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.