by Lisa Ernst
On a recent visit to Colorado, I enjoyed a hike with my two teenage nieces to a place outside of Boulder called Mattress Rock. My oldest niece, Mary Katherine, had recently spent the night camping at the top of this rock and she wanted to show us the view. When we arrived, I saw the top was quite high and completely inaccessible through climbing. But a ponderosa pine was fairly close to the rock, and my niece said that’s how she and her friends had climbed up.
Nancy, my younger niece, enthusiastically grabbed a pine branch and began climbing. With some encouragement and guidance from Mary Katherine, she got across to the top of the rock without too much difficulty. Then Mary Katherine suggested I climb the tree. This caught me completely off guard. I looked up and didn’t like what I saw, not to mention the fact that I hadn’t climbed a tree since I was about my nieces’ age. Seeing my hesitation, Mary Katherine said, “Oh, Aunt Lisa, it’s just like climbing a ladder.” Suddenly an image of a ladder popped into my mind and I saw myself climbing with ease. My hesitation gone, I grabbed the tree and began climbing.
My mental association with the ladder had broken me out of my fear of the unfamiliar; I had confidence from my ingrained memories of easily climbing ladders. About halfway up, however, the ladder vanished from my mind and nothing was left but my immediate experience of climbing the tree. It was far more challenging than climbing a ladder and required a good bit of maneuvering. I didn’t look down and kept my mind completely focused on the task at hand. At the top, there was a daunting gap between the tree and the rock. I had to reach across and find a toe hold on the side of the boulder and carefully hold a thin branch while I maneuvered over to the top. A little shaky, but pleased to be done with the climbing, I enjoyed a beautiful view of the Colorado mountains.In Buddhist psychology, we often speak of ingrained patterns and associations that prevent us from fully experiencing our lives in the present moment. The mind is hard wired to filter experience through past associations and to label these experiences according to what it already knows. Pure, present moment experience, without this mental veil is very challenging and goes against our mind’s blueprint. Seeing and undoing these patterns and reaching pure experience are at the heart of mindfulness meditation.
When I was a young child, before my mental associations became fully ingrained, the feeling of walking barefoot on the fresh grass of spring was a blissful delight and the sensation of the ocean washing at my ankles brought a moment of pure magic. As I grew older, the childlike wonder of fresh and pure experience began to fade. Perhaps I could briefly touch it from time to time, but mostly it became a distant memory.
Through my meditation practice I learned that returning to this pure experience requires courage and commitment to see things as they are, without the filter that alters the moment into something other than what it is. In the case of my associating tree climbing with a ladder, it was a positive comparison that gave me the courage to climb. Once that association evaporated, however, I was left with the immediate challenge of climbing the tree. This was essential as the situation demanded that I bring my full attention to the task at hand – safely getting up the tree and onto the rock.
Quite often our past associations are of fearful or unpleasant experiences that cause us to seek refuge from this moment, where we imagine the danger remains. Meditation practice provides an excellent opportunity to see this pattern clearly. For instance, during a phase in my early years of practice I encountered a high degree of financial and career anxiety, at times so strong that I often avoided meditation because I feared the anxiety would overwhelm me. I had an ingrained tendency to try and avoid the anxiety, which felt unsafe. This is a normal human response to anxiety. The true origin of the anxiety had some deep roots and I knew I didn’t want to experience it directly.
Over the course of a few months, I saw that the anxiety wasn’t abating and realized that resuming my daily meditation practice might help prevent the anxiety from ruling my life. So I began sitting again, committing myself to staying as fully present in the discomfort as I could. I also began to see and disassociate from the story lines that accompanied my anxiety. At first, I had a strong impulse to escape just moments after I settled onto the cushion. But as I gently recommitted myself to presence in the face of fear, I slowly found room for the anxiety in my immediate experience. I didn’t need to follow the embedded thoughts and stories to cover it over. Just touching the discomfort lightly at first gave me confidence that nothing bad was going to happen; this began the process of undoing the chain of reactivity that had kept me in stuck in anxiety.
As my confidence increased, I often extended my sitting practice to an hour or more in order to fully experience the discomfort. Usually, about halfway through the session, the anxiety would melt away into the sweetness of the morning birdsong and the sunrise filtering through the window. As my heart opened to the fear, it also opened to the unconditioned beauty of this moment. Out of this intimacy a sense of gratitude and peace would arise. Repeatedly doing this practice revealed that I didn’t need to be afraid of embracing the discomfort, and my mental association of anxiety with danger began to fade.
To this day when anxiety arises I often feel the urge to escape. Mental patterns have power, and it is unrealistic to believe they can be completely eliminated. Although the impulse to turn away remains with me, less time elapses before I remember to meet the anxiety intimately with an open heart. Just as my association with the ladder faded into the immediate reality of climbing the tree, my experience of anxiety, just as it is, dissolves into the spacious, unconditioned nature of this moment.