Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Are you talking to ME??

The things you want to say speak volumes when you can’t say them.

I spent the first two weeks of June mainly in silence on a meditation retreat in the Shambhala tradition. Most the time we were restricted to functional talking, which means we could speak only to provide essential information or give directions. Some of the time was spent in noble silence, which means you can’t speak at all. If you need to communicate you have to write notes.

On the first day of silence, I ran hard into things I wanted to say to those around me but couldn’t. Mostly I wanted to apologize for my existence, which I assumed must be an irritating distraction to others. I’m sorry I’m fidgeting. I’m sorry I’m tall and it’s hard to see over me; I was assigned to this seat. I’m sorry if I’m walking too fast or too slow or if my ass looks fat in these pants or whatever.

Traditional Buddhism talks a lot about avoiding arrogance, but, as IDP founder Ethan Nichtern often notes, in our culture we’re more likely to feel unreasonably bad about ourselves than to have an inflated opinion of ourselves. The piece of shit at the center of the universe, to borrow a phrase from recovery groups.

The thing is, we still see ourselves at the center of the universe, however we see ourselves. And that’s a delusion.

My meditation instructor on retreat directed me to a phrase posted on our bulletin board: Letting go of attachment is the ultimate generosity because it connects us with our wisdom and compassion. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Could I convert my self-consciousness about my perceived inadequacies into generosity? Sitting in meditation, I contemplated that. And I discovered that if I took my self out of the scenario, what I wanted was to support others in their meditation, to create as much ease as possible. Working with that, my heart began to open. Instead of judgment and criticism, I saw kindness.

I also saw that, just like me, some people were caught up in protecting/affirming their self image, no matter how much work that took. As a food server, I got a lot of instruction from staff – not all of it necessary in that moment, not all of it from people who should have been giving it, not all of it phrased kindly. (Those are the Buddha’s three criteria for deciding if speech is wise.) If I could have spoken I would have trained to explain, but it wasn't worth the time to write it all out while people were waiting for food.

Later another meditation instructor told me that when people are speaking, they’re really speaking to themselves. So the person who wrote "you may not know who I am" wasn't so much giving me instruction as confirmIng his own sense of importance. The person who wrote frenzied paragraphs about responsibility maybe fears what will happen if she doesn't meet her responsibilities. The person who pushes you to do something probably pushes herself too hard.

Ee cummings write: “all talking’s talking to oneself” **

Think about it. How much of what you say is meant to connect with someone and how much just reinforces your view of yourself?

It helps to have two weeks of silence to ponder it, but you can try this at home. Get centered in your body and do some breath awareness to clear your mind. Recall a conversation ... without the back story and the emotions, just the words. What are you saying to someone else that’s really there for yourself?

*all which isn't singing is mere *talking and all talking's talking to oneself (whether that oneself be sought or seeking master or disciple sheep or wolf) gush to it as deity or devil -toss in sobs and reasons threats and smiles name it cruel fair or blessed evil- it is you (ne i)nobody else drive dumb mankind dizzy with haranguing -you are deafened every mother's son- all is merely talk which isn't singing and all talking's to oneself alone but the very song of(as mountains feel and lovers)singing is silence

The computer ate my blog post

I had a great post all written -- smart, insightful, witty. Trouble is, I was writing it in my work email during my lunch hour and the server crashed and it is gone. I can rewrite it, but it's lost the ziji.

When I realized it was gone, my self (the collection of aggregates that believes I write witty, insightful etc blog posts worth saving) cried out (silently) argh! I may have put my head down on the desk. Then the work side of me, my vajra editor, realized that I would be unable to access my email, the workself -- a collection to similar aggregates that believes, along with my bosses, that I must get certain things done -- added its howl of pain.

And then I said, well, what CAN I do? And I did that.

Ah, impermanence.

I am perhaps more accustomed than most people to the idea that my work product is ephemeral and I am easily replaced. I work for a daily newspaper, an institution whose future is unclear. I know, every day, the doors may be locked when I show up. But even in good times, even when you wrote the biggest story of the day, week, or month, you knew that the next day it would be lining a cat box and you'd have to find some other words to fill space.

Colleagues, technology, stories, politicians all come and go. Sometimes we mourn, sometimes we (to be honest) celebrate.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why I meditate anyway

As we prepared to leave a two-week-long silent retreat, the program director handed out his list of the top 10 things to do once you get home. High on the list was this: Don’t try to explain what happened here unless someone pulls it out of you. It can’t be explained in a casual conversation. If they ask how your vacation was, say, “Good. And now tell me what’s going on in your life.”

We didn’t do any secret , mystical practices – well, only a couple. But a person who doesn’t practice meditation – and even a lot who do – can’t understand what happens when you sit with yourself and your sangha for an extended period.

It was good advice. The day after I got home, my mother called, inquiring sharply about what was going on in my household.

“What did you DO?” she asked. “You couldn’t just sit there. What do you get out of meditation anyway?”

My smart-ass inner teenager wanted to respond, “The patience to deal with you.” But I was steeped in spaciousness and saw that answer would be reactive and unkind, if not untrue. So I talked about walking in the garden and looking at scenery and movement, things that made sense in her world.

If conditions had been different, I would have answered differently. But she was cranky, I was trying to eat, and an offspring’s band was moving equipment out of the house as we were talking. Some day we’ll sit down and drink coffee and I’ll talk about it. Because my meditation makes those conversations possible for us.

Sitting on the cushion, watching my mind lets me see that there is a gap – however infinitesimal – between the stimulus and the response. If I am aware enough to notice the gap, I can then choose how to react: to mouth off, to back off, to deflect rather than jump into a defensive posture ready to do battle.

Sitting on the cushion, training my mind to react with compassion rather than attitude, lets me see that my mother is just like me, concerned about her children and their lives and baffled when those lives take turns that don’t go down the path she envisioned. She speaks sharply. But she speaks out of concern. If I don’t respond sharply, if I hear the concern under the tone of voice, we can connect instead of fighting – or biting our tongues. We can have a real relationship.

I like being able to talk to my mom without rolling my eyes. I like my mom. And I like my inner teenager. Nobody taught her to expect that the world could be kind, that other people would be helpful, that gentleness was an option. That simply existing means you have value. We’re learning that now, and we try to speak from that knowledge rather than shouting from habit.

I fail, of course. And when I do, I try to be appropriately remorseful, admit I was wrong, make amends if needed, and aspire to do better. I try not to berate myself or get attached to thoughts that failing means I am inherently bad.

The tradition I study in talks about basic goodness. Other traditions call it Buddha-nature or inherent richness. We’ve all got it – cranky moms, mouthy teenagers, the generation caught between. Meditation let me see that.

That’s why I didn’t answer my phone or emails or post on Facebook for two weeks, mom. I was training my mind to talk to you in the present moment, not in the kitchen of the house where we lived in 1975.

Why do you meditate?

If you don't and you want to know more about why you should, IDP founding director and Senior Teacher in Residence Ethan Nichtern is giving a talk on "Why (Not) Meditate?" on July 20 at IDP. Maybe the talk will later be available as a podcast. If not, check out the IDP library on iTunes; Ethan's previous talks on the subject are among those available.