In October, several of us gathered to watch a Dharma teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh. Afterwards, we had a thought provoking discussion about what the experience had been like for us and about how what we’d heard interfaced with our daily lives.
Several major themes arose out of this for me, and I began to realized how these themes were deeply interconnected. There was one theme, however, that seemed to be at the root of all the others and is certainly at the very heart of meditation.
Interspersed throughout the Dharma talk were moments of silence or meditation. There was one fairly long meditation that was accompanied by music and chanting. Afterwards, no one knew for sure how long this meditation lasted, but it was estimated to be between 30 and 40 minutes.
At a workshop I recently taught, someone commented that during the 5 minute introductory meditations, it was helpful to know that we were going to meditate for 5 minutes. It gave the people in the workshop a sense of what was coming and relieved them of the anxiety of wondering how long it would last or what would come next.
After the Dharma talk some people commented that they loved the meditation with the chanting. Others, however, had been confused and anxious, because there was no real instruction about what would happen or how long it would last. This feeling of frustration, irritation or confusion left some people wishing they could leave.
This led into a very important aspect of the meditation process. When we meditate many different aspects of experience and personality rise up. Sometimes it’s as obvious as physical discomfort, boredom and irritation with the process of meditation itself. Other times, however, it is difficult to settle into meditation because of fragmented, agitated thoughts. We may be consumed by worry, fear, anger or just plain overwhelmed by all of the things that are going on in our very busy lives. Often when these thoughts keep spinning around and pull us away from the breath we say, “Well, I can’t do this right now. My mind is too busy,” and we walk away from our practice.
What missed opportunity!
This is exactly when you are most able to practice. Remember, meditation isn’t about being able to sit perfectly with a perfectly clear mind and breathe. (That sentence surprised you, didn’t it!) Mindfulness meditation embraces the discomfort. You breathe into it with curiosity. “What is this thing that keeps pulling me away?”
Now you’ve moved from being pulled away to standing outside of it and observing it. What is the quality of this feeling in the body? Where am I feeling jittery, or tight or sore?
We explore the body to find the physical pattern that corresponds to our particular brain state. This act alone allows the thinking to slow down. We breathe into the body, into the spaces where we experience the somatic expression of our thoughts and emotions. And we just observed. “Hmmm. This is how irritation (or worry, or anger…) feels.”
The distraction that seemed so solid, solid enough to move you from your cushion and back into action, begins to seem a little less solid. In fact, the more you breathe into it, the more space you give it, the less solid it becomes.
The quality begins to shift and to morph into something else. And the longer we stay and breathe and observe, the more we see that our reactions are not solid, permanent, real things. They are simply states that move through us. Perhaps they contain important information, but more often they are simply impressions of fragmented bits of a larger picture. And this larger picture only comes into view when we allow the pieces flow through our consciousness, each having an opportunity to present itself. We can then decide how much of this needs our energy, our response, our action. And we find that very little of it needs anything but our breath.
We then calm the body and mind, creating a clear, unobstructed channel for energy to flow to us and through us. During your meditation practice this month work with your distractions and difficult emotions that urge you to get off the cushion and back into action. (A very habituated western pattern!) Try to embrace them and breathe into them. Then begin to notice the moments in the rest of your day when uncomfortable feelings urge you to speak or act, to cling or move away. Try to breathe into these moments, creating the pause and stopping the momentum of habituated thoughts and behaviors.