A good friend surprised me with a little trinket the other day that really made me smile at a particularly stressful time. It’s a little key fob Buddha with a button on his back that you can push to turn on an LED flashlight to find the keyhole to your home, that lost lipstick in the bottom of your purse, or the last jujubee you just dropped on the floor of the movie theater (best to practice “letting go” of that last one. Really.)
I had a little fun with my gift by sharing it on Facebook with the photo of it (on the right). Here’s what I wrote:
“Thank you Michelle for my new Buddha LED Light Key Fob! Apparently when you become enlightened then some of that light shines out of your butt. The problem is that as soon as you get up off the meditation cushion to see if it’s shining, you aren’t enlightened any more and the light is off. Kind of the reverse of the whole “does the light in the refrigerator really go off when you close the door?” dilemma. Ahh, enlightenment is soooo complicated and paradoxical.”
A friend responded with the inquiry “Does this mean you have to be on the cushion to be enlightened?” A reasonable question, but in general I find myself so unable to address any issues around enlightenment that my eyes glaze over and the best I can do is an enigmatic smile and a deep wish that the conversation would shift to subjects I can handle like “Will the Oakland Raiders EVER Return to Glory?” (Feel free to post a response to this blog on that question if the whole meditation thing doesn’t pique your interest. I could use a little hope in that regard!)
What I was referring to in my Facebook post was that inevitable pull we feel to check to see how we are doing, whether it is relative to how we USED to be doing, or how OTHER PEOPLE are doing, or (even more problematic) how WE THINK WE SHOULD be doing. But in the end we are just doing. Or more accurately, just being. No comparisons necessary. Contrary to almost everything else these days, meditation is not a competition, you can’t do it better, faster, bigger or more fuel-efficiently than anyone else. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in a chapter called “This Is It” from Wherever You Go, There You Are:
People usually don’t get this right away. They want to meditate in order to relax, to experience a special state, to become a better person, to reduce some stress or pain, to break out of old habits and patterns, to become free or enlightened. All valid reasons to take up meditation practice, but all equally fraught with problems if you expect those things to happen just because now you are meditating. You’ll get caught up in wanting to have a “special experience” or in looking for signs of progress, and if you don’t feel something special pretty quickly, you may start to doubt the path you have chosen, or to wonder whether you are “doing it right.”
Trust me on this one. I have the true test to see if you are doing it right. Ready?
Question #1: Are you meditating (aka “doing it?) ____Yes ____No
If your answer was yes, you are doing it right.
So consider this: “What would it be like to let go of needing to see any signs of progress and only practice for its own sake?” Would that be possible? I would invite you to see what that might be like.
And quit peeking to check to see if you’re enlightened yet. You’ll probably just tumble off the cushion and hit your head on the floor anyway. Hardly very enlightening, but then again, sometimes a good (figurative) whack upside the head is what we need to remember to just sit As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “This is it.”
In the frenetic lead-up to the holidays this year, I kept revisiting an oppressive and frankly scary state of mind that peeked out from behind holly-encrusted Christmas decorations and burst forth from the comforting depths of a pitcher of holiday eggnog like the Creature From the Black Lagoon. You know the feeling. It’s that sense of dread that you are going to be literally squashed under the weight of too many things to do without enough time to do them.
I have occasionally gotten a bit over-confident on a treadmill and cranked it up to about 4 notches faster than I could really maintain for any reasonable period of time, and then did the “dash of dread” in which you push yourself beyond your capabilities out of sheer terror that you will be literally flung across the gym in front of hysterically laughing hardbodies before you can crank it back down to a pace that doesn’t threaten to explode your heart.
So you know that feeling right? I thought so. I once had a patient who had been in the Navy and he referred to it as OBE: Overcome By Events. An online definition reads: “a term of military origin used when a situation changes so rapidly that previously proposed courses of action are no longer relevant.” (The same online search yielded a few interesting alternative meanings for OBE, including “Out of Body Experience,” “Order of the British Empire,” and its pejorative step-cousin “Other Buggers Efforts” because the former is often awarded to small time politicians and councilors who only APPEAR to do a lot of work and hence are often said to have received it for “Other Buggers Efforts.” But I digress.)
So the question becomes: what, if anything, can one do when that familiar OBE feeling arises? Run faster? Freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights? Take them all on with the grim vengeance of Chuck Norris or the magical wizardry of Harry Potter? Good luck with that. Take a look back on how you have coped with being OBE in the past and ask yourself, “How’s that workin’ out for me?”
Why not ask yourself a question at that quintessential overwhelmed moment? What if you contemplate the silly but simple question: “What am I afraid of?” Could you possibly just notice the fear arising and rather than give it legs, you just noticed it washing over you? Would it be possible to pause, breathe and look deeply and curiously at it?
Note that the definition points to “previously proposed courses of action.” In other words, we had other plans for how things would go, and when they didn’t go that way, we are flummoxed, fearful and flailing because we don’t know how to make them go that way. When we don’t float through the holidays, relaxed and oozing good cheer, issuing forth handwritten Christmas cards and homemade gifts while sipping mulled wine and tucking in the happy children, we panic. We start to try to exert a certain degree of control that we don’t actually have in order to make things “right with the world”, or at least our idea of how the world should be. Anne Lamott, in her recent book “Help, Thanks, Wow” references an old joke that is relevant here. She poses the riddle: “What’s the difference between you and God?” The answer: “God never thinks he’s you.”
Perhaps one possibility when feeling OBE, is to let go of trying to prevent being overcome. What if you just watched it all unfold, from the safety of your own two feet in the present moment and waited to see what happens? You might be surprised. Try it when that feeling arises in meditation, as if you will literally be swallowed up by all that has to be done, and here you are messing about, frittering your life away on a meditation cushion while important things are not being done. Watch it. Breathe. Watch some more. Feel what happens. Breathe again. Notice what arises with curiosity. Notice dread. Notice fear. Notice the faint but unmistakeable sound of holiday joy happening. Breathe in. Breathe out. Notice what it feels like to stop running from or to anything at all. Choose a path for yourself and re-engage when you are ready, secure in the knowing that events cannot actually overcome you, but you can definitely overcome the feeling of OBE by simply BE-ing instead.
My dad was a wizard of understatement. He did a number of things in his life but I suspect that the work he found most rewarding was teaching art to troubled high school kids in what was referred to as a “Continuation School.” My recollections of him are suffused with emotion-laden aromas of turpentine and oil paint from his downstairs studio. A couple oil paintings and a watercolor self-portrait are my most concrete memories of this man whom I lost before my eyes at the age of 13 (he was 39). But what has always touched me most was his quiet, his gentle manner and his way without words.
My mom remembers this better than I, but he would have innumerable students come to him proudly with their latest works of inspiration and creativity, literally bursting with pride and hungry for positive feedback in lives that were often lacking in much of that. They would thrust a painting or piece of jewelry into his line of sight and say “Well? What do you think?”
I can picture my dad, stroking his multi-colored scruffy beard and contemplating carefully and thoughtfully. The moment lingered and the tension grew. One can almost picture the excited student nearly levitating off the floor in anticipation of something encouraging from is or her beloved art teacher.
“Hmmm,” he would utter enigmatically. “Ahhhhh,” he would say confidently.
And the student would bounce off to gush to her friends about Mr. Hickman’s encouraging feedback. Often he would become verbose in these situations and utter an “interesting” every now and then to make sure that people knew he was cogitating and considering what was put before him.
These moments of observing things as they were and expressing keen interest without judgment are moments of inspiration to me in my meditation practice. I find that when I am seeking my own validation or evaluation of my performance, I am just on a slippery slope to ruminative and unproductive commentary and ridiculous supposition about random topics.
But I find that if I can observe the arising of activity in the mind and simply say “Hmmmmm” or even “Yes!”, I can simply continue to observe and find myself less entangled in the discursive process of what is referred to by neuroscientists as the “default mode network” of the wandering mind.
The so-called Horse Whisperer or Dog Whisperer have gained fame from their ability to approach a willful beast and cooperatively coax a behavior that the animal really wants to engage in anyway. The task in meditation may be to see this pesky brain as a willful beast, and work with it like this. Observe it. Show your genuine interest in what it is doing. And whisper in its ear “mmmm hmmm” while staying present. No disengagement or dismissive attitude here. Just pure allowing and accepting of whatever it is dishing up in the moment.
Try this and let me know what happens for you. For me, I feel encouraged and supported in my practice. And I still haven’t gotten any feedback on whether I’m doing it well!
(A recent conversation between teacher and student in a meditation class. Or was that in my head? Hard to say.)
“I was really having a rough day yesterday, what with the company stock price doing what it did and I was so stressed out I just had to do something. I decided to meditate to get my head straight and it was a fiasco! Over and over, I found myself caught up in one nightmare scenario after another. Then I would notice I was caught up in it all and I’d bring myself back to my breath. No sooner than I had returned and it seemed like I was back into the muck again. I was really frustrated and I could feel a knot in the pit of my stomach.”
“Excellent!” I reply enthusiastically.
“No, you don’t get it. I was tense and riled up and my mind was so stuck on what might happen if this keeps up and my retirement fund shrinks more. It was like my brain was a broken record, playing out the worst case over and over. I couldn’t stop it no matter what I tried. It just kept up.”
“Wow! You were quite aware of the ‘full catastrophe’ weren’t you?” I exclaim.
“Well, yes, yes I was, but I really had the idea that the meditation would help me get centered and out of the mental rat race I was in. I had the thought that ‘this just isn’t working for me today’ and I felt really disappointed in myself for not being able to calm myself down. It was like this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
“Ahhh,” I exclaimed. “Interesting. Anything else?”
“Ummm, well I guess I noticed that the sinking feeling was really uncomfortable and I had the thought that ‘maybe I’m not cut out for this meditation stuff. I ought to have managed this much better than I did.’ And I guess I got a little sad too. And this reminded me of how badly I’m managing my money and then I was back on the hamster wheel of my thoughts about the market. It all felt so fruitless!”
“Hmm. Fruitless huh? Were you hoping for apples or bananas?”
“What? I don’t get it. I didn’t actually want fruit! I just meant that all that time on the cushion seems completely wasted because I couldn’t change the anxious and sad feelings that came up. No matter how much I tuned into my breath, I didn’t get anywhere!”
“Where did you think you were going to go, sitting cross-legged on a lifeless meditation cushion? Paris?” I say with a smile.
“You know what I mean. I couldn’t change how I felt and all I could do was to watch it all unfold, including my frustration over wanting it to be different, the sinking feeling, the frustration, the sadness. Coming back to my breath, over and over again, getting lost, getting tangled up, coming back. And through it all, wanting it to change and get better, wanting to feel better, differently.”
“Oh, I see. You wanted things to change because now you’re meditating?”
“What would it be like to let go of wanting anything to be any different in the moment?
“I don’t know. It wouldn’t be my usual mode of doing things, that’s for sure!”
“How’s that mode working out for you?”
“Hmmm. Not so well lately.
“Now we’re getting nowhere!”
Ok, so that gem of a headline isn’t original. I’ve seen it several places, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Or relevant, especially if you find yourself facing some difficult thoughts or feelings that come up when you practice meditation. You may not have realized it when you embarked on this voyage of mindfulness, but there is a great deal of courage that may be needed from time to time on this sometimes meandering path. Scary feelings, provocative images and haunting thoughts sometimes make their way into our consciousness when we pause and practice presence. What do you do when these these specters emerge? I recommend doing what I did once on the golf course at Disney World in Florida. Confused? I’m not surprised because so was I, for awhile.
So I’m not used to the humidity and heat that Florida offers up in June, so I was actually pleasantly surprised when I learned that I could get a tee time at noon on a desirable Disney course. My pleasure turned to dismay when I realized I had a tee time at noon on a course that felt remarkably like a greener, moister version of hell itself.
But I was determined and set off down the fairway to get the most out of my experience (and money). I was doing well until I, as I am wont to do on many a golfing occasion, hit my ball off into the surrounding woods. After hiking a fair, sweaty distance, I found my ball in a clearing and turned to make my way back into the open. It was then that I first heard it.
A rustling in the bushes that I could only imagine was an alligator (the only Florida animal that immediately slithered to mind). I quickened my pace to match my escalating heartbeat and began to allow my mind to run with me. A puma perhaps? A ravenous javelina? A man-eating manatee? Who knew? Not me! And I was quite certain that the mysterious beast was continuing to pursue me.
I finally burst through the last of the underbrush and the relative safety (?) of open fairway, a sweaty, out of breath and terrified mess. It was only at that moment that I actually took the opportunity to swivel and confront the predator I was sure had nearly nipped at the heels of my golf shoes, while it crashed through the shrubbery. The greenery rustled a bit and then the beast made itself visible to me.
Never had one small fuzzy bunny rabbit made such a violent impression on a human being (except perhaps the one that appears in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Yes, it was indeed the most harmless little fuzzball you could imagine that inspired a racing heart, wheezing breath and quick mental episode of “Steve Hickman, This Is Your Life!”
So when your scary thought arises, it may not be a loveable bunny rabbit, but you’ll never know what it is unless you look, and even if it purports to be scary, important, true, or imperative, remember that it’s still just a thought or feeling. A mere brain secretion, as I like to refer to them. Don’t believe what your brain tells you about its contents. As the comedian Emo Phillips once said, “I used to think that the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized which organ was telling me that.”
It often takes a great deal of courage to choose to stay present with a difficult feeling or troubling thought, but that courage is rewarded mightily in the form of ease and equanimity over time. It just takes intention, practice and a little playful curiosity.
How many times have you been discouraged when you see how far you have to go in order to be where you want to be? Whether it’s getting out of debt, losing that last 15 pounds, or finding your soul mate, the end can seem painfully distant. We create anxiety and despair when we focus on the gap between where we are and where we want to be.