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An Attitude to Meditation

how to meditate pema chodron

My favourite part of meditation is when I am not “officially meditating” and I notice that gentle and curious awareness I occasionally feel on the cushion arise during a different part of my day. Consequently I loved the chapter in Pema Chodron’s How to Meditate where she talks about are the 5 qualities to bring to your meditation that as a result you should also be able to see develop in your daily life from your meditation.

I also like them because they are a more detailed version of the three approaches she discussed in When Things Fall Apart: precision, gentleness and letting go. (I wrote about this here )

Below is merely some brief notes on what Pema Chodron said with a couple of my own small additions.

Steadfastness

  • It’s like a loyalty to ourselves or more accurately our experiences.
  • It’s an  approach “that whatever comes up, that’s ok”
  • Maybe you sit down and for 20 minutes your mind is a rage. Don’t be hard on yourself, you stayed with that for the whole session, so well done!
  • It’s a gesture of compassion to yourself

Clear seeing

  • In meditation we start to notice when we start to spin off into one of our chains of thoughts. This is clear seeing
  • By being steadfast we begin to see ourselves so much more clearly
  • This clear seeing includes our judgements, our patterns, our opinions, our defence mechanisms and our ingrained habits

Courage

  • The first two qualities lead to this one, but it grows only slowly
  • The courage to experience and not bury and deny  your emotional discomforts
  • The courage to not to cower before your emotional discomforts
  • The courage not to shift into a fantasy or a distraction before your emotional discomforts
  • If we get this courage we can get an insight into how we are or how the world is
  • We can have a minor change in our world view
  • This courage means we can ‘loosen up our conditioning

Being awake to our lives

  • Being awake to the present moment and all the surprises this will always bring
  • We say we like surprise and thrills, but …
  • This is being awake to the next (because there is always another one) embarrassing moment when we lose our composure and patience.
  • It’s about being more flexible and tolerant to the present moment.
  • And with it as a by product comes humour

No big deal

  • Just like that calmness you have when you say ‘thinking’ during a meditation session
  • Don’t make your problems so big you end up running yourself down and wallowing in them
  • Don’t make any progress feel so great that your pride gets in the way and knocks the stuffing out of your practice next time
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Everyone Hurts

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My daughter couldn’t believe it. “You cried? At a song?”

Before I had children and my parents died I had only cried once at a song. I was at Wembley watching Live Aid and was walking back to my friends having pushed my way forward to get a closer look at Queen and David Bowie. The Cars “Drive” played with images from Ethiopia on the big screen. I had my back to the stage but could see the faces of those I passed as they watched the East African horror. I knew what they were seeing and I cried quietly to myself. I was only 18 and, to be honest, uncertain what to do with this emotion. Was I upset with physical sight of suffering; the beach ball bellies and matchstick legs, the flies on babies eye lids? Was it the unfairness of the world?  I had wiped my face clean before getting back to the group. Whatever it was, the crying was genuine, but my wisdom about it was very limited.

Now I am much older I can see both the start and end of lives. I’ve been in maternity wards and talked to funeral directors about flowers and hearses. I ask friends about the health of their frail parents and the exam results of their children.

People throw around lightly the idea that as you get older your experience makes you wiser. Maybe we have seen a situation play out before many times and can ‘intuitively guess’ what will happen next. But it would be a let down if that is all that we pick up. Instead, if we tried to learn from our own experiences maybe we could then more clearly understand what other people are feeling and going through. If  we opened up to our own emotions we would be able to see that everyone else feels the same kind of things too.

In 2004 or 2005 I was in the Guildhall Portsmouth to see Neil and Tim Finn perform. They played ‘Edible Flowers’ — a song from the album they were touring. I had listened to it a couple of times before, but that night when I heard it I sat in my seat and wept. The emotions I was struggling with about my own father’s recent death came through strong in the song and as they beautifully harmonised “Everybody wants the same thing/ to see another birthday, Look at all the pretty numbers/ scattered on the calendars” the tears involuntarily and without warning flowed. It was no effort at all to weep. I had no heaving chest. I felt a terrible sadness but without any sense of unfairness. Neither did I feel bad about myself. Instead of wanting to scream at the world and push it all away, there was a sense of connection. The song was beautiful and I wanted to make every moment of it holy.

In fact The Finn brothers expressing what they felt made my own emotions not only more real but also more natural. Looking back now I see that the music had done what any good piece of art should do and brought people closer together. My situation was so far from unique that it was better described as completely typical and just an unavoidable part of life.

So the pain and hurt I felt was not mine, it wasn’t me. I was not some person you could now solidly and permanently categorise as sad or hurt. Instead the pain was just pain. It came and it peaked, it dipped and it ended, the same as it does for us all. It is not so much that I felt loss but that there is loss. Life brings dissatisfaction, awkwardness and sadness. If we take the personal out of our suffering we see the emotions for what they are; a part of life. This wisdom brings two advantages:

  1. We can see that we are not this emotion we are feeling right now. We are not a sad person a useless person, an unloved person, a forever-making-mistakes person. These feelings of hurt are not personal; they are not us, they do not define us. We can step back and watch them rise and fall and pass and not limit ourselves by labelling the emotion as “me”. This wisdom allows us to be compassionate to ourselves
  2. We can see that everyone else feels these emotions, has this pain and goes through this hurt just like we do. By de-personalising the suffering we can empathise with others and help them with their bad times. This wisdom allows us to be compassionate to everyone else.

All the trash and the treasure/ all the pain and the pleasure.”