Leaping Into Mindfulness, Part Two

Originally published on March 9, 2016.

Amy Sitting.jpg

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes... Including you. -- Anne Lamott

When I promised to report back on my day of mindfulness, I imagined sharing lessons learned, significant inner experiences, and maybe even a little insight. My expectation was that I would gain something which could then be given. That's not how the day went, and although it was successful in every way, I didn't emerge with anything tangible. That's because there's no "there" there. There is nothing special to get, have, do, or be. In certain respects it was an ordinary, unremarkable day.

I'm frequently asked about the value of meditation, about what a person can get out of it, so it's an easy trap to fall into. As a teacher, I need to consider "takeaways" for my students. We think that by sitting or walking in formal practice we are building up to something or accumulating spiritual credit somehow. We are conditioned to think this way, especially in the U.S., where everything is a commodity, part of the American Dream mentality that having more equals being more. In recent years this has become especially true of "mindfulness." One of my three words for 2016 is prosperity, so I have been watching to see how my ideas of scarcity, abundance, and economic exchange operate in my life. I'm intrigued by how it shaped my expectations in this instance, to see my assumption that I'm "getting something" out of meditating, and that it is a thing that can be given to others.

It's complicated. Regular daily practice definitely has a stronger impact on my life than when I was only sitting now and then. The discipline to meditate even when I don't feel like it has been hugely beneficial, carrying over to other instances in my day-to-day where I don't want to participate but now choose to stay with what is happening instead of resisting or running away. I am becoming more skilled at focusing, I now have "tools" for managing my anxiety, rage, grief, and despair (also joy and enthusiasm and faith). I treat myself with more respect and kindness than before. Sometimes this spills over into how I treat other people.

These are just some of the effects of regular meditation and mindful movement practice. Yet, like the Alexander Technique, the point is not to gain but to lose, to let go of what's in the way. When I sit or walk or do Qigong, if I approach it as a way to get something (like peace of mind) or get rid of something (like tension), I will struggle. Rather than being with whatever is arising, I have an agenda for what is supposed to happen and I need to keep checking on my progress. Thus my desires are running the show. Meditation becomes the way I can see that operating and drop it. This is the practice. Yet even knowing that, I still get caught in the belief that I'll get something from the letting go that I can then share with others. This makes me smile at myself.

Here are some highlights (okay, takeaways) from my experience of an at-home day-long silent meditation retreat. There's nothing new to me in any of this, and I'm so grateful for the reinforcement of lessons I keep learning as I go.

Cultivate No-Time. During the first sit at 6 am I noticed a lovely feeling of expansion and freedom, and realized how luxurious it felt to know I had the whole day ahead for practice. When I sit most mornings, there's a subtle sense of urgency, a need to stay on schedule. I'm often sending messages about efficiency and productivity, like I'm saying "get 'er done!" Since then I have allowed myself to tap into the experience of no-time that meditation brings. How can I cultivate the luxury of spacious awareness, even in a short meditation?

  • Can't Unsee That. I love walking meditation. Walking in my own house, not so much. All I could see was the mess and the dirt and the repairs that need to be made. Even with eyes lowered, even when anchored in the present moment, I felt inundated by the stuff I normally choose to ignore. Just for balance, I began noticing the beautiful things too: the colors, the light, my daughters' artwork, the feeling of the rug under my feet. It sounds like a stale proverb, but it is harder to walk in your own house than in someone else's.

  • Fundamental Support. I ordered a new zabuton to match my awesome memory foam zafu, and it arrived just as my mid-morning guided meditation with my teacher Mark was ending. I appreciated the lovely difference it made in my comfort (as compared to a blanket on the rug). It wasn't due for a few more days, so I felt supported by the universe in my intentions for the day.

  • Cleaning Into Mindfulness. I scheduled a work period into the day, which expanded from 45 to 75 minutes because it was so enjoyable. That's right. Cleaning toilets and washing floors felt good. As in pleasurable, physically pleasant. Turns out the secret to enjoying household chores is simply to show up and be present while doing them. I apply my Alexander Technique in these activities, and it removes strain and increases ease. Scrubbing a sink becomes an opportunity to awaken.

  • Inertia and Momentum. I hit the same energy roadblocks I always hit. I was sleepy after lunch, but that was anticipated; my schedule called for a walk along the canal. Still wanting to sleep when I returned, I stuck with the plan and sat for some guided metta practice. I hoped the specific nature of this type of meditation, where I consciously send wishes of loving kindness to myself and others, would keep me alert. It did not. Torpor and sluggishness won out and I took a nap, which had also been built into the schedule, knowing myself as well as I do. Upon waking, I enjoyed some Qigong practice and rebalanced all that sluggish energy. That gave me momentum to keep going through dinner time and into the evening. I was surprised at how a big part of me wanted to quit at this point, with only a few hours to go. I saw how habituated I am to hitting the internal "off switch" in the evening. I reminded myself that I wasn't working or "on," so there was no need to turn off.

Because nothing much of consequence happened, because I was in my everyday environment, because I got quiet and attended to simple things like breathing, walking, and washing up, I was able to notice how much of what I typically think of as "my life" is made up stuff. That is, stuff that isn't actually happening, except in my mind. Since Leap Day I've continued my experiment with awareness, to keep learning how to take it off the cushion and out into the world. I forget to experiment a lot of the time, and I'm not always successful when I do remember, but wow -- thinking sure likes to create a lot of drama and unnecessary nonsense. Of course that's what the mind does, that is its nature. Doesn't mean I have to believe it.