De-composing Your Songs

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head and no matter how hard you tried, it wouldn’t stop? I often hear this from students on their first residential retreats. They become frustrated that their minds are filled with a particular song to the point that there’s no space for anything else. In truth it’s not really a problem, but until students realize this, they feel totally stuck. This situation isn’t too far off from how many of us live our lives, immersed in certain repetitive narratives that seem to squeeze the space and energy from our lives.

Most of us are familiar with our stuck stories, the ones that rear up at inopportune times, or when things don’t go our way. For some of us, our dark repetitive thoughts may accompany us every day and lead to full blown depression. For others, they’re more like a damp, cloudy drizzle, arriving just after we’ve settled at the park with our picnic blanket and basket. Either way, these old songs have a way of taking over our minds and snuffing out awareness and appreciation of our daily activities.

As young adult I was terrified of public speaking. The first time I spoke in front of a group at work, which was only about six people, I nearly fainted! My boss suggested I join Toastmasters, a speakers group, to gain experience and confidence. Reluctantly I agreed. In the process of doing what I feared most, I began to see the stuck stories in my head: If I speak in front of a crowd I’ll freeze up and forget what to say; I’m too introverted, I’m not capable of public speaking; I don’t have anything worth sharing with a crowd. These songs were tied to fixed identity I held of myself as a shy and private person. But they were just a narrative and had nothing to do with me as a fluid, ever changing being. This became clearer and clearer the more I spoke in public. The fear didn’t dissipate completely but I learned to accommodate it; my old songs still appeared and I simply acknowledged them while getting on with my presentations. As they lost their power over me, I was able to tap into the creative energy that had been blocked by those old songs. My presentations improved and I began to do public talks on a regular basis.

What are some of your songs? Do you fall into self-blame and criticism when you don’t achieve an objective? Are you sensitive to how others perceive you, maybe a person whose approval you care about says or does something that leaves you feeling rejected? Are you afraid of being alone and left out? Often, we perceive people or events in accord with rigid ideas about ourselves and twist them into something they’re not. If this happens enough, we may even give up on a relationship or an important intention in our lives.

On my first week long meditation retreat, the teacher kept encouraging us to dig deeper into our koans. I was practicing in the Rinzai Zen tradition at the time and koans were a vital part of our practice. Halfway through the retreat I was feeling frustrated and stuck, telling myself that this particular koan was too difficult. That night during a dharma talk, my teacher spoke with deep conviction that all of us there needed to believe in our innate capacity to awaken, that we were capable of far more than we knew. His words cut to my heart; I knew they were true. Right at that moment I saw through the song I had created about my limits, that the koan was too hard. I recommitted to working with the koan and had a breakthrough. Similarly, I’ve seen many dharma students give up on a committed practice because they didn’t believe they had the capacity to awaken deeply. But sincere practice often brings a series of smaller awakenings that begin to accumulate over time and lead to major insights. Patience is needed, returning to this breath, this moment, over and over.

Here’s another example. Let’s say you’ve decide to start a daily meditation practice. You know how important it is, you’ve read all the studies and heard testimonials from teachers and students alike who say it is life changing. You get off to a good start and sit daily for a week, a month, or even longer. Then something comes up, internally or externally, and you start to miss a day here and there. Pretty soon you’re missing days or weeks. At some point you try to recommit, but the juice, the excitement and motivation are gone. Did your enthusiasm for meditation just wear off, or is there more going on in your mind that dampens your efforts? This is where taking a closer look at your old songs can illuminate your mind.

What are you really telling yourself about this effort? What’s your song? Look beneath the familiar excuses about lack of time or the vague promise that you’ll get back to it someday soon. If needed, let it be an open ended question until a clear answer appears. Practice patience. Look at your responses when you ask the question, where do you feel it in your body? Is it a contraction at your chest or a twinge of anxiety in your stomach? This practice will help you settle your discursive mind and access insight. Your sincere intention will support you. Once your song is visible and out of the dark, you can start to de-compose your song and resume your practice with a much greater chance of consistency.

We can de-compose our songs by seeing them clearly. It’s really pretty simple; the hard part is letting go of the spiral of reactive thoughts and emotions that accompany our narratives and lead us astray. If we train our minds to keep coming back to this moment, we can experience our stories as a felt sense, right now. The more we do this, the more will find open space where once there were tight, dark knots and a rigidly defined sense of self. We access energy and the power of insight that will begin to diminish our clinging, open us to new possibilities and ultimately lead us to liberation.

Bridging the Gap: Compassion Starts Here

As with many spiritual traditions, Buddhism emphasizes cultivating compassion as vital to a spiritual life. Most of us want to be compassionate at heart yet at times we may struggle to manifest it skillfully in daily life. What happens when we see a homeless person on an empty street and we recoil rather than feeling a warm prod to reach out and help? Maybe a family member needs our support but we’ve had a long history of conflicts and misunderstandings and we struggle to extend a hand. Perhaps a co-worker who always seems aloof or combative has a tragic loss. Instead of feeling a sense of caring and interconnection with their suffering, we feel neutral, detached.

At times like these our response to misfortune and suffering is misaligned with our ideals. When we see this gap, we may feel even more separate. This can easily turn into self judgment and criticism: “I’m not a very compassionate person;” “I don’t have the courage to help;” or even, “that person doesn’t deserve kindness.”

When our response doesn’t conform to our ideals, it helps to remember that compassion won’t blossom until we accept our immediate reaction. This is the gap—when our response and our ideals are out of sync. Instead of identifying only with our ideals, or judging ourselves for an unwanted response, we can learn to stay in the gap, the open place where we can experience our fear, our hurt or our frustration when our desire to help goes nowhere. This is where compassion begins. Returning to this place, our bodies, our hearts, what is truly arising at this moment?

If you’re walking down the street and encounter a homeless person, can you see the moment aversion arises and just experience it? It may not happen immediately, but once you’re aware of it, take a few breaths and stay in the midst of your experience. As you learn to do this, your conditioned response will begin to diminish, even dismantle. The contraction of fear will soften, the sense of separation, born of that fear, will also dissolve. As we lose identification with ourselves as a separate entity, we experience the homeless person’s suffering directly. We know its not different from our own, just another flavor made manifest. Maybe there’s nothing we can do in that moment to help. Sometimes the correct response is to distance ourselves if the situation seems unstable. But if there’s no immediate threat, perhaps simply a smile, an acknowledgement that we actually see this human being, is the kindest response. Longer term, we may seek out concrete ways to help if we feel moved in this direction.

The roots of suffering run deep. As we learn to stay in the gap, not turning away from our fear or aversion, a skillful and compassionate response is closer at hand. As Ajahn Chah puts it, “There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free.”

No Choice, No Excuses: How to Stick With a Daily Meditation Practice

One of the most seemingly simple, common questions I’m asked by students is how to establish a daily meditation practice. Easy to ask, but hard to do, even for long term meditators. New meditation students usually want the nuts and bolts of getting a daily practice going. Often, however, I’m asked this question by people who have been meditating sporadically for years, even decades. They already know the drill, but perhaps they secretly hope there’s some trick they’re overlooking that will make the practice fall into place. The simplest, most straightforward answer I can give is always the same: “no choice, no excuses.” That’s it. If you approach a daily practice with this attitude, you will be successful. There are many good books on how to meditate, so my focus here will remain on establishing the discipline and commitment to sit daily.

Meditation has to be a priority equal to sleeping, eating, showering and brushing your teeth. We do these things every day, no questions asked. Its just part of caring for our lives. We find time for these activities. But when it comes to meditation, all too often the time disappears. Is maintenance for our bodies truly more important than maintenance for our minds? As Chogyam Trungpa put it, “It’s as if you think you’re a victim of your life and not of your laziness.” This may seem harsh, and I’ll leave it up to you to discern if there’s truth here for you. We can easily occupy our minds with  social media, internet, television, etc., but not with meditation. How can that be true?

It helps if you’re a naturally disciplined person. When I started my mediation practice, I had a tendency toward discipline in most parts of my life. I could apply that disciple to my practice. But I was also very motivated. I saw meditation as something so vital to my life that I wasn’t going to give myself a choice. My monkey mind often had different ideas, though. Excuses would arise, sometimes every morning, especially if I had overslept or had a full day ahead. I learned to acknowledge those voices but go about my meditation anyway. The more I practiced, the more I knew I didn’t have to believe my thoughts, including my reasons for not meditating. Those thoughts represented a familiar pattern of resistance, the mind that didn’t want to look at itself closely and intimately without distractions. Sometimes it was scary, seeing and experiencing myself so clearly. And that’s what we get on the cushion: an intimate view of ourselves, through the myriad ways we manifest our humanity day after day. Sometimes pretty, sometimes unpleasant. A good dose of compassion will go a long way toward opening ourselves to this spectrum. As the mind stills, we begin to experience this moment as it is, with “suchness.” We encounter our true nature as we lose the separation of myself and the other, the observer and the observed. Equanimity arises.

If you’re young, everyday patterns usually aren’t as ingrained so you have a good chance of sticking with a practice if you’re motivated. As we get older, our routines become more established, so we may find more resistance when we begin to uproot our patterns. But with enough commitment, anyone can begin and stick with a daily practice. Don’t look for results, just keep meditating daily and forget about the outcome. You’re planting seeds that will sprout when they’re ready. If you miss a few days, avoid self-blame and just get back on the cushion to start anew. At some point, you won’t even have to think about it any more.

Many students tell me the most difficult part of daily meditation is facing restlessness and anxiety on the cushion. Some days our minds are very active with planning, ideas, work issues, problem solving, etc. On these days it may be hard to stay still for the allotted time. When this happens, remember to bring your attention back to your body. This will balance the energy that you’ve been investing in mental activities. When the mind is restless, you’ll gradually discern feelings of anxiety and other sensations in the body. Stay with it to the extent you are able and remember kindness. Once you learn to steadily rest your attention at the body, your agitated thoughts will begin to dissipate and soon you’ll be present again, even in the midst of anxious feelings. When you experience them directly they’re no longer an obstacle.

I’m often asked, “is a daily meditation practice really worth it?” There are plenty of solid studies and books that can answer this question. I can say meditation has been transformational for me, and many others through the centuries. If you spend considerable energy grappling with this question rather than sitting, maybe you need to find something else to do with your time for a while. In any case you’ll have to find this answer for yourself. You’ll never know unless you give it a chance. If you do, the odds are high that you will say “yes.”

Spring Renewal 2014 Retreat Recap

This past Sunday we completed our fifth residential retreat at Bethany Hills. Hard to believe its already been five! This was our smoothest retreat yet. Perfect weather and a solid, committed group of practitioners. Their practice backgrounds spanned the range from new meditators to a few with 25 + years of meditation and retreat experience. Wildlife was abundant and active at this retreat with the birds and frogs supporting our meditation through their beautiful symphonies.

Dogwoods in Full Bloom, Bethany Hills Camp.

Dogwoods in Full Bloom, Bethany Hills Camp.

We were fortunate that the ticks weren’t out yet as spring came a little late to Bethany Hills. From Thursday evening to Sunday morning we witnessed the greening of the grounds and surrounding woods. As I first walked around the pond Thursday afternoon, seeing the hints of spring, I felt deep gratitude and joy for the time those of us attending had  set aside to remove ourselves from everyday busyness and distractions, to take the weekend to connect deeply with our hearts and minds. Its a true gift to offer this to ourselves.

A good retreat will challenge its participants. Like all retreats, there were many who struggled to meet their unwanted guests or unexpected demons. At times like this, the way through is in, with compassion and courage. Facing the demons at this level can bring about transformative insight that is life changing. I’ve seen it happen time and again, and after 25 years of practice, I can say that this process still makes a difference in my own life. But what’s most rewarding to me now is watching others do what they believed impossible and witnessing the joy on their faces once the struggle has dissolved into open space.

If you’re inclined but you’ve yet to dive in to a residential retreat, its well worth it!

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