Posts Tagged ‘Shamatha’

P1000078On December 28th of 2012, I was laid off from my job as a medical writer at a biotechnology company. I was with that company much longer than anticipated since the job, at the time I got it, was an escape hatch from the disastrous job I started right after I quit drinking. I planned to be at the biotech company only a year at most while I collected myself and began to understand what life was like sober. One year became four years and, during that time, I had what looked like a promising career with a handful of successes and a solid salary. But I knew there was something else waiting for me.

As the 28th of December approached, I was facing a world of uncertainty when “the perfect job” landed in my inbox. But after a whirlwind interview process, I didn’t get it. I remember getting the call. It was nighttime in Sicily. I walked out of my boyfriend’s parents’ house into the backyard to find a little bit more cellular reception and looked out across the Mediterranean as I heard the words “we decided to go with the other finalist.” But as I walked back into the house and told everyone my news with just a shake of my head, I knew that this was the right thing.

Working one job or another since I was 12 years old, I now had an opportunity to explore my own wants and needs without an obligation to an employer. Between the safety net of severance and savings and, more importantly, a supportive family and partner, I decided not to do what I thought I “should.” Instead I left myself open to the possibilities. And in the last year, those possibilities have included:

  • Traveling back to Sicily and Paris and exotic Upstate New York
  • Taking continuing education classes, attending conferences, and completing a free “How to start a small business” course in New York City
  • Networking, opening up to people, making new friends, and reinvigorating old friendships
  • Visiting friends and family near and far
  • Formalizing my commitment to Buddhism
  • Translating/interpreting a children’s book from Italian to English
  • Taking care of myself physically and mentally, attending ballet barre and yoga classes, going for acupuncture and therapy
  • Volunteering with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger
  • Cooking, sleeping, watching trashy TV, and cuddling with my boyfriend and our fur children, Rufus and Darwin
  • Writing a book based on the Drinking to Distraction blog [Stay Tuned!]

And deciding to start my own nutrition counseling business. Some of you already know that my education and early job experience was in nutrition and that I have long wanted to get back to that field. Given the time and space I was fortunate enough to have during the last year, I came to see starting my own business as a risk worth taking. And about two weeks ago, I launched my mindful nutrition business, Eat to Love, which integrates meditation, therapeutic approaches to addiction, and Intuitive Eating.

Besides taking an inventory of what the hell I’ve been doing for the last 11 months, I’m writing this post to acknowledge that none of the things I have done in the last year would have been possible if I had not quit drinking nearly six years ago. That was the first step out of my own cocoon, my coming out of hiding. A process that was furthered by beginning to meditate, by beginning to write about my experience here, by not trying to keep making all the “right” moves in my life or to please everyone else. Starting this business is taking the next step.

Gradually I will begin to spend more time on this new venture, which opens up new possibilities for the Drinking to Distraction blog. I always viewed the blog as a shared space where readers could post their own stories about drinking, mindfulness, meditation, and coming out of the cocoon. Now, more directly I invite you to submit your story, to experience the therapeutic release of writing your own narrative, and to help others by letting them know they are not alone.

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“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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The practice of meditation has afforded me what appears to be a lifetime of food for thought. Yet the simple act of butt meeting cushion can be reduced to a very basic question: Can I try to focus on just being for 15 minutes today? 20? During that time, can I relinquish my urge to do stuff? Yet, without fail, while practicing I find myself ping-ponging between being and doing. Mentally writing this to-do list or that blog post. Then remembering the breath, noticing the things going on around me, the honking rush hour traffic, the oscillating fan turning my way, the flicker of the flame in front of me, ceaseless feline activity. Perhaps part of the point is just noticing this tendency with a light touch and a sense of humor. I think of it as my doo-be-doo-be-doo practice. I hum it to the tune of Strangers in the Night, perhaps an apt analogy for the struggle between accomplishing and simple existing.

Recently, I came down with pneumonia that had me flat on my back for a week. Then I was traveling in a country where I speak the language poorly and could not do many of the things on my growing to-do list. Without the ability to doo-doo-doo, I found myself wondering, like Little Orphan Annie, how am I going to earn my keep? As if my self-worth and very value was tied to my ability to do, to achieve, to cross things off the list.

But part of what I am learning from my study of Buddhism and practice of meditation is that I don’t need to earn my keep, per se. That inherently I, and all beings, possess basic goodness, something that is constant and pure, though often forgotten or obscured. I’m not unrealistic: I know how important it is to do, to make progress, and to bring home the bacon, or in our case, the tuna. But I do feel it’s important to periodically remind ourselves that even when we are not able to doo-doo-doo, we can just be our basically good selves. And that is more than enough.

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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.

image credit

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“Excuse me for living!” Remember when this was a common rebuke? Variations included “Pardon me for living” or “Excuse me for breathing.” I used to say this when someone took issue with something I did or said, as a somewhat overdramatized apology for being however I was being, said with an air of exasperation. But I often did feel the need to apologize for being who and how I was. Often still do. In a way, it is out of a misguided kindness for others that I apologize for myself, so as not to inconvenience them, make them uncomfortable, but an unintended side effect is that I am not being genuinely me.

Part of Buddhism’s appeal and relevance is the teaching that I am good enough right now, inherently and basically good, and don’t have to apologize. Still, that impulse to excuse myself remains in subtle ways.

Toward the end of a recent weekend meditation retreat, I sat in a group and listened to our teacher discuss the meaning of awakened heart, how it involved existing in the world with dignity. One woman raised her hand from the back of the room and said something we could all relate to: “Sometimes I just don’t feel so dignified.” We all laughed a little at the uncomfortable truth pouring out of her, at how messy our lives often feel, how we all have our unsavory bits that we hope only reveal themselves when no one else is looking. As part of the response to her question/comment, another participant offered her perspective on dignity, that it could be viewed as not being embarrassed by who you are, by allowing your true self – with all its associated imperfections – to exist in the world without apology.

A similar theme arose in the movie Crazy Wisdom, a film about the life and times of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. At one point in the film, some of interviewees wept at the loss of their friend and teacher who had given them the unparalleled gift of being completely and unapologetically himself. And in doing so, how he helped them to see their inherent brilliance, wisdom, goodness, and perfect imperfection.

In Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa writes:

The discovery of basic goodness is not a religious experience, particularly. Rather it is the realization that we can directly experience and work with reality, the real world that we are in. Experiencing the basic goodness of our lives makes us feel that we are intelligent and decent people and that the world is not a threat. When we feel that our lives are genuine and good, we do not have to deceive ourselves or other people. We can see our shortcomings without feeling guilty or inadequate, and at the same time, we can see our potential for extending goodness to others. We can tell the truth straightforwardly and be absolutely open, but steadfast at the same time.

This concept of being unapologetically authentic has stayed with me for weeks now. What would it mean if I dropped all of my embarrassment at who I am? How would it feel? What might my mind be capable of if not weighed down by that anxiety and restriction? In addition to the kindness I could extend to myself by living with dignity and without embarrassment, it might also be the most generous and loving thing I could do for others.


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