whitney roberts hill

"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began." -Mary Oliver

Category: pausing

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.

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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.

The Peril of The Pause

The wind barreled down the concrete breezeway and slapped my bare cheek as I walked through the library doors. I held a tottering stack of books flush against my chest, their corners digging into my ribs through my sweater.

Inside the library, I had felt calm, as I usually do. The dank, dusty smell and crowded embrace of so many crackling laminate spines always infuses me with comfort and possibility in equal measure. The library, for me, is a sacred space. A temple of learning. A humane gesture toward the infinite.

Standing in the aisle, I had scanned the strings of Dewey Decimal numbers for matches to my scrawled index card. I pulled my choices quickly. One of the children I nanny—the almost four year-old—raced around me in dizzying circles, karate chopping the air while I half-heartedly begged him to be quiet.

The day’s haul was topical. How to be a Freelance Writer, The Freelancer’s Bible, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, and the last, a petite red hardback entitled The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life—chosen because even I’m not foolish enough to go stomping around new territory without an ally.

But by the time we crossed the street and reached the car, my ears were ringing. A familiar, invisible vise tightened its grip on my head. Unconsciously, I was holding my breath.

I slung the books into the trunk and slammed it. I tried to focus on the way the steering wheel felt like a cool curve of skin-covered bone beneath my palms. But I could still hear the books, flinging anxious thoughts like miniature Zeusian bolts at the back of my head as I shifted the car into gear and drove away.

“Who do you think you are that you can be a writer?”

“Are you kidding—you don’t have a head for this. You’re no good at networking or promoting yourself.”

“You’ll never make enough money to survive. You’ll have to give it up and get a real job in a couple of years anyway so why bother?”

“There’s too much to learn. It’s too late. You should have decided to pursue this ten years ago. There are so many working writers out there already…how will you compete with them?”

In psychological parlance, these are known as Self-Limiting Beliefs. I label them my Inner Critic, a term I picked up from Julia Cameron’s canonical book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. There are many names for this phenomena—Steven Pressfield’s Resistance, Jung’s Animus, Freud’s Superego, the Dragon, the Demon, the Tempter.

And there’s new evidence that the engine of imagination sometimes manifests as this overthinking and worrying. In other words, the very force of imagination used to create art can be inverted to destroy the artist, as I wrote about here.

But the Inner Critic has an evolutionary purpose. Human beings are dependent on their tribe for survival and magnetized for criticism as a result. I lifted and laminated my Inner Critic’s favorite phrases in childhood. I postered my mind with them in adolescence. They helped me navigate the world, fit in enough to survive. But, over time, the phrases lost their original contexts and became so subtle I barely registered them in my conscious mind at all. They were my toxic elevator music.

And as long as my Inner Critic remained unconscious, I remained her victim. But I have made a study of my own fear over the past couple of years. I am learning the Inner Critic’s patterns. So it took less time to both recognize her presence and realize its cause.

Why was my Inner Critic waiting outside the library? I had finished the second draft of my novel about a week prior. Though I was still working on other projects, I had lived seven straight days without writing a word of my manuscript for the first time in six months. (Since the last time I experienced, and promptly forgot, this same agonizing pause after my first draft was complete.)

Every hunter knows that you shoot when the animal is still.

And the most effective way to ward off the Inner Critic is to keep working, to show up every day to my desk.

But, the pause is integral to the process. The work has to breathe. And I have to give my unconscious mind space in which to devise solutions to the lingering problems of plot and structure. I have to leave my desk and feast on the world.

What I have learned is that it is important to stay vigilant during such a pause, to protect the space you have deliberately created. Otherwise, the Inner Critic may populate it. A colony of fear may grow where you had intended only perspective, comprehension, and fresh ideas.

The temptation with that much space, with an inkling of the scope of the work, is to pass judgement on it. But, my job is not to decide if what I write is valuable. My job is to do the work as well and honestly and rigorously and thoroughly as I can and let go of the desire to control how it is received.

That is my job in the midst of writing. And that is my job in the moments of pausing.