Here’s a question: Does your meditation make your comfort zone more comfortable? Or less? Which do you prefer?
Let’s unpack this. The term “comfort zone” here means the states and activities to which you are most accustomed. They are generally states in which awareness is operating at a bare minimum, and the rest of our energy is flowing into patterned, automatic behaviours.
Oddly enough, this comfort zone isn’t always comfortable. It just feels “normal” — sometimes kind of pleasant, and sometimes unpleasant.
For example, if your “normal” is “getting things done,” it can feel pleasant (“All done!”) and it can feel unpleasant (“I don’t have time for this!”). Either way, though, it feels pretty normal.
So your comfort zone is the state you tend to default to when awareness is switched off.
What’s your comfort zone? Moving through your to-do list? Chatting with friends? Being entertained by TV or a book?
So, what does this have to do with meditation? Well, good and bad news. The good news is that meditation can be used to make your comfort zone more comfortable. If you’re okay with “normal”, meditation can be helpful to relieve stress, increase focus, get more ideas, etc. — all while staying in your comfort zone.
No, wait… that’s the bad news!
OK, so here’s another possibility: build a meditation practice that supports becoming fully present in whatever you’re experiencing, moment by moment. Not to prefer one state (like calm or bliss) over another (like frustration and depression). In this kind of meditation there is no notion whatsoever of achieving calm or insight or anything at all. And if such notions arise (they do!), they are simply more phenomena to be aware of. The end goal is to wake up to your actual experience.
This kind of meditation makes your “comfort zone” less comfortable, sometimes MUCH less comfortable. You may begin to become aware of anxiety, depression, anger, and other things that you had previously been able to ignore. You may begin to become aware of things outside your comfort zone that you might like to experience. Both very inconvenient. Both potentially uncomfortable.
What do you want from meditation? What matters to you? Pleasure? Feelings of security? Getting things done? And how do you use meditation now? To feel better? To feel more secure, more stable? To be more effective in your life?
There is no “right” answer to these questions. And the answers are far, far less important than the asking of them — asking over and over again. Because things change. You change. And asking is opening… opening to your moment to moment experience.
Almost nobody begins a meditation practice for reasons that will permit them to continue once they hit the wall.
If you meditate because you believe yourself to be special, your reward will be to discover that you are nothing special at all.
If you meditate because you believe it will bring you peace, your reward will be to have your understanding of the nature of peace shattered.
If you meditate because you think it will help you manage your life, your reward will be to discover you have no control over anything whatsoever.
Still want to practice? Most do not.
Below is a lengthy quote from an article by Ken McLeod. He begins the section with a Nasrudin story:
One day, while staying at a friend’s house, Nasrudin peered over the wall into the neighbor’s yard and saw the most wonderful garden he had ever seen. He noticed an old man patiently weeding a flower-bed and asked,
“This is a beautiful garden. I’d like to have one just like it. How do you make a garden like this?”
“Twenty years hard work.”
“Never mind,” said Nasrudin.
And then he continues:
“You say you want to be awake and present in your life, but you practice only occasionally, and even then, for relatively short periods. Maybe you do practice regularly, but your practice only goes so far, stopping at a wall that you can sense but can’t name. What stops you? Are you willing to touch that wall, touch it and go into it? Are you willing to be present in any and every experience that arises, whether it be anger, shame, love, success, heartbreak, victory, insult or failure? What do you actually want from your practice?…
“Willingness means you practice living in the world of immediate experience, the world in which there is no time, the world in which you cannot trade or share a single thing with anyone, the world in which not a single person, not even you, exists, the world that is what you experience right now. It also means ‘twenty years hard work.’”
— Ken McLeod, in “Three Questions”, and article on the Unfettered Mind website
Thank you, Ken, for (much more than) twenty years hard work.
This poem was read in retreat last week. I think you will like it.
by Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
My teachers, Ruth Gilbert and Jon Parmenter, are giving a talk in downtown Toronto on Thursday July 3 at 7:00pm. They live on the west coast and since they do not actively seek new students or maintain a public profile, the opportunity to hear them teach is rare and valuable.
Disconnecting — that is, ignoring, shutting out, shutting down — is a major obstacle to awareness practice. One might say, THE major obstacle. Ruth and Jon will present practical, practice-able tools both for formal meditation and everyday life to help us reconnect, come into the present, and open our hearts.
Whenever I sit for practice, I reconnect. But with what? And what is it that reconnects?
Butt to cushion, obviously.
A few small rituals suitable to formal practice (or not):
Connect lighter with candle, incense with candle flame, perhaps open a prayer book.
This sets up a connection with something else – something called “intention.”
The movements and words automatically engender a sense of slowing down. (In relation to what?)
Reconnecting with physical sensations… twitches, itches, tingles, pulses, warmth, textures, that normally go un-noticed.
They come and go. Just sensations. (Pleasure? Pain? Who decides?)
Reconnecting with emotions. Ripples touch awareness: anger, contentment, confusion, boredom, love, one after another, temporarily unmoored from palisades of memory, view, opinion. Just feelings. (Whose feelings? Who’s feeling?)
Reconnecting with thoughts: to find them as they are and not be lost in them. Just thoughts.
If you believe your life, this makes no sense. A waste of time.
If you doubt, doors open. Narnia will never be the same.
Good news! Richard Lang is returning to Canada to offer another Headless Way seminar.
This immersive session presents a direct experience “seeing” technique that is dead simple and yet extremely profound. It was developed by Douglas Harding, who describes his original insight thus:
“The best day of my life — my rebirthday, so to speak — was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.”
The technique is taught and practiced through a series of experiential “experiments” that draw participants into a direct perception of their world, including the startling insight that none of us, based on our direct experience, has a head.
To try some of these experiments right now, visit the Headless Way website here. But if you’re intrigued, don’t stop there. Come to the workshop and try them in person, under the guidance of Richard Lang, who first learned to “see” from Douglas in 1970, and has been sharing this “seeing” with others ever since.
You’ve developed a nice meditation practice — congratulations! You sit every day, you face the stresses and strains of daily life with calm and equanimity, and you feel that, finally, you’re beginning to get some kind of handle on your patterns.
Then… you go home for Christmas. Or Christmas comes home for you. Either way, now more than ever a budding meditation practice can fall apart. But this is actually the very best time to practice:
First, the disruption in your daily routine will challenge your discipline. If you can keep your practice solid through this, it will be stronger than ever.
Second, contact with your family will probably bring up a lot of old emotional skeletons: what a great opportunity to work with compassion and awareness!
Here are 10 tips to help you make the most of it:
1. Decide each night when and where you’re going to meditate the next day. Then do it. Early in the morning is best, as holiday schedules are unpredictable — best to get to it sooner. Bonus: meditating in the morning will probably set you up for a calmer day.
2. During overnight visits, let your hosts/guests know you will take time out to meditate each day. Be flexible — don’t compel your hosts to build their day around your meditation schedule. But let them know you will need that 30 minutes at some point each day.
3. If possible, take your meditation cushion with you.
Bringing it along supports your commitment as well as your seat.
4. Adopt a really obvious meditation posture, like sitting on the floor or facing a wall, when you sit in a non-private space while others might come around. That way, if Uncle Ralph wanders in while you’re meditating in the family room at 7am, he’ll (hopefully) know not to start chatting with you.
5. Off the cushion (and on!), practice deep listening. This is especially helpful when visiting people who have a lot to say. Imagine that your whole body is an ear, and feel the vibrations of what they are saying moving into and through you. Listen to more than their words: hear their tone, their body language. Most important: include in your attention your own voice and inner responses.
6. Take a mindful walk every day.
Whether alone or accompanied, open your senses to everything that’s there: sights, sounds, smells, sensations. Give your walk your full attention.
7. When you get grumpy, use the opportunity to practice sending and taking. Imagine you can take all the grumpiness in the world into you in one in-breath, leaving everyone else free of it. Then imagine putting all the nice things you enjoy into one out-breath, and give it all away to others.
8. Take one mindful breath. When you think of it, whatever is happening, jump into the gap created by your awareness and take one mindful breath.
9. When you mess up, let go! If you forget to meditate, or meditate “wrong”, or behave like a jerk, that’s your cue to just let go. You have no control over the past, and you can’t control the future: it’s what you do right now that counts. So don’t waste time beating yourself up or constructing stories about how bad/good/indifferent you are. Just carry on, take the next step forward.
10. Imagine every encounter will be your last. The only thing we can really count on is impermanence: death can come to anyone at any time. Bearing this in mind can help you focus on what’s truly important.
“Come, not only to look at a map of the spiritual country, but to possess it and walk in it without fear of losing your way. Come, not to study the history of God’s divine action, but to be its object; not to learn what it has achieved throughout the centuries and still does, but simply to be the subject of its operation. There is no need to bother about what has been told to others; there are words for you alone.”
— Jean Pierre de Caussade (7 March 1675 – 8 December 1751)
de Caussade was a French Jesuit priest and writer known for his work Abandonment to Divine Providence (also translated as The Sacrament of the Present Moment). Caussade believed that the present moment is a sacrament from God and that self-abandonment to it and its needs is a holy state.
Found in the novel Looking for Alaska by John Green. The book is unrelated to Sufism or spiritual practice, but this story popped up at a crucial time.
Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, “I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.”
No trees become rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. — SENECA THE YOUNGER, Roman Philosopher and Statesman (5 BCE-65 CE)