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Archive for November, 2009

November 2009 Posts

Tuesday, November 24, 2009: Slow down to speed up

I have been sick with a moderate-to-intense cold since Saturday afternoon; and I spent Sunday and Monday flat on my back, in various stages of semi-consciousness.  This morning, I woke up feeling a little better than yesterday; and my mind took this slight improvement as an indicator of: “Hey, we’re back!  Awesome – ‘cause while you were out of it the past two days, I have been making plans for us baby – PLANS!  So chop chop, let’s get goin’, I have stuff I want us to DO!”

See, my body understands, respects, and actually appreciates subtleties and nuances.  A tiny adjustment in the bend of my elbow during yoga, for example, can make the difference between contentment and pain.  A fraction of an inch in my everyday standing posture can result in me feeling either confident or insecure.  A minuscule change in the depth, rate, and/or quality of my breath can instantly transform me from a place of anxiety to a place of peace (or do just the opposite).  My body speaks the language of millimeters and seconds, and appreciates the power of the tiny, the minuscule, the infinitesimal.

My mind, on the other hand, sees only black-and-white, all-or-nothing, either-or.  It just doesn’t speak the language of nuance; it is all about BIG, BOLD, FAST, and NOW!  Oh, and perfect.  Perfect, or else it’s a failure… but that’s a topic for a whole separate entry.

So as my body slowly entered this new day today, appreciating the minor increase in the opening of one of my nasal passages, and the small reduction of inflammation in my still-tender throat, my mind took these changes to mean that I was 100% back to normal (obviously!), so let’s hop to it!  And my mind commenced its obsessive, meticulous, plotting and planning and working and forcing, with the subtlety of a wild animal just released from a very small cage.

My body, on the other hand, observed all of this frenetic activity, and gently smiled, and calmly said, “Oh, hell no” – and put the brakes on.  FAST.  Less than an hour after waking up feeling “okay”, I began experiencing a headache, eye strain, significant fatigue, and increased sniffling/congestion.  Even though “I” wanted to get so much stuff done today, I just physically couldn’t.  I found myself banished to laying/sitting down again all day, unable to use my eyes much at all – so, unable to read or write or watch TV or do sudoku; I was really only able to use my ears, and so I spent  the day listening to the radio and my iPod.  (And yes, I appreciate the irony of only being able to listen…)

At work, there is a phrase that is slowly integrating its’ way into our corporate culture: “Slow down to speed up.”  In the professional context, it is generally applied to mean, “Figure out the real problem you are experiencing FIRST, then create/devise a solution.”  Don’t rush to start slapping crappy ideas together, throwing a bajillion possible “fixes” at a situation and hoping one of them sticks; instead, be thoughtful about the real issue at hand; and usually, generally (sometimes seemingly “magically”), the one right solution really WILL appear – and frequently will surface relatively “effortlessly”, easily, naturally.

Now, in the “Get it done YESTERDAY!” culture in which I work, this wise, sage advice doesn’t always go over well – in fact, many people who do try to work this way are frequently criticized, sometimes even scorned.  However, as time progresses, and situations play themselves out, and these people are actually (often) proven “right”, and as more and more successes using this “method” are realized, a slow-yet-perceptible culture/mindset/attitude shift begins to occur.

My meditation provides a similar approach to my “everyday” living.  In the 45 minutes a day I stop, sit, and breathe, my mind gets the opportunity to learn from my body.  While my mind chastises my body for being “slow, mellow, calm” (and therefore implicitly annoying), my body gets the opportunity to gently and patiently show my mind how effective this approach actually IS – how much more the entire, holistic structure that is “me” (mind AND body) can all get done if “we all” take just a little bit of time to slow down to speed up; and how much happier and more contented we (I, me) can be in the process of living (instead of being pleased only with the finite end result).

And while my mind is slowly learning from the subtle approach of meditation (amusingly, without even being aware of it), sometimes my mind gets WILDLY rebellious and defiant – and so, my body must be a little bit more forceful.  At these times, illness enters the picture, and I get forced to shut down for a few days.  Essentially, my body puts my mind in a more overt “time out”, and has my mind think about its’ actions for a while.  When my mind is ready to behave, it can come out and rejoin the flow of life once again – but a little more calmly, patiently, and reasonably.

I’m slowly re-entering the world of health; and I hope both body and mind cooperate at an agreeable, even pace – for at least a little while.

Sunday, November 22, 2009: Illness provides lessons

I’m sick.  Mercifully, gratefully, it is “just” a moderate cold.  I feel crummy (sore throat, headache, zero appetite, coughing, congestion, fatigue, rather listless and “blah” and unimpressed by everything in the world), but it could be SO much worse.  It could be a bad, evil, nasty cold (the kind where I can only breathe through my mouth, and can’t even think my head aches so bad, and can’t sleep because I’m perpetually coughing…), or it could be the flu (where I would be SO tired I wouldn’t even be able to be conscious, but instead resigned to the bed all damn day, and my entire body would ache instead of just my head, and my body temperature would be unregulated, swinging wildly from burning to chills…), or it could even be “H1N1” (and who even knows what misery that might bring).  So, given all the options and alternatives, if I’m going to get sick, I’m grateful it’s “just” a moderate cold.

Illness slows me down physically (obviously); but with the arrival of this specific sickness, I got to see some things about my mind, too.  Notably, I got to see (once again) how much I resist and push against accepting life “as it is”.  I had plans for today: I was going to take a special 2-hour yoga class with a relatively new friend, a woman who I was excited to get to know better and cultivate more of a relationship with.  I was going to do some house tasks that have needed to get done for a while.  I was going to prepare for a trip I’m taking in a few days.  I was probably even going to spend an hour or two doing work.  I had my day all mapped out.  I had plans.

But when illness comes, suddenly all those plans that seemed so important, so clear, and (unfortunately) sometimes so rigid in my own mind assume a new characteristic: flexibility.  The yoga class is dropped from the day – and fortunately the new friend is very understanding and kind about it.  The house tasks are postponed yet again – they have waited for weeks already, so clearly they can wait a while longer.  The travel plans that yesterday felt so “critical” turn out to be more optional than required – and perhaps they will get done tomorrow, but maybe they won’t.  Bottom line: Life is going to happen just as it is going to happen, and I can either accept that, and be one with the flow of it all, and ultimately be peaceful; or I can keep up the delusion that I have even a morsel of control about any of it, and make myself irritated and unhappy and miserable.

It seems so clear and obvious; and yet, I find myself resisting.  What if I just did a little bit of work, or reduced the amount of house tasks I hoped to accomplish today, or made new tentative plans with the friend…?  I want to continue to plot, to plan, to push – even though logically I know that I have no control over my body, that I can’t “make” it be better RIGHT NOW, and that the best thing for me is rest.  Physical rest, and mental rest.  Rear-on-the-sofa, watch-TV-and-kick-back, take-naps-in-the-bed, release-all-concerns-of-work-and-productivity-from-my-mind, take-a-break-from-exercise rest.  Just relax.  Just chill.  Just be.

Just be.  Just accept – really, truly, fully accept – that life is going to be whatever it’s going to be.  Just be present to what is happening right now – and don’t be concerned with what might happen in the next minute, hour, day, week…  Just let everything happen as Life wants it to; and drop the rigid plans.  Be present.  Be peaceful.  Be happy.

I’m sick.  Gratefully, it is just a moderate cold – with an important life reminder.

Thursday, November 12, 2009: “Unchatter your quiet mind.”

I read this at my 6 am yoga class today; and it was absolutely fitting.  This morning’s meditation back at home was a workout – me chasing my wandering, obsessing, ruminating, and brooding mind; then politely asking it to re-join me on the cushion, or nudging it back to my breath, or sighing and taking it by the hand to walk it back to my practice…and eventually dragging it (resisting and complaining and pulling against me the entire time) back to the stupid meditation we are trying to do, damn it!  *sigh*  I was hardly the example of peace at 4:30 am; what a way to start the day.

So I was very grateful that today was Thursday, where I could go to yoga, and see if I might find some centering there.  As I took off my shoes and hung up my jacket at the studio, I read the line – “Unchatter your quiet mind” – and found it a very promising start to the class session.  Okay, it’s only 6 am; I can change this day yet.

Ah, that’s my foolish thinking at play once again.  “I” can change this day?  Yeah, right.  *I* usually just get myself into trouble, wound up, tense, annoyed, frustrated…. *I* am better served if I let The Divine (call it grace, God, Higher Power, Dhamma, whatever you want) take over, and gift me with peace – or at least sincere acceptance of reality as it is (not as I’d like it to be).

But, the quote – “Unchatter your quiet mind.” – implies that I can do it, right?  *I* can make my mind quiet and peaceful, right?  *I* can bring about the unchatter, right?  Not quite.  Read it again, closely and slowly.

My mind already IS quiet; *I* just need to release the chatter from it, so that it can reside in its natural state – one of real peace, real harmony, real tranquility.  I’ve heard many times about how Michelangelo, when asked how he created such beautiful statues, replied something to the effect of, “The form of the statue was always in the stone.  I just removed the parts that weren’t the statue – and when I was done with that, the image appeared.”

So how do I release the chatter?  How do I remove the parts that aren’t peaceful, so that my quiet mind can appear?  I find that those crazy, obsessive, wandering thoughts really just want to be acknowledged – that’s all.  Once I stop denying, resisting, or ignoring them, and instead acknowledge them (heck, even embrace them, if I can – if I have the awareness and the guts to do so), they feel “heard”, and then pretty much end.  It’s like a young kid who wants the attention of a distracted parent, and so incessantly tugs on the shirt sleeve, repeating “mom mom mom mom mom mom mom mom mom…” over and over and over again until FINALLY the child is recognized and heard!  And, once she is heard, she’s fine; the tugging and the nagging stop, and she reveals her truer self – a small kiddo who just wants her mom’s attention.  Once my “less desired” thoughts feel heard, they reveal their truer self – a more peaceful mind.

Which segues into the other facet of this sentence that I really appreciate: the simple statement of “Unchatter your quiet mind” implies that my mind really IS peaceful; that I am already wonderful; I just need to let go of (ironically, by giving attention to) the chatter in order to realize who/what I already, really am.  The statement does not assume that I am flawed, and have to work really hard to get better (as so many statements seem to go), but that I am already great; just a little unpracticed in my greatness.  This is a subtle, nuanced distinction; but a critically important one to me.

Alrighty, enough pontificating; let’s cut to the chase: since I seem to “know” how to be all zen and stuff (*insert good-natured laugh here*), how did the rest of the day go?  Well… I’d like to report that the rest of the day was outstanding; that starting at 6:01 am, everything turned 180 degrees, and I was Super-Tranquil Girl the whole rest of the day.  But that would be a lie.  Just because I “know” what to do doesn’t mean it’s easy to do it…  The rest of the day was “fine”; the incessant thoughts and mental distractions did continue for most of the day; but as I did give some attention to them, as I worked to be present with some of them and give some of them the attention they clamored for, they started to scatter, disband, and dissipate.

But it’s work, man.  Peace ain’t easy; at least, not for me.  But peace is delightful; so to me, it’s worth the work.

So – it was a day of ups and downs; hits and misses; progress instead of perfection – and all of this is okay.  In fact, some days “okay” is more than good enough.

Monday, November 9, 2009: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Ah, I finally get it!

This morning as I put my work gear into the trunk of my car, I paused to look up at the sky.  On work days, I don’t get to experience the outdoors very much, so I do try and make a conscious effort to take a few seconds in the morning (before I get into my car and get wrapped up into my head [planning my day, mentally preparing for meetings, thinking about next steps I can take on projects, etc.]), take a deep breath of fresh outdoor air, and notice the sky.

This time of year it’s still a night sky when I head off to work (6 am), and I’m fortunate in that I live in a suburb that isn’t “too” overtaken with light pollution.  (Granted, I don’t get the same brilliant sky as I would if I were in a more rural area, but it could be much worse; I’m grateful for what I DO have.)  This morning the clouds were light, so I got to see a absolutely brilliant half-moon, and several stars.  The star immediately overhead was incredibly bright and clear, and then I noticed it kind of flickered.  I admit, my very first thought was, “Is there something in my eye?”, so I actually blinked a few times, to try and clear any obstruction.  Then I noticed that other stars (more “dim” stars) that were near the really bright one seemed to be static, but the bright one was still flickering.  So, I deduced that it wasn’t an issue with my eyes… and then the children’s song popped into my head.  Ah, I GET it!  THIS is a twinkling star!  THIS is what stars can do – they can twinkle!  How absolutely amazing!  How cool!

I’m a 34-year-old woman, and truly, sincerely, never before did I really “get” the meaning of the song.  As my meditation teacher would say, “Ah, wonderful, wonderful”.

New awarenesses can happen every single day, if I am just still enough, and present enough, to notice them.  I’m grateful that today I was, and I did.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009: Frustration is an indulgence I can’t afford.

After several years of “needing” to remodel the bathroom, my husband and I finally committed to taking some action: we contacted a local big-box home improvement store, went through the painful process of making all of the necessary selections and decisions (tile, fixtures, colors, features, etc.).  We signed all of the paperwork, and arranged all of the logistics – or so I thought.

We are scheduled to begin the full bathroom demolition (and then re-construction) on Monday – two business days away from today.  But this afternoon, I received an email from our big-box representative basically saying, “Oh hey – you know how I told you guys that neither one of you had to be home during the work; that you could just leave a key and we would let ourselves in and it would all be fine?  Well, I found out that the policy of the store is that someone 18 years or older has to be present while we do the work…So, I hope you can make some arrangements.  Thanks!”

Um, seriously?  You want us to suddenly, magically, make arrangements to be at home (and not at work) for the 1-2 business weeks while this remodel project takes place?  Are you KIDDING me?  To say I was quite irritated is pretty accurate.

Now, here is where the whole meditation piece comes in.  I would like to say that I was very “zen” about it all – that I smiled, and accepted the reality as it was (rather than I would like it to be), etc. etc. etc.  But I wasn’t, and I didn’t.  I was irritated – and I wanted to make the big-box representative uncomfortable, too.  I wanted him to be upset, just like I was.

My husband, on the other hand, was VERY zen about it all.  When I expressed my irritation to him, he basically said “Hey, don’t worry about it.  I can stay home if I need to, it’s all good.”  Which is VERY kind, and sweet, and helpful (that’s the kind of guy he is naturally, pretty much without even trying) – but which also lets the representative off the hook very easily.  And, like I said, I wanted the representative to be upset, too.

So… I called the representative.  And while the tone of my voice was matter-of-fact (i.e., I didn’t yell, I didn’t sound “mean”), I was definitely cold – and I told the representative that one of us staying home would be an inconvenience (which IS true), and that he needed to try and work something  out, or we might have some issues.  Basically, I wanted the representative to sweat just a bit.

The representative was pretty unfazed, and said he would make some calls tonight, and get back to me tomorrow morning.  He was pretty much not irritated by me at all.

Fine, whatever.  After that 15 second conversation (literally) had ended, and I hung up the phone, I let it go, and was fine.

Or so I thought.

Actually, what had begun as irritation shifted into regret and remorse as soon as I started “feeding” the irritation – first by not accepting the situation as it was, then by not accepting my husband’s solution, THEN by trying to bring the representative into angst as well.  And I got to see this whole progression in my evening meditation.

*sigh*

So, the awareness is good – I really just can’t afford to be annoyed, irritated, or frustrated, not matter how “justified” it might seem; my peace and sanity is just worth more than any blame, no matter how “appropriate” blame might be – but it comes at a price.  All evening I felt just a little “off”, just a little “rough” around the edges; and then my meditation was all over the place – racing mind, clinging mind, aversion mind.  Troubled mind.

Lesson learned: Frustration is an indulgence I can’t afford.  Additionally, I get to (need to) apologize to the representative when I speak to him tomorrow for being terse today. *sigh*  Ah, growth.  Sometimes it’s fun, but sometimes, well, not so much.  But, it’s all necessary.  For me, anyway.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009: Immediate feedback

Today a friend asked me if I could tell if meditation really had any impact on me – and what a timely question this was.  First, the answer: yes – meditation definitely has an impact on me.   How can I tell?  That leads to the second, “timely” part: namely, because last night I didn’t meditate – and I got some immediate feedback from my mind that it did NOT like that.

Last night I was tired.  It was Monday, and it was a busy day at work, and we just moved the clocks back for daylight savings so it was dark outside at 5 pm, blah blah blah.  All excuses.  I just “didn’t want to” meditate – so I didn’t.   I “compromised” by listening to some meditation chanting as I was laying in bed – and fell asleep about 3 minutes later.  (No exaggeration.)  It was just one night, no big deal, right?  Not quite.

Last night I had a really unsettling dream.  (I’m a vivid dreamer anyway, and I usually remember at least snippets of my dreams, if not entire sequences of them.)  I’ve come to learn (and accept) that dreams are one key way my unconscious/subconscious communicates with my conscious mind – and last night was no exception.  The details of the dream are fuzzy, but basically I remember feeling very disconnected in my moment-to-moment tasks – and at one point in the dream, I was with my husband, and 2 hours elapsed where he was talking to me, and we were doing things together, but I could NOT focus on his words, or our activity; I basically “lost” that time with him.  Squandered it.  I remember feeling very unhappy, and even scared – how could I not know what I was doing?  How could I be that out of it, that “lost”?  Anything could have happened – and I couldn’t have sufficiently responded.  That’s not the way I want to live.

And, I think that’s the crux of it: That’s not the way I want to live.  I want to be fully present, alert and alive and HAPPY in my life.  And while certainly not a panacea, meditation does help facilitate that kind of lifestyle for me.  It gives me a little “space” between what is really happening in life, and the misguided (even false) stories my mind might want to craft about those events.  Meditation helps me see life as it really is – and perhaps even more importantly, helps me ACCEPT life as it really is.  Happily accept life.

But it’s a lot of work.  And some days, I’m tired, and I don’t want to wake up at 4 am to fit meditation into my morning; or spend 30 minutes alone in my study when I could be on the sofa with my sweetie.  So on days like that, I need to remember this post, and last night’s dream, and appreciate meditation as a tool that helps me enjoy those moments I do get to spend with my sweetie, and indeed, ALL of the moments in my life.  It’s a lot of work, but for today, it’s worth it.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A few common questions consistently surface as I chat with people about my retreat experience.  Here are some of the “most frequently asked” questions.

Q: Would you do it again?

A: I.e., if I had to do it all over again, would I still make the choice to have this experience?  Yes, absolutely.  Not a single doubt in my mind.  The experience was so much harder than I ever could have imagined (and really, I just could not have imagined what it would actually FEEL like to do it, to go through it, to live it); and it was truly, deeply painful at times; but the “returns” I received from having completed this experience absolutely made it all worthwhile.  I would 100% go through it all over again, knowing what SIGNIFICANT benefits I would receive as a result.

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Q: WILL you do it again?

A: Ah, this one is a bit trickier.  Would I willingly go through all of the crap AGAIN?

On the 10th day of the retreat, fellow students asked this question a lot of one another, and one of the “old students” drew similarities between this meditation experience and having a baby.  While there is considerable discomfort, pain, and even tears in the delivery process, the amazing little human being that results makes it all 1000% worthwhile.  Similarly, while this meditation process is riddled with pain, discomfort, and sometimes tears, the amazing little insights and goodnesses that are discovered make it all worthwhile.

That being said, nearly any new mom, while beyond delighted with the precious new life she (and her partner) created, is also not eager to do it all over again.  She needs time to 1) get to know her little baby, and 2) forget about some of the pain and the trauma so that she is willing to try the whole process again.  Similarly, nearly any student in this process would probably be best served by 1) getting to know more about (and becoming more comfortable with) the little insights that were revealed, and 2) putting a bit of distance between some of the more difficult parts of the experience so that s/he is willing to give it another go at some point in the future.

So – will *I* do it again?  I never say “never”; but I also know that, as good as this was at the end, I am not overly eager to do it all again.  I say give me 9 months, and then check in again and see where I’m at and how I’m feeling at that time.  :)

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Q: Was it worth it?

A: Yes. Yes. Yes.

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So, there you have it.  If you have a question you’d like to ask, feel free to post it via the comment section below, or contact me to ask directly.  Thanks!

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Afterward

People have been very interested in hearing about my retreat (honestly, much more so than I anticipated), and once I share some of the basics of the experience, many people ask, “So, what did you learn?”

Many of my learnings have been interspersed throughout the day-by-day descriptions; but here are some additional things I learned as a result of my active participation in this retreat.  In no particular order, I learned:

  • what real desperation feels like.
  • that I am not “damaged” or “bad”; that so many things I thought were significant issues or flaws inherent in me are actually just part of the overall human condition.  And that there is comfort in knowing I am not so “special” in this regard; that ALL people struggle.  People before me have struggled, and people after me will struggle; it’s all just part of being alive.
  • that I don’t have to be perfect; that my best effort really IS “good enough”– and that I can be comfortable, and peaceful, and happy being imperfect, and being “just good enough”.  That it’s actually a relief to be “just good enough”.
  • that my ego-mind is very, very strong and powerful; and will not go down without one helluva fight.  BUT – my ego-mind can also be re-trained to be more helpful versus hurtful; but that the training takes a lot of active, patient, persistent work on my end.
  • that I have inner resources I honestly did not know I possessed.
  • just how influenced I am – especially at an unconscious level – by so many subtle, nuanced things in my life.  And that I need to be very strategic, conscious, and vigilant about what I choose to allow into my life (i.e., food I eat, media messages I consume, where/how I spend my free time, the attitudes of the people around me…).
  • the value of snuggling under a warm, heavy blanket in the dark, and being completely still.
  • that I CAN sit for one hour, motionless, and be focused for most of that time on the present moment.  That meditation really IS possible for me – and that it is a helpful, and even enjoyable, activity.
  • that I really am beautiful, inside and out. That my soul is a “good” one; and that my physical body, while impermanent and ever-changing, is currently vibrant and alive and gorgeous.
  • that multitasking is VERY harmful to me (even “just a little bit”) – that I am much happier, peaceful, and content when I focus on literally one thing at any given moment.
  • that true “uni-tasking” is really, really, REALLY difficult.
  • that I can be a force of positive change in the world through very simple actions (e.g., smiling at people; being joyous in my speech; being helpful in my actions; being calm and peaceful in my soul – and being unafraid to emit this essence wherever I am); and that I really like this.
  • that I can be VERY weak, and VERY lazy; but I can also be ridiculously strong and resilient.
  • that I DO have true, sincere peace within myself: that my peace is not dependent on any external forces, situations, people, or conditions; that peace really does reside within my soul.  I just needed to learn how to look for it to really experience it.
  • that I can talk myself into – and out of – darn near anything.  And this can be helpful, but it can also be scary.
  • the power and beauty of being human; we are amazing, amazing creatures.
  • the power of being in the presence of a fellow human – even in silence, even in darkness, such comfort can be felt simply by being in the same physical space with another human.
  • what real joy feels like.

While this is a decent list, I suspect more will be revealed as the days and weeks continue to unfold.  So, I will update this page as I see more, and as I learn more.  Bye for now.

(Click here to return to the Table of Contents to view the “Extras”.)

(Click here to read about how life unfolded after the retreat.) [Or use the links contained in the “Archives” section on the right side of the page.]

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