What Meditation & Mindfulness are Really About

 

As a long-time meditator and Buddhist, I am increasingly concerned about the level of appropriation of meditation practices.  I am especially frightened by people and professionals who claim to others that they are knowledgeable on the subject, to the point of calling themselves teachers, but who clearly promote a harmful and grossly misguided version of meditation.  What concerns me the most about this situation is the harm that these unqualified individuals can do to those who aspire to learn.  Not only can it result in the worsening of people’s internal difficulties, but it has the potential to turn them off to something that could otherwise be immensely beneficial.  Consequently, this article is going to be corrective and informative in nature, and it’s my attempt to counter the harmful information that too many are promoting.

Our Addiction to Happiness is the Problem

One of the biggest mistakes that people make coming in to meditation is that they believe that it’s all about feeling amazing…but it’s not.  Meditation is about developing certain mental capacities and this sets the stage for us to, possibly, experience greater satisfaction in our life.  I can’t say it enough, meditation is not about sitting and being happy…but we have the potential for feeling positive and uplifted during or after a meditation session.  Though, we might end up feeling scared, sad or even angry.  In the end, it doesn’t matter how we feel as a result of the meditation session because it’s like exercise.  Sometimes we don’t have a “good” workout or feel like exercising, but we know it’s good for us, right?!  Meditation is the same way.  Meditation is not about our addiction to happiness, it’s about learning how to fully utilize our human abilities and to enhance them.

When we have an addiction to happiness, we are constantly trying to experience higher and higher levels of it.  This is akin to an addict, and addicts have a very hard time experiencing or tolerating what they don’t want or like.  The stronger our addiction is to happiness, the greater our unhappiness will be and the more we’ll experience it.  As is taught in many traditions from the East that utilize meditation, this addiction is highly problematic and the source of the problem.  So when I see or hear of people promoting meditation and espousing that we should be addicted to happiness I feel disgusted.  My first thought is, “You’re poisoning them by telling them that the source of the problem is the solution!”  When I see and hear these messages, I cringe and wince with a deep disappointment and sadness, and I urge you to reject them or at the very least, question them thoroughly.

Contentment is the New Happiness

Happiness is typically thought of, at least within the dominant culture of the U.S., as a constant state of elation or joy.  We imagine people always smiling, engaging in life with energy and intensity, and they never experience any problems that shake their ever present good-mood or positive view.  We see this depicted in television and people often present themselves this way on Facebook.  Unfortunately, all of it’s a big fat fiction, and we would all do well to disregard it all.  However, we shouldn’t swing to the other end and become completely cynical or crotchety.  The middle ground is what we need…and this is where we find contentment.

Contentment is amazing.  It’s not only very possible to experience a state of contentment, but it’s better than elation and joy because it has immense staying power.  This is because contentment doesn’t require anything or any energy.  In fact, it can be quite rejuvenating.  Joy and elation are peak experiences in response to changing internal or external conditions.  Contentment, on the other hand, is based on nothing except for our consciousness and it requires no energy.  Yep, all you need to be is alive and have the capacity to be aware.  The reason that meditation can help you experience contentment is because it’s practices are deliberately aimed at doing things so that you can hang out in your most basic awareness.  The natural by-product of our basic awareness is contentment and a sense of feeling spacious, warm with a cool mist, light as a feather and even subtly fluffy.  But be aware that these sensations aren’t the goal and that meditation is not about contentment, but we may experience it as a side-benefit.

At this point you might be thinking, “but I can’t meditate all of the time, so what’s the point?”  Exactly, and great question.  There are many different meditation methods that are aimed at helping people improve the relationship that they have with their own mind, body and emotions.  Through meditation and various contemplations, we come to understand how the human mind works, how we get caught in our mind’s BS and how we can continue to hang out in our basic awareness while we go about our day.  This means that meditation takes some effort.  The better we are at focusing our awareness, learning and growing, and hanging out in contentment, the better able we are to birng our practice into our entire life.  So the ultimate point of meditation is to always meditate, regardless of what you’re doing.

 

It Takes a Little Work in the Beginning

All of this may have popped your bubble, but hopefully it doesn’t discourage you from going down the meditative road because it’s well worth it.  In the beginning, meditation can be tough and it’s important to be curious about your practice and your experiences (on and off the cushion).  As meditation becomes more familiar to you, it’ll be a place that you’ll want to go more frequently.  Initially, it can be uncomfortable and very confusing, but everyone gets the hang of it if they keep with it and maintain an open mind.  Just be careful not to assume that you know everything about meditation and yourself.  The finer points and deeper insights (even into simple things) can take some time to get down.  As a therapist and meditator, I’ve experienced many people who claim to know everything about meditation and their own mind…these are typically the people who are the most ignorant, poorly practiced, misguided and unaware.  So don’t fall into the trap of arrogance, but don’t go to the other extreme.  Lastly, remembered that it’s called practice and like exercise, you should always do at least a little every day to maintain your health.

Clarifying Mindfulness  |  It’s not Meditation

Mindfulness is only one aspect of consciousness and simply put, it’s our natural ability to be self-aware.  To use it to the fullest potential we need to max out our ability to concentrate and deliberately pay attention to a specific thing.  The most effective way to do this is to concentrate on something that is extremely simple, small, boring and constantly moving.  This is why the breath is the wisest choice.  Our breathing is extremely simple and it is ever flowing, which requires us to maintain our focus from moment-to-moment.  So when people say that they practice Mindfulness, I always ask about their specific practices because too many people use it as an avoidant technique.  In fact, people are taught to use it as a way to avoid…which I strongly discourage.  Yet the question remains, how can we recognize mindfulness or the lack of it in our own experience?

Imagine that you’re sitting and meditating.  You just started and your awareness is on your breathing and various thoughts are coming and going.  You continue to practice but then all of a sudden you realize that for the past few minutes you were off in some though, fantasy or even falling asleep.  Where did you go?  Where you went was the realm of the automaton (aka, automatic human being).  You were physically there…but you weren’t mentally there.  Then there was a flash of mindfulness where you were “fully” aware of what was happening.  In that instant, you recognized that your attention had drifted away.  At the same time, you recalled your meditation method (e.g., posture, breathing) and re-engaged it.  In this example we can see where mindfulness was and where it was not.  The trouble is noticing when you’re away during the day.  The hardest part is noticing when we’re acting on habit but our mind tricks us into thinking that everything is deliberate…that’s a tough one!  And so you know, nearly all humans are not completely mindful throughout the day and this is because we, like other animals, run on habit and automatic in order to conserve energy.  We often trick ourselves into thinking that we’re mindful but that’s usually because it’s psychologically scary to think that we don’t do a lot of things for very specific reasons and within our awareness.

Final Thoughts

So as you approach a possible meditation practice, equate it to an exercise regimen.  Ease in to it, learn as much as you can, and try to make it a lifestyle change rather than a temporary thing you do.  Keep in mind that sometimes it’ll be great and feel really good, but that there will be plenty of times where it might really suck.  The biggest difference between exercise and meditation is that your underlying psychological stuff can creep up and potentially freak you out when you meditate.  If you’ve experienced traumas in your life, tread lightly and get some good support before you venture into it.  This just ensures that you have a bit of a safety net before you decide to jump in, and it can’t hurt to have it.  Even if you haven’t experienced any traumas it can be extremely helpful to enlist the help of a seasoned and knowledgeable meditation practitioner.   And finally, remember that meditation is not about forcing happiness.  Rather, it’s a way to tap into your innate human potential and when you do this, you just might experience a greater amount of contentment and enjoyment that’s only based on living.

Going to the “Compassion Gym”

After taking a break from running for several weeks, I’ve started ramping up so that I can participate in the Chase Corporate Challenge this next Thursday, along with an expected 25,000 runners in downtown Chicago. Whenever I return to regular exercise after a hiatus, I’m always struck by how hard the first couple of runs are and how quickly my muscles “remember,” allowing me to get back up to speed and even push beyond it. It’s simultaneously humbling and invigorating. Adding to all of this is the fact that I have spent most of my life declaring (almost defensively) “I am not a runner,” and I have to chuckle at the little unexpected currents running throughout life: five years ago, I’d have never believed that I could successfully run one mile, much less take part in a race. It makes me wonder what else I’ve walked around thinking is “just not me” that actually, maybe could.

When I lived in NYC and was attending classes at the Interdependence Project, Ethan Nichtern often spoke of meditation as a “compassion gym”: in the same way we go to the gym and lift weights to build stronger muscles, thus increasing our stamina and endurance for physical activity, we can turn approach meditation as a practice that increases our stamina and endurance for being generous both to ourselves and other people, strengthen the muscles required to extend genuine wishes for well-being and empathy for suffering beyond ourselves and those of our immediate circles of loved ones to strangers, even enemies. I’ve always liked this idea as it contrasts with what seems to be the prevailing attitude:  compassion and empathy are often treated as fixed character traits–qualities one is born with, an innate part of one’s personality, qualities one either has or doesn’t. “Well, he’s just a nicer person than I am,” gets bandied about with a shrug, both denying the agency of the actor and letting the observer off the hook.

If we can think about compassion and empathy as qualities one is capable of cultivating and strengthening like a muscle, it actually allows for a much wider range of possibility within the human experience–for all of us. It means that no one is exempt from the responsibility of making the effort to not only treat others well but, also, to understand others, to look for themselves in the behaviors that challenge or irritate or enrage. It means saying to ourselves, just like me this person is so worried that she’ll be taken advantage of that she’s behaving defensively. If that recognition is possible for all of us if we look for it, it means that it’s never too late to “be a nice person,” even if we’ve never been seen that way, even if we’ve never seen ourselves that way.  For those of us who are labeled “nice” (seemingly inherent in our very nature), it means that there is a practice that helps to examine what lies behind our niceness–is it “idiot compassion” as Chögyam Trungpa warned against, in which we enable others because we can’t bear our own discomfort with another’s suffering? is it generosity just for show? If our niceness must pass muster, must be rooted in working to see the suffering in others, to bear it with them as best we can, then it pushes us beyond the passive, superficial connotation so often associated (and embodied) in “niceness,” to be of real benefit to others while also expanding ourselves.

Beyond all of this, the other possibility that is opened up by thinking of meditation as a “compassion gym,” is that there is a refuge for each of us from the ticker tape of thoughts, worries, anxieties, pain, boredom, etc. In the same way that a good sweat can clear one’s head and realign our priorities when we get caught up in the repetitive cycle of neurotic mind, so can sitting on the cushion to focus our hearts and minds on wishing joy for ourselves, a loved one, a stranger, and enemy, all of these, and finally, all of us humble and invigorate us as we approach our day-to-day existence.

 

 

Stay With Me | Why Being Present Makes or Breaks Relationships

The other night I was streaming an episode of the show American Odyssey when an intimate scene between two characters struck me in such a lovely way.  For those of you who don’t know the show, it has a “network television series” feel to it and the main plot centers around a female soldier in the middle east who’s presumed dead but continues to survive.  She discovered some secrets about the U.S. government over in the middle east and various U.S. officials want her dead.  There are a lot of different characters in the movie who are directly involved with her and indirectly related to her situation back in the States.  Several journalists in the U.S. are working to investigate her situation and story.  One of the journalists becomes friendly with a woman and this leads to a romantic moment between the two of them.  When they become intimate for the first time, she starts to move very fast and peel off her clothes.  He stops her for a second and says, “Stay with me.”  It was this moment that really spoke to me, but not because it was something new.

As a psychotherapist, a Buddhist and just another human being, I pay attention to my experiences throughout the day and naturally look for reminders of what’s truly important.  One of the most important things, so I’ve found, is that staying with each other, when we’re with each other, truly adds a great deal of meaning to our lives.  So often we’re caught in the trap of our own mind and by the habitual storylines that it gives us.  We learn and are told how to “act” in certain situations and when a similar moment arises, the script in our mind starts to run.  What’s sad about us becoming the script is that we are, indeed, faking our presence in the moment and totally out of touch with how we can connect with the other person.  We’re not really connected with what’s going on in the moment because our mind is making so many assumptions about what’s happening, what things mean, who the person is in front of us, and all of this ruins the rawness and freshness of the moment.  This happens in any and all of our interactions throughout the day, not just in intimate situations.  The meat of life, the juicy parts that are so meaningful to us, can only be savored when we truly stay with each other.  To do this, we need to have the courage to be vulnerable, open, raw, and true in how we are as things happen.  Of course, this is easier said than done for a lot of people.

So many of us don’t know what these words truly mean and how it feels to embody them.  I’m not here to tell you the “5 Steps to Perfect Vulnerability” because part of life is to figure this out as we venture into the world.  Yet, I would like to say that in my near 30 years of studying our human psychology and relationships, staying with each other and truly being with each other is vital to our individual and collective contentment, health and happiness.  Sure, people come and go so they may not stay, but we should try to stay with each other when we’re with each other.  Nearly all of us fantasize about this and deeply desire this type of connection.  However, many of us often get in the way of making it happen.  So many of our relationships and friendships start with this desire for deeper connection, but then they fade away as the scripts, insecurities and habits kick in.  I hope, for all of you, that you can come to understand and experience what it’s like to stay with you, to stay with me, and to stay with all of us whenever we’re together.  If you already know, very intimately, what I’m talking about then please continue to inspire others through genuine connections.  As always and with an honest and open heart, I wish each of you well.

Built In Fresh Starts

Every year around this time spring creeps up on me and takes me by surprise: I’m going along, living day-to-day, probably a bit caught up in the grind of work, and have basically accepted the winter chill as an immovable fact of life as I know it…when one day, I wake up and find myself opening windows, digging in my closet for tee-shirts, buying sunglasses to replace the ones I’ve long since lost from last year, and marveling at the inexplicably good mood I’m in for no reason whatsoever.

As children, school vacations mark transitions between seasons and give us built in fresh starts, but for most of us, the adult world does not provide these little reminders, and it’s very possible for the months to simply pass in a blur. So, for me, the little nudge of warmth that enters the air, the first awareness of the lengthening of the days, the freedom from my heavy winter coat have become precious markers. The optimism and excitement that they breed is almost Pavlovian, such that before I can say to myself, “Laura, this happens every year–you always feels this way when spring first arrives,” I’m humming to myself, finding renewed energy, feeling invigorated by fresh hope.

One of the things that first attracted me to the Shambhala Buddhist tradition as opposed to other lineages was the “not too tight, not too loose” approach. I remember one of my first teachers pointing me to Chögyam Trungpa’s discussion of the beauty of “fresh start” as a way to to help me emerge from the exhausting, well-worn cycles of over-thinking to which I am prone. Sometimes, even with one’s meditation practice, you need to shift your awareness from the object of your focus to drink in the sensory world, gain some perspective, and remind yourself of the aliveness of the present moment. It can be transformative…when I remember to do it.

That’s the magic of spring, though: the change that comes over me around this time every year comes whether I remember it’s coming or not. I suddeny feel as though I am airing out the stale patterns of thinking I’ve slipped into without even realizing it, as though I’m rediscovering what it means to be alive. That the same thing can happen and feel very different each time reminds me that this actually true of all things, all days, all moments. Too often I stop myself from delving into the mystery of my existence by picking up on familiar threads of feeling, scanning my memory for when I’ve felt similarly, and then labeling it as an already known quantity–“Oh, this happened last time I did…”

But this has never happened before. I have no idea what the next moment will feel like. And if I can stay with the moment I’m in, investigate it, I’ll get a breath of fresh air, even in the middle of winter.

The Trance of “Real But Not True”

Last night I accidentally erased six months worth of texts sent between my partner and me. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not *that* big of a deal. Sure, I sometimes indulge in looking back at a sweet message from a day or two ago, but I rarely scroll back through several weeks or months of everyday exchanges except to find some bit of information to reference, an address or someone’s phone number. Still, I found myself surprisingly distressed at the loss.

“I still have them,” my partner yawned as I curled up with him to go to bed, “and you probably have them in the cloud–I bet I could get them back for you.”

“I guess,” I answered, somehow not feeling convinced or comforted.

He quickly slipped off into an untroubled sleep, but for some time I lay there feeling vaguely uneasy for reasons I couldn’t quite pin down. In the dark quiet, my mind slid into mildly panicked thoughts–what if I weren’t able to recover them? What if something were to happen to my partner? Wouldn’t I wish I had these countless, mundane but faithful records of our steady, playful, rich  relationship. My heart ached just entertaining these thoughts. I felt my skin tingle with a “gut” feeling that I’d somehow jinxed myself, that perhaps the intensity of this moment was the universe’s way of preparing me for tragedy.

I do this a lot–well, less than I used to, but still more than I’d like: I get so caught up, so invested in a “feeling” that it seems more real than the world as it exists in front of me. Irritatingly, it happens most often when things are going especially well in life. It’s as though some part of me has never quite accepted that I might deserve good things. I always seem to be holding my breath, waiting for these gifts to be wrenched away from me.

My meditation practice has been helpful in learning to recognize that these thoughts, when they come up, are just thoughts, not pronouncements from a god I don’t believe in, not animal instinct of foreboding. Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach’s phrase, “real but not true,” continues to be a useful one to invoke as a reminder that this feeling is real in the sense that it’s an experience I’m having but not “true” in any sort of factual way by virtue of the fact that any such fears are based on projections on a future that I can have no way of knowing at the present moment. Certain dreaded outcomes can be likely or even inevitable, but what can’t be known is what *exactly* my experience of that outcome will be. The suffering I am bracing myself for is imagined–whether it proves to be more or less painful than the reality, the experience itself will not be anything I can conceive of until I am in that moment. But still, even though I can label these experiences as such, I’ve spent my entire life worrying as a way of steeling myself up for the “unbearable” pain that’s just around the corner, and old habits die hard.

However, the thing about the unbearable pain  (when it arrives) is that, somehow, we always seem to bear it. As teacher Diane Musho Hamilton says, “Everything is workable.” This doesn’t mean everything will be “okay” in the sense that we will avoid loss, sadness, fear, and pain–all of these experiences are part of the human experience and inescapable–but instead everything will be as it is, and we will handle it, sometimes with grace and sometimes without. In either case, the suffering will shift subtly with each passing moment and will not be one solid block of pain but, rather, countless microseconds of more and less pain, of neutral numbness, of little hints of optimism and despair. And this “everything,” it applies not just to working through the suffering but also the bliss. There isn’t actually one way to approach what we like in life and another to approach what we don’t. Both must be accepted and not given undue bearing on our experience.

I’d like to say that a conscious acceptance of the neurotic nature of my mind is what allows me to step outside the fog of worry-ridden thoughts, but the truth is, more often than not, it’s the poke of the physical world that snaps me out of my trance. Last night, just as my mind was reaching a fever pitch, I found myself sitting upright with an abruptness that surprised even  me: inexplicably in the midst of this chaos, I remembered that I had not set my alarm for the next morning. Before I knew what I was doing, I scrambled out of bed and across the room to where I had plugged in my phone. “Babe, what are you–? I’ll sort it all out for you tomorrow, I promise,” my partner mumbled. “Come back to bed, try to sleep.”

Opening my mouth to explain, I looked up from my phone and over at the jumble of covers to see him extending his arms out to welcome me back. Involuntarily, I felt my lips curve into a smile, triggering a chain reaction relaxing the muscles in my face and shoulders. I finished setting my alarm, padded back to bed and nestled into the crook of his arm. And, for a moment, I lost myself in the pleasure of feeling my cheek against the skin of his chest and the sound of his steady heartbeat.

 

 

 

Hanging Out With The Mess

“If we begin to surrender to ourselves — begin to drop the storyline and experience what all this messy stuff behind the storyline feels like — we begin to find bodhichitta, the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness.” ~ Pema Chodron

The quotation above was one of the first I encountered when I first began studying dharma several years ago. I had heard a few teachers mention, “drop the storyline,” as advice for sitting with difficult emotions, and the well-crafted, pithy phrase stuck with me enough that I sought out the origins and discovered Pema Chodron, one of the most revered teachers and authors in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. It’s good advice: the further away I’m able to move from the narratives I create and the closer I’m able to get to the pure, felt emotion of the moment, the better able I am to catch my mind from becoming ensnared in negative thoughts that threaten to spin out of control.

I’ve used this technique to realize that flashes of anger are actually hurt feelings, to realize that anxiety I assigned to specific circumstances was actually much more deeply rooted in my general experience. I’ve watched the quality of the feeling shift subtly from moment to moment until the hard knot that had formed in my chest loosened just enough to give me a felt sensation of the solidity of my narratives crumbling. And along with these realizations, a side benefit that often emerges organically is that I’m better able to handle these emotions, better able to accept them, ease out of the scope of their paralysis, and move along with my day. I’ve come to think of dropping the storyline as one of my most effective coping mechanisms.

However, in the throes of some particularly intense worry, I recently found myself impatient with my favorite little mantra, stay with with the icy, gnawing pin-pricks of mounting anxiety without catastrophizing projections to keep me company. Pulling down a volume of collected dharma excerpts from my bookshelf, I ran across the quotation above, reminding me of the fuller context of the phrase I’ve come to use as shorthand for “getting on with it,” and it occurred to me that in my appropriation of “drop the storyline” for quick fixes of discomfort, I’ve been skimming over, just barely touching in with the the richest part of this practice, the chance to access and actually spend time inhabiting “the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness.”

It’s true that there’s unquestionable merit in merely stopping to breathe through discomfort long enough to watch it dissolve. But if I’m able to hang out in the space created in that experience of dismantling my narratives, there’s also a wealth of bittersweet vulnerability that can give little flickers of felt connection to the currents of discomfort/distress/pain/ suffering which is intrinsic to this human condition. It becomes possible have compassion for my own confusion and recognize the confusion fueling the actions of others as the same burden.

The expansiveness of this space has no perceptible boundaries or familiar ground, which is both terrifying and freeing. It’s hard to stay with such a sensation, much less welcome it. But then, if I hang out a bit longer, I can see that even the perceived terror and freedom are potent, extracts of storyline, that they too can be dropped, And what is left is just open space where I don’t need to label my experience. This space doesn’t bar my thoughts or narratives–it has enough room to accommodate them all. It’s just that here, I can watch them float by with gentle curiosity before they are absorbed back into the nothingness from which they came…at least until the phone rings or I look at the time or I start to daydream yet another imagined storyline.

On the Power and Rigidity of Narrative

That we as human beings construct narratives for ourselves is as old as language itself. We tell stories to reflect and share experiences; we listen to stories and connect them back to ourselves in order to make sense of our existence. But narratives don’t just come into being as a way to communicate with others. Most of the time, we take on the role of both the storyteller and audience, and we spend much of our day-to-day existence in a dizzying feedback loop of spinning tales and, in turn, listening intently. We listen so intently, in fact, that we begin to confuse these narratives with reality, to believe in them, to invest in them, to defend them to the death. Meanwhile, we’ve cut ourselves off from an expansive world of possibility and amazement. We’ve traded a limitless but uncertain view for a narrow but controlled one, and whenever life pokes at our carefully constructed narratives and refuses to conform to our expectations, we lose even that illusion of control and are left feeling powerless, afraid, confused.
This feedback loop has been observed and addressed by many traditions–it pops up in philosophy via Plato’s cave, in the pervasive Judeo-Christian directive to put one’s life in the hands of God, in the nature based spirituality of Native American religions which emphasizes human beings’ interdependence with the shifting seasons of the earth. And of course, it’s identified by the Buddha as the root of suffering, the only release from which is to abandon our stories and accept what is. When I first read Pema Chodron’s famous urging to “drop the storyline” and rest in the pure, felt experience of the moment, I felt as though the lines had cracked the smooth, polished idea of myself that I’d worked my whole life to create. I felt simultaneously liberated and scared shitless. I infused my meditation practice with this aspiration and made ‘dropping the storyline’ the filter through which I viewed my path and felt a sense of genuine relief: thank goodness I figured this out.
And then…
I don’t know. Years passed. Life happened. I read more books, encountered more kernals of wisdom, experienced cycles of intense commitment to my meditation practice followed by cycles of avoidance and back again. Pema’s lines have always been there, in the back of mind, ready to be referenced in conversation or in thinking about thinking about thinking…but in the midst of explaining ‘myself’ to someone yesterday, the rigidity and power of these constructed narratives struck me again, and I realized that I’ve possibly grown even more attached to my narratives than since I first became aware of them. There’s a way in which I’ve actually used my awareness to make these stories of mine even more real, more complex, more compelling and, therefore, more treacherously alluring.
So what now?
I’ll bring my awareness back to my breath, I suppose, permit myself a little smile at what a long stint of “thinking” I just indulged in, and contemplate the Lojong slogan, “Regard all dharma as dreams.”

Locating the Cessation of Suffering in Its Cause

Some time ago, one of my dharma teachers suggested the phrase, I have everything I need, as a mantra of sorts to return to when caught up in feelings of anxiety. At the time it sounded a bit hokey to me–the idea of stopping in a moment of anxiousness to say to myself, “Laura, you have everything you need” brought to mind Saturday Night Live parodies of the affirmations said to one’s reflection in the mirror. However, in the last several years, this phrase, “I have everything I need,” has become an incredibly powerful one for me. It’s no cure-all, but I’ve come to feel that the importance of the pause it necessitates in the throes of emotional distress. Even if I only connect to its theoretical truth, I usually notice a gentle release of tension in my chest, a small expansion that reminds me my experience is not as narrow as it feels in that moment. However, recently I’ve noticed that, while I have trained myself quite well to mentally pause for my little mantra, I’ve had a harder time genuinely engaging with it, re-investigating its weight rather than intoning it to myself on autopilot, turning a familiar practice into a tired exercise. It wasn’t until I was rereading part of Mark Epstein’s book, Thoughts Without A Thinker, that it occurred to me that there’s a way in which I have perhaps allowed this helpful little mantra to let me off the hook in terms of getting to bottom of those feelings, treating the phrase like a soothing balm to spread over a wound without first stopping to gently locate and remove the bits of dirt so deeply ground in–no wonder its effectiveness reduces with each flare up of infection.
In Epstein’s opening chapter, he describes the Hell Realms, a set of purgatory states of suffering that humans may be born into as a reflection of their karma. In psychological terms, he refers to these realms as “vivid descriptions of aggressive and anxiety states.”  This time around, I was especially struck by his discussion of the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, whose inhabitants are visually depicted in the Tibetan Wheel of LIfe as: “phantomlike creatures with withered limbs, grossly bloated bellies, and long, thin necks… [who] while impossibly thirsty, cannot drink or eat without causing themselves terrible pain or indigestion [and] the very attempts to satisfy themselves cause more pain.”
According to Epstein’s translation of the realms from a ‘place’ into a psychological state, the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts represents an attachment to the past, a state of “searching for gratification for old unfulfilled needs whose time has passed.” This assessment interested me greatly because, while I identify deeply with the compulsion to fill up the emptiness of ‘not enough’ by casting about myself for comfort–in exercise, affection, food, even my meditation practice–I have never considered myself to be someone particularly attached to the past. In fact, my experience of myself has almost always been a complete and utter preoccupation with the future, letting go of the past with a dismissive “I don’t believe in regrets.” And yet, what else could be at the root of this habitual rising of ‘not enough’ but “old unfulfilled needs whose time has passed”? What else could be behind such a hard, bright insistence on worrying over the future and staunch refusal to dwell on the past? 
Though I have some leads, I don’t have concrete answers to correspond to these abstract questions for myself as of yet. I have the sense that, as usual, a seed which was planted years before is finally, just now, beginning to sprout. Fundamental to the foundation of Buddhism is the recognition that suffering is our resistance to a direct experience of reality, and by extension, ourselves. As I do my best to nurture my curiosity despite the anxiety and fear clouding my view, I take comfort in the Buddhism’s notion of interdependent co-arising: “the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage.” If this is true, then I do, in fact, have ‘everything I need’ to gently remind myself that I am not stuck with the burdens of my past so long as I aspire to look directly at my present, which includes acknowledging the origins of my habitual patterns.

Ordinary Magic – The Present Moment Challenge

People who are from the Shambhala tradition are probably familiar with this term, Ordinary Magic, and if you’re one of these people know that I have read very little of Chogyam Trungpa’s writings. However, I find this phrase particularly important in my life right now. It is that which I misunderstood during my last spiritual peak.

What’s I confidently but wonderfully odd about my spiritual path is that it was amazingly strong, present and so colorful for so long yet I knew nothing of Buddhism. Yet, as I learned of the Buddhist teachings I found myself grasping at the states, jhanas or meditative absorptions that had been experienced. The teachings told me that they were something but how I had experienced them was in a rather innocent and ordinary way. For some time now, I’ve grasped at them to return because I greatly desire them. But as it happens, grasping crushes what it’s grasping.

As I see it, my present moment challenge, and everyone’s place on the path is different so your’s will be, is to recognize this ordinary magic as common place. That it’s not anything special and that I am not at all anything special. The reason that grasping occurs is because ego is present and creeping in. The view that I hold, consciously and unconsciously, is that ordinary magic is a thing.  When mind makes it a thing it destroys it. It destroys it because there is no thing called ordinary magic. The reality of the experience is fleeting, elusive and perpetually transient. The task, therefore, is to be able to acknowledge the experience in the moment without engaging something mentally.  Without following mind to the point of solidifying an experience and giving it a name.

So how does one, how do I go about this?  I don’t know. This is what I need to learn about, experiment with and reflect upon. But now that I have more space in my life, which allows for more space in mind….whatever that is!…there’s room to play, practice, fail, learn, grow and hopefully hone this crazy monkey mind that resides in this skull that I ironically call mine.