do feel better: more peaceful, clearer, happier, more present with our loved ones, more grateful for our lives. And secretly we think we have found the escape after all. Meditation is going to deliver us from our pain.

But, this upward trajectory does not last. One day the spell is broken and the pain of life catches up with us. And we doubt the practice, or ourselves.

Behind our doubt and the disappointment that we are in pain again is the fear that we will not find a solution to our problem. We will never experience freedom. And behind that fear there is deep sadness, hopelessness, and a kind of grief for the promises broken by our meditation practice.

This is where I find myself recently. It was these same negative emotions of anxiety and depression that led me to meditation in the first place, a few years ago. But when they showed up this time–amidst my carefully cultivated life full of loving relationships, meaningful work, good health and spiritual practice–I reacted with a storm of self-doubt, fear, despair and industrial strength aversion. “Go away!” I said to my pain and fear. “You are not welcome here.”

In response they grew louder. My insecurities wailed and my body ached–I dropped into tunnels of anxiety and lakes of pain. The color started draining from my life. My gratitude evaporated, and took my sense of joy and wonder with it.

I had mistakenly hoped that my meditation practice was a kind of inoculation against these negative emotions. But it was never meant to be that. I needed only to remember to begin again, that nothing falls outside the scope of mindfulness. And suffering is the place where we most often enter into spiritual life. It is the on-ramp to the path of liberation. Fighting these negative emotions wasn’t working, so I tried inquiring, “Why are you here? What do you need from me? What am I meant to learn from you?”

I sensed immediately that these negative emotions are actually exiled parts of myself. I can no more amputate grief and fear than I can my heart or lungs. They are part of the human experience. And at a very young age I received the message that they aren’t acceptable. That I am not acceptable when I am gripped by them. Most of us got that message. And we continue to give it to ourselves. It is thanks to my meditation practice that I recognize the message and have the possibility to change it. So I said gently to my fear:

“You are allowed to be here.” & “I love you.”

And the fear sat down like a soothed child at my feet. So I said it again, in turn, to doubt, insecurity, anxiety, shame, sadness, tension, pain and heaviness. And they all quieted down. They did not disappear. But I was not in them anymore. I was holding them gently in mindfulness, the way one holds a small child who is afraid or hurt.

This is the miracle of mindfulness. That with it suffering can be transmuted to compassion.

According to the Buddha, the pain at the core of human incarnation is a Heavenly Messenger. It was his wild grief over the inescapability of aging, sickness, and death that brought him to the bodhi tree. It is no different for us. We all began this journey in response to suffering.
May we remember that our suffering is just an invitation to begin again.