Sunday, January 24, 2010: Just leave myself alone – really?
Yesterday I attended a meeting that I guess is best described as a “social group” for meditators in their 20s and 30s. (If you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and are interested in learning more, the group is called Dharma Friends, and is affiliated with Common Ground Meditation Center.) At the group yesterday one of the key topics of discussion was meditating on the question, “Can this be okay?” As in, whatever is present in my life, can it be okay exactly as it is? I don’t have to want it, or like it; but can I “simply” accept it, however it is, exactly as it is? Can it just all be okay?
And in that question is the big implication of, “Can *I* just be okay?” Can I just be okay EXACTLY as I am? Do I have to constantly work to change myself, fix myself, improve myself – or can I simply be okay, wherever I am, “flaws” and all?
It was a very helpful (and meaningful, and powerful) discussion for me, and I was very grateful to be able to attend. I toyed around with the question of “Can it be okay?” off and on yesterday afternoon and evening; and then went to bed.
When I woke up this morning, I had promptly forgotten all about accepting things just as they are, and was already planning and scheduling and creating and crafting and THINKING, even before my feet ever left my bed. Talk about a crazy start to a day.
But, in my morning meditation, yesterday’s conversation came back to me – and I checked in with myself. Where was I at right then, right in the midst of all of the mind chatter? Could I just observe my body and my mind, just sit back and watch things passing along? Could I get just a tiny bit more “space” around everything, so that I could get a tiny little pause in which to breathe?
After my meditation sit, I checked my email, and saw this brief article waiting for me in my inbox. The author wrote on this topic so eloquently; and talk about “perfect” timing. Ah, there are no “coincidences” in this world. :)
I’ve included the article below in case you have an interest in reading it. And if not, that’s fine, too; I’m grateful you have read this far. :)
[And now, the article]
“Leave yourself alone! Zen teacher Barry Magid describes the practice of just sitting.
Imagine sitting down in front of a mirror. Your face automatically appears. There is no effort required; the mirror is doing all the work. You can’t do it right or wrong. The Zen Buddhist practice of “just sitting” is like that. When we sit, our mind automatically begins to display itself to us. Our practice is to observe and experience what appears moment after moment. Of course, just as when we look in a real mirror, things don’t stay that simple for long.
We notice how our faces or our bodies look in the mirror, and we immediately have an emotional reaction and form judgments about what we see. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that Paul Cezanne was capable of painting a self-portrait with utter objectivity, of looking at his own face with no more reaction than “a dog which sees itself in a mirror and thinks, ‘Here is another dog.’” For the rest of us, it’s not so easy to simply observe who we are. Looking in the mirror, we are tempted to use it as a makeup mirror to touch up the parts of our self-image we don’t like.
Our minds are never what we want them to be. That’s part of why we sit in the first place. We are uncomfortable with ourselves as we are. The greatest dualism we face is the split between who we are and who we think we ought to be. Sometimes that gap fuels our aspiration to follow Buddhist teachings, sometimes it simply fuels our self-hatred, and all too often we confuse these two notions of self entirely.
Just sitting means sitting still with all of the aspects of ourselves that we came to Buddhist practice in order to avoid or change—our restlessness, our anxiety, our fear, our anger, our wandering minds. Our practice is to just watch, to just feel. We watch our minds. Minds think. There’s no problem with that; minds just do what they do. Ordinarily we get caught up in the content of our thoughts, but when we just sit, we observe ourselves just thinking. Our body’s most basic activity is breathing: No matter what else is going on, we are breathing. We sit and breathe, and we feel the sensation of our breath in our bodies. Often there is tension or even pain somewhere in our bodies as well. We sit and feel that too and keep breathing. Whatever thoughts come, come. Whatever feelings come, come. We are not sitting there to fight off our thoughts or try to make ourselves stop thinking.
When we sit, we realize how unwilling we are to leave anything about ourselves alone. We turn our lives into one endless self-improvement project. All too often what we call meditation or spirituality is simply incorporated into our obsession with self-criticism and self-improvement. I’ve encountered many students who have attempted to use meditation to perform a spiritual lobotomy on themselves—trying to excise, once and for all, their anger, their fear, their sexuality. We have to sit with our resistance to feeling whole, to feeling all those painful and messy parts of ourselves.
Just sitting means just that. That “just” endlessly goes against the grain of our need to fix, transform, and improve ourselves. The paradox of our practice is that the most effective way of transformation is to leave ourselves alone. The more we let everything be just what it is, the more we relax into an open, attentive awareness of one moment after another. Just sitting leaves everything just as it is.”
Tuesday, January 12, 2010: Worlds collide – or coexist?
Before I went on my retreat, I considered starting a little meditation group at work. Several years ago (somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-10 years ago) I participated in a small meditation gathering at work a few times, and I liked it. That group met once a month in a conference room; everyone arrived at 12:30, sat down, closed their eyes, meditated silently for 20 minutes, got up, and left. It was a very “focused” group, with little room for brief greetings to one another, let alone socialization or deeper discussion about meditation. It was good for meditation purposes, but left me a bit “wanting”. (I know, I know, the irony. Anyway…) However, that group disbanded a few years ago, so I thought perhaps I could start up a new one. But I didn’t take any action – in part because I’m lazy, and in part because I felt like I didn’t really know “how” to meditate (and how could I form a group if I didn’t know what the heck I was doing?).
When I got back from the retreat at the end of October, one of those barriers no longer existed. Clearly, I DID know how to meditate now. But the other barrier was still present – I was still rather lazy. It’s not that I didn’t want the group to exist – I was happy to help support and maintain the group by attending it…but to do all of the upfront work required to actually START it? *Sigh.*
However, my higher power had different plans. (He frequently does; and I’m VERY grateful for that.) A woman in my general functional area at my employer is responsible for helping networking groups get started; and we have a large variety of said groups at my workplace. We have college alumni groups, groups focused on diversity (African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, GLBT…), groups focused on families (a group for working moms, a group focused on adoption, a group that supports families who have a member in the military…), groups focused on common hobbies (like photography, and scrapbooking, and quilting…); but we don’t have any groups focused on “wellness”. So when she learned I was in to meditation, she suggested that perhaps I might be interested in starting a meditation group. And when I told her that hmm, funny she should mention that, ‘cause I WAS kind of kicking the idea around, she started applying gentle pressure (and I mean this in a very good way!). Every few weeks after I got back from the retreat, if she saw me in the hall or the restroom she would very casually ask, “Hey, have you done anything towards starting the meditation group? Can I do anything to help you?” And each time I sheepishly looked at her, and replied that no, I hadn’t done it yet. Too busy at work, you know.
Yeah, right. Too lazy is more like it.
But. The more she asked (again, she asked VERY kindly, and TRULY without any pressure), the more I felt like you know, I kind of really want to do this. I really DO want to meditate at work. And left to my own plans, I just won’t do it; there are simply too many other things I “could” be doing during my lunch hour; meditation is easily the first item to go. But if I were accountable to other people, if other coworkers were expecting me to meditate with them, well, I would HAVE to do it at work. Ah, the beauty of positive peer pressure…
So last week, I finally said to myself, “You know what, just do this. Just get off your rear already, and DO this! Whip up an agenda, schedule a few conference rooms, throw together a memo that can be sent out to the company, and see what happens. I know, I know, probably nothing will happen; I mean, what kind of business professionals want to do weird-o meditation at work? But hey, even if no one shows up, you will have to be in the room ‘just in case’ someone chooses to stop by, so at least you will meditate once during the week… So even if you are there alone, at least you will be doing something that you want to do for yourself… so just do it already.”
So I did. I pulled together an agenda, I blocked a few conference rooms, and I sent a note to the company saying basically, “Um, hi there. I know I’m weird and all, but I do this thing called meditation, and well, if you want to join me, you can. But I mean, only if you want to… But I would like you to, I really would! But I understand if you have other plans; I mean, you’re probably busy and all…”
Okay, so the actual text was a bit more professional than that; but that is how I felt. Creating this group, and then publicly stating that I had created this group, that I do this thing called meditation and that I feel strongly enough about it that I actually want to bring it to work as well, doing all of this felt like a big risk to me. A BIG risk. Meditation is not exactly mainstream to everyone; would I get labeled as some kook? Some freak? Some spacey, airy-fairy, childish girl who really shouldn’t be in the professional, buttoned-up, fast and furious world of business?
I was about to find out.
I conducted the first meditation session today. I arrived in the conference room a few minutes before noon, and honestly expected to be in the room by myself for the entire hour; I truly did not think anyone else would show up. However. A few minutes after the hour, one woman came. And then a second woman arrived. And about 10 minutes later a guy came. And by the time we actually started meditating, 14 people had shown up – we actually ran out of chairs! I was honestly shocked. There were other people out there at work who really, REALLY wanted to do this! At work! Oh wow! And they were all SO excited and complimentary about it! Several participants actually said – verbatim – that this group addressed a big void in their lives, and/or answered a prayer they had made literally just a few days ago. Wow.
Oh, but wait – there’s more: When I got back to my desk after the session (feeling totally elated and jubilant and joyful), I opened my email account, and had over 40 messages in my inbox, all from people asking to be added to the group distribution list so that they could come to a future meditation session. Holy crap! I actually had to reschedule the future meetings to a larger conference room to accommodate all of the interest. Wow!
And then get this! One of those emails was from a lawyer for the company. Oh crap. He wrote asking to “speak to the individual behind the creation of this group”. Oh shit. I’m screwed. My mind reeled: The company hates it, and I didn’t go through the appropriate channels, and they think it’s risky and an invasion of privacy and a conflict of church and state and… I took a deep breath, emailed him back, and found out that… HE conducts a small meditation session for all of the lawyers on his floor every week, and he would love to get together with me to learn more about my group, and what he can do to help support it. AND – he is friends with a senior lawyer at yet another big company in town, and SHE is closely connected with Jon Kabat-Zinn (like, runs programs for him and stuff), and the lawyer at my workplace wants to introduce ME to THAT woman so that she and I can chat and possibly make my group even BIGGER…. Holy crap!
And there is even still more!! I got put in touch with some graphic designers that work for my employer, and I timidly asked them if hey, could maybe one of them whip up a cute logo for my meditation group or something? And I know you all are really crazy busy, and it doesn’t even have to be anything special, just something that my group can use to show that it is a “real” group, like if you could just even do a logo in 20 minutes that would be great, and maybe that could be possible? And you know what, if you are really busy with other assignments, just forget it, ‘cause I can probably figure something out if you have too much real work to do… The advertising contact said that actually, many people on her team are really excited about my group, and four different graphic artists want to make a logo for me, and they will give me several different options next week if that timing will work for me. Wait a second – FOUR graphic artists want to help with this? FOUR? Are you freaking kidding me? That is OUTSTANDING!
God, my heart SWELLED with all of the amazing goodness I experienced as a result of this “experiment”. So I guess I’m not the only one who seeks something a bit “more”; I guess other buttoned-up, serious, adult business professionals really DO have a yearning for something deeper, something larger, something peaceful and sacred and soulful – and are willing to express that desire, and that “vulnerability”, at work. I felt so connected, so full, so alive, and SO joyful as a result of ALL of this.
And to think, had I not gotten off my rear end, AND had I not taken a risk, I might have missed it all. I am so deeply grateful that I did, so that I didn’t.
Sunday, January 3, 2010: The new year
Hmm, the first post of the new year, of the new decade – talk about pressure. But actually, pressure only comes from fear – fear of failing to meet expectations. And expectations are just one of the many things that can take me away from the present, that can take me away from happiness I would likely otherwise have if I just accepted that things are perfect exactly as they are. Because they are, you know – things are perfect exactly as they are. I may not necessarily like everything that I encounter; but everything is perfect as it exists right in this moment – because the thing, whatever it is, is already here, already exactly as it is, unchangeable.
So I can let go of my expectations, and let go of the fear, and let go of the pressure, and just be happy. “Just” be happy – *laugh*; like “happiness” isn’t enough, like “happiness” isn’t everything, like “happiness” isn’t what this whole experience is really all about. I can let go, and accept, and be grateful. And I certainly won’t be perfect; but neither will this post. And this year won’t be perfect, either. And this decade? Nope, not perfect. Nor will this life hit that mark of perfection. But again, perfection is just one of those nagging expectations, one of those things that block joy.
So, here is my first post of this new year. May I accept it for exactly what it is, exactly how it is, and be happy and peaceful. Or at least try to. : )