Run Away, Run Away!
Meditator 1: What’s the number one misunderstanding you had about meditation?
Meditator 2: When I started I thought the goal of meditation was to get somewhere else (makes a flicking motion with her hand–away from her body), to escape from the world.
At the start, I understood meditation’s purpose was to remove me from the world and now I use meditation to be more in and of the world.
This is a helpful point. Not only do many people start meditating thinking it will help them escape from the world (hence the ever popular word retreat), but many of us, however unconsciously, think that meditation will help us escape from ourselves.
Meditator 2: Now I see meditation as the tool to be more present (she motions with her hand moving from the top of her head to her heart, as if pouring back into herself), to be more present here in myself and in the world. And to be more present to the world, my surroundings.
Tarchin (a New Zealand Dharma teacher) has a great question that he suggests students use like a zen koan to center their practice right in the middle of what they are doing; “What would it mean for all of me to be present for all of you?”
What the meditator above has raised as a misunderstanding is very important and I think it is a misunderstanding shared by many of us, not just when we begin meditating but I think we can slip back into it at any time, even many years into our practice. Sometimes we treat meditation like an ejector seat, something to get us out of an emotional, mental or physical state we don’t like….. Kind of like the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, when confronted by the 18” high blood-thirsty killer rabbit, pause, turn to each other, and then scream, “Run away! Run away!”
Arghh! Meditate! Meditate!
But this is not what meditation is for.
Meditation is not an escape hatch, it is a ‘be-present’ hatch. So the other extreme view of meditation is to think that when we’re suffering, being present (meditating) will mean being even more immersed in our suffering–Yikes!–who wants to do that!
…and increased suffering certainly possible if we don’t meditate but instead we wallow. Wallowing is defined as telling ourselves long story loops, usually with ourselves as the hard-done-by victim, and then repeating this the story over and over, changing or elaborating little bits of it to keep ourselves entertained. (Each episode “My Sad/Bad Story” has to be similar enuf to be about us and different enuf not to bore us).
Geographically, wallowing is located in my head and the side-effects are felt in my body. In contrast, geographically, meditation or non-clinging awareness is located in my body.
To start with, you can imagine the locus point of meditation to be the center of your torso or your belly (and the side-effects of meditation are felt in your head). Wallowing rides a horse called Story; meditation rides a horse called Breath.
Stop right now and draw a large in-breath. Where did your breath go? When you draw it in through your nose and mouth to the back of your throat, does the breath hit a T-junction and go scooting up to your brain? No. Watch and ride the breath as it goes down into your body, and watch as it goes back up from your belly through your chest and out your nose. Feel your chest relax, your belly relax and watch the next breath come in. And repeat. The stories in your mind should diminish if you can really get interested in the breath, until they become like spectators in the upper seats of the stadium – you might overhear snippets of conversation from them, but your focus is down on the field, on the loop of the breath (not focused on the loop of stories).
Anytime (anytime!) that you can interrupt a wallowing story by stopping and paying complete attention to one breath going into the body, this is progress. If you can string together a lot of these breaths and pay attention to all the nuances and changes, then you’ll be making real irreversible progress. Wallowing mind is like a frequent flyer with tons of miles. It’s always running off somewhere else, it never wants to be, here, now. Please come home. Watch the breath and please come home.
We can’t overstate how important it is to interrupt a pattern of suffering, to interrupt a cyclic wallowing mind state. Just doing it once is immensely liberating. Just taking one big, full, fluffy, friendly, happy, breath, dropping everything else and watching this big lovely breath come into the body and then gently exhaling. OK, now you can go back to your suffering, but you’re changed now because you’ve interrupted the suffering so you’re no longer going to believe the mental con job that says that this suffering is permanent. Just start to develop this one little trick and it will help you immensely.
Remember to do this interrupting-exercise when in the midst of all the different shapes and sizes of suffering you may have. It’s vital that we become convinced, that we see proof, that suffering is not permanent.
So take a big fluffy, expensive Sears down-comforter sized breath (not a cheap Wal-Mart one) and watch it. The key here is slow down, enjoy it. Enjoy the gap before the exhalation starts and enjoy the full length and width of the exhaled breath. Enjoy the soft movements of your shoulders, arms, chest and belly as they relax and see if the mind has relaxed as well, with that one breath and then, if you like (it’s a free country after all), try and recall what it was you were suffering over (a few moments ago) and (if you like) you can re-introduce it and re-tense the mind and the body and see the effect. How’s that working for you? You can always go back and interrupt it again.
Eventually the goal is for these big fluffy breaths and non-clinging awareness to be more of the soundtrack, and for suffering to be the occasional interrupter. But the way to get there is to consciously practice deliberately interrupting suffering mind cycles with warm friendly breathing.