Posts Tagged ‘restlessness’

“All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement”

~Suzuki Roshi

This past weekend, I attended a meditation retreat at the New York Shambhala Center. The focus of the retreat was “The Art of Being Human” and getting in touch with the concept of basic goodness. One of the exercises we did involved recalling a moment of basic goodness, a moment that was remarkable for its detail and brilliance, a moment in which we were fully present. My moment occurred to me immediately. In fact, I’ve written about it here.

Just recalling my moment was viscerally calming. I was in a time of transition in my life. Uncertainty, self-doubt, and fear were very present. But I also had a sense of confidence or trust in myself that taking a risk was the right thing to do. I felt very aware of the past and the future, but not pulled in either direction. Instead, I was held by the present moment with a sort of buoyancy, like being suspended in midair without feeling precarious or in jeopardy, like I was hanging out in the most comfortable hammock.

In the exercise this weekend, we used our respective moments to connect with the sense of basic goodness, the fundamental heart of our existence. And as a result, my practice felt very soft, clear, aware, and heartfelt. But connecting with a moment of basic goodness when everything feels OK is one thing. Recalling it when I am sad or lonely or angry or restless, that’s another. When I fear I will be a failure or, worse, that no one will even notice, how can I begin to remember this foundational concept?

When I asked her this very question yesterday, my meditation instructor’s guidance was “to expand and include.” Since then I keep saying the words to myself. Expand and include. I understand them but at what point will I feel them?

In the recollection of my moment of basic goodness, I recognize my desire to be held. Often I try to simulate this feeling by grasping onto events in the past or by fantasizing about the future. I am seeking some ground on which to feel stable but it never seems to work. And never am I more vulnerable to doing this shimmy between the past and the future – never am I less present – than when dealing with strong emotions. My work, therefore, is to connect with that sense of being held, of trusting in the moment, when the going gets tough.

To do this, I will need to cultivate enough space and openness to allow “negative” emotional states to exist without letting them pull me under, similar to how I was aware of past and future in my moment of basic goodness but able to remain in the present. This will allow me to experience the pain that is very real, but also to remember that there is more than pain. That the pain isn’t the end of the story. Holding these two seemingly opposing views is what is so complex about life, where things are never black and white. The idea that in a moment of pain, I could feel as held by the present moment as I did in my moment of basic goodness, that I could feel as well placed, that I am exactly where I need to be, is something I can imagine. And from there, I can begin to practice.

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One of the most helpful meditation instructions I ever received was to regard thoughts the same way as I do sense perceptions such as sights and sounds. In this way, the car horn honking in the street is equivalent to a painful and emotionally loaded thought. I wouldn’t create a story associated with that horn honking 7 flights down as I sit on my cushion: Is he honking at me? But I didn’t do anything wrong! Who does he think he is? I’m going to go give him a piece of my mind. That would be weird. But the thought “What if I grow old alone” could easily provoke a long, involved narrative – I’m too difficult. No one wants to be with someone so complicated. Why can’t I be simpler? Less emotional. Less sensitive. More easy-going. It’s no wonder I’ll grow old alone… Using this instruction, however, when the thought about my fear of being alone arises, I can note it like I do the horn honking and return my awareness to the breath without attaching a story that simply has no basis.

Recently I had a massage. I don’t indulge myself this way often (enough) so when I do, I want it to be purrrrfect. After my massage therapist began to wrestle the knots in my back into submission, I heard a knock at the door. My therapist made no move to answer the knock and then I heard it again, and again. Soon I realized this was no knock but rather construction work going on in the adjacent room, unaware of the relaxing spa treatment that I was supposed to be receiving. Then came the drill. Oy! Interestingly, rather than hardening my knots with the indignation of my less-than-perfect massage, instead I found myself adjusting my attention to focus on the sensation of the massage. Every time the construction workers hammered or drilled, I noted it, and crisply shifted my awareness back to old magic fingers. I felt I was practicing in real time, not ignoring unpleasant things, but regulating just how much they affected me.

Sometimes when she begins a meditation instruction, Susan Piver will ask us to place our awareness on our left earlobes, then to move that awareness to our right kneecaps. In that moment, most of us are able to shift the object of our attention precisely, crisply, in part because we don’t have a lot of noisy narratives about our earlobes and kneecaps. But when meditating – where body parts and sense perceptions are mixed in with complex stories about who we are and who we aren’t, how we have wronged or been wronged – our awareness can become muddled, less precise.

Because all of these things exist in concert, I have found it useful (ok, let’s face it, I didn’t have much of a choice) to welcome them all, to allow all of my perceptions to come and go with a light(er) touch. I can regard what goes on in my mind on and off the cushion as a total shitstorm or I can view it as a Baz Luhrmann movie – a carnival ride of sensation and perception in which all things are welcome, none inherently better or worse than the other. Whether sense perception or difficult emotion, both help me in my endeavor to understand my mind.

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I always feel grateful for rain. As a child, I was happy to stay indoors reading or watching movies on beautiful, sunny days. My mother would coax me outside, shaming me not to waste a glorious day. Rainy days let me off the hook.

Even as an adult, waking up to rain gives me a singular sense of pleasure and comfort. If I’m lucky, I will have planned to work from home the entire day. To stay in my pajamas, cook pastina for lunch, shuffle from one room to the next between projects.

Usually, though, some commitment draws me out of the apartment. I contemplate calling and canceling plans, rescheduling appointments. I run the lines in my head first to see if I can pull it off convincingly, but give up when I remember that I am an abysmal liar. I then commence with the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, perseverating over what to wear, what shoes to sacrifice, what anti-frizz strategy to employ.

Once outside, I can feel my body clenched and my brow furrowed, as I tip toe through puddles, hike up my pant legs, and clutch my purse to my chest beneath my umbrella. I walk as swiftly and efficiently as I can to ward off unnecessary wetness, and try to avoid becoming a casualty of speeding cars and busses that hug the curb too tightly.

The only problem is, I am not the only one in this predicament. As I battle for real estate on the sidewalks, begrudgingly raising my umbrella to accommodate others, and aggressively inserting myself into busy intersections to ward off turning vehicles because I (CAPITAL, BOLDFACED, ITALICIZED ‘I’) have the right of way, I sing a little song that goes: ME, ME, ME, ME, GET OUT OF MY WAY!

Finally I reach a point at which I resign myself to the rain. I give up my fight, release the tension from my muscles, unfurrow my brow, and give myself over to the dragging pants, the shoes sloshing, the hair growing larger by the minute.

It is only at that point that I can look up and see something other than myself. To view the people around me, not as obstacles standing in my way, but as other beings probably feeling similar feelings, wishing to be safe and warm and dry at home. I notice their clenched faces, hasty movements, and self-righteous irritation. Harried drivers and weary pedestrians all. And my compassion for them (and myself) grows. Suddenly my sodden walk becomes very interesting indeed. Sometimes I even take the long way home.

Not that I remember this when the next rainy day comes along but I’m trying to pay closer attention. I realize it’s easy to smile at strangers when it’s sunny and beautiful, but less so when we’re all soaked and annoyed. That it’s easy to be kind when I’m comfortable and more challenging when I’m cold and wet. Although initially I resist the discomfort, at a certain point I renounce that resistance, and my own selfishness, for a little while. And I get a glimpse of what Chogyam Trungpa writes about in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

What the warrior renounces is anything in his experience that is a barrier between himself and others. In other words, renunciation is making yourself more available, more gentle and open to others.


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I will set my alarm each morning to awaken me with this:

I will leave no trick un-exploited in my efforts to finish this book

  • I will use the laundry trick (that’s 34 minutes to wash-write, and 28 minutes to dry-write)
  • The captive audience trick (any time I’m in a waiting room; why else do I have a MacBook Air?)
  • The just-5-minutes trick (what do I have to lose?)
  • The muted Law & Order trick (I know I’ll turn it off to concentrate)
  • The change of scenery trick again and again and again (the living room, the dining room, the guest room, the bedroom, the courtyard, the Starbucks, the other Starbucks)

I will resist watching this:

And this:

And especially this:


Every time I hear myself say any of the following:

You’re not a writer, you know

That sentence totally sucks

Um, wait, I think you missed a chance to gaze at your navel

No one wants to read this shizzle but your mom

I will drop and give myself 20



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Last week, my boyfriend brought home a bottle of 10-year-old single-malt scotch. We keep alcohol in the house – wine, gin, beer, and Italian liqueurs – and so far it hasn’t been a problem. Scotch never appealed to me. But for some reason, this lone bottle had a different effect than all the others that have come and gone without issue (or relapse).

The night he brought it home, my boyfriend poured a meager amount into an ice-filled glass, and sipped at it leisurely. When I caught a whiff, it turned my stomach, and transported me. The smoky-oakiness of the scotch reminded me of my last night in Oaxaca about 10 years ago, a night when I drank far too much mezcal and ate nothing but the accompanying orange wedges and a handful of cayenne-fried crickets (yes, crickets). On the overnight bus ride back to Mexico City, I threw up into a bag of souvenirs I’d purchased from Oaxacan artisans, surrounded by what I’d imagine were several native Mexicans rolling their eyes: Dumb drunk gringa.

Like a lot of my darkest drinking moments, this happened while I was alone, or at least not surrounded by people I knew and who could hold me accountable. This is partially what allowed me to convince myself that I didn’t have a problem and to continue drinking for so many years.

A few days after my mental Mexican journey, my boyfriend left for the second-to-last of several work-related trips. He packed his things and got on yet another airplane, obviously leaving the nearly full bottle of scotch sitting on our kitchen counter.

Alone on the couch that night, I felt bored and lonely and in desperate need of distraction. I ate an unsatisfying meal purchased from the market and watched end-to-end episodes of Wallander, Project Runway, and Hannibal. Still, a feeling of dissatisfaction and emptiness persisted and I craved something to fill the void.

I was very aware of the bottle of scotch on the kitchen counter. Even though the smell and taste bordered on nauseating, I was acutely aware of the potential to be found in that bottle.

The concept of satisfaction has been on my mind lately. Having reread the new edition of Intuitive Eating, I was reminded of my own tendency to make consumption-related decisions in response to external stimuli. For example, eating foods I consider “good” as opposed to “bad,” eating at conventional mealtimes regardless of physical hunger, and the tendency to disregard my desire for certain foods in favor of what I “should” be eating.

In some ways, drinking alcohol was very satisfying to me. Without it, I recognize that I often feel deprived. What I choose to eat and drink is thereby often in response to this feeling of deprivation. Whereas I could make up for an unsatisfying meal by having an extra glass of wine in the past, that same unsatisfying meal now feels more troubling, and there is a greater sense of urgency to find something that satisfies me. I now have a tendency to purchase expensive indulgences like imported artichoke hearts, Marcona almonds, macadamia nuts, and fine dark chocolate in an attempt to substitute them for the missing indulgence (and satisfaction) of drinking.

If someone so much as suggests that I stop drinking coffee for some reason, I hear myself vehemently scoffing, I’ve given up enough! I’ve certainly emptied more breadbaskets and consumed more desserts since I stopped drinking, not to mimic the physiologic effects of alcohol’s sugar content but as a psychological substitute, a reward for teetotaling.

Some friends of mine gave up drinking for a year or more and now are able to drink moderately. I envy them but don’t dare try it for myself because I fear nothing has changed in my relationship with alcohol except for the choice not to drink it. While I miss drinking a glass of wine while cooking or having a cocktail with friends and family, I also miss drinking alone, on lonely, bored nights like the one I described above. I miss nursing my feelings of dejection, like wrapping myself in a warm blanket to ward off the cold. I miss the privacy of it and the indulgence of finishing a bottle of wine without any judgmental onlookers.

If I were to start drinking again, I’m fairly certain I would rely on external stimuli to determine how much I drank, for example, controlling the amount of alcohol I have in the house, something that becomes more difficult when you live with someone who can drink moderately and does not have to limit available quantities.

This is all to say that for all my thinking and writing about Buddhism, impermanence, and learning to become comfortable with discomfort, I still miss booze. It is true that if I sit with the discomfort and the desire, the moment eventually passes. But by no means have I meditated away my desire to drink. It is something I think about regularly and for good reason: by keeping it front of mind, by noticing the different drinking behaviors that distinguish my boyfriend’s healthy relationship with alcohol and my abusive one, perhaps I reduce the risk of being blind-sighted by a relapse.

I should say that I resisted the bottle of scotch that night and every night since. It’s still sitting there, the level dropping by a half-inch or so every couple of nights as my boyfriend enjoys it moderately. I, on the other hand, am still learning to sit with the knowledge that I’m different and the awareness that not drinking is one of the tradeoffs that comes as a result of being honest with myself.


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