Two nights ago, just as I was about to fall asleep, I woke up. Did that ever happen to you? A flood of thoughts or insights filled my mind.
I had to get up early the next day to get to a class I had originally been looking forward to. But disrupting my normal schedule disrupted my ability to sleep restfully. Add to that concerns about whether people would wear masks, which would be provided but not required for attendees, and the event that should be fun was turned into a source of anxiety.
I was turning commitment into obligation and putting obligation before joy, thusly, crazily, resisting my attachment to the teacher and to my own desire to develop the skills and knowledge taught in the class.
Then I stopped myself: This was something I had spent many years studying. I was the one who decided to attend the class. No one forced me to do it.
And the image of how we can resist the bonds we ourselves create became very clear to me. Of course, we can resist anything that we feel compelled to do. But we easily forget the chain of events and decisions that lead us to forge our chains and compulsions.
And as the resistance and discomfort became clear to me, so too did the way to get free of it. I saw how to shift attention from the discomfort of having to wake up early to the opportunity I was giving myself to learn and be present. I shifted to a sense of gratitude, for the teacher, for all I had gained over the years from the course of study. It is not the arising thought by itself that determines the quality of mind and heart but how we respond to it.
The next day, one of my former high school students was also in the class. Since his graduation, we had stayed close, in contact. After class, he asked to speak with me for a few minutes. He told me he had been feeling bad lately. Everything that could be fun was becoming an opportunity to attack himself. This felt so familiar to me, like a synchronous evocation of what I had gone through the previous night.
When I could honestly face my internal struggle, I was better able to help someone else face theirs. And his honest question gave me the opportunity to question myself more deeply.
I realized what my former student was going through was something we all can go through, especially as we get older and wonder who we are and where our lives are going. We begin to realize our expectations and understanding of ourselves has not been accurate. We usually take our thoughts as literally true as we search for a clear definition of who we are. But who we are is never clearly definable; if we’re breathing, alive, we’re never completed and always changing. That is why in Buddhism, for example, the whole idea of what we mean by a self is questioned. Psychiatrist and Buddhist teacher Mark Epstein wrote a book with a title that succinctly states this teaching, how we have Thoughts Without a Thinker.
Nor are our thoughts always what they seem; they can be more like pointers or signals provided by our deeper mind to wake us up.
When our thoughts tell us a story of inadequacy, they are likely alerting us to how we might be mistreating ourselves or to a pain we carry. Or to the fact we were feeling bad because we were comparing ourselves to others. It’s not that we were inadequate but the act of comparing ourselves to others was a lie. It was one way we were hurting ourselves.
I asked my former student to take a breath and see if he could notice different “stages” (changes) his breath went through. This is a traditional meditation practice described in Peter Doobinin’s book Skillful Pleasure: The Buddha’s Path for Developing Skillful Pleasure. There is the beginning, middle, and the end of the inhalation, a pause, then the 3 stages of the exhalation, and a pause. By knowing to keep awareness on each phase, each second, our attention and concentration is enhanced.
Doobinin also talks about noticing what part of the breath cycle is more easeful and comfortable, and where in our body we feel that comfort. We might notice, for example, an ease and comfort in our hands or belly as we pause after the three stages of inhalation, or in the middle of a longer, softer exhalation.
We can notice both the changeability and strength of the breath ⎼ and that even with something as familiar to us as our breath there is so much to explore. Whatever we are includes so much more than we ever thought.
Focusing continuously on the breath, or on the feel of our feet on the floor or our hands in our lap, can free us from judgmental thoughts. In one moment, we can’t hold our awareness on each stage of the breath while simultaneously attacking ourselves. We can only be aware of one focal point at a time. Instead, we can go where we deeply wanted to go ⎼ to the quiet fullness, to comfort and joy, to here and now. We can go from the literal content of a thought to the feeling and context, from the thought to the thinking.
At home after the class, I was reading John Tarrant’s book, Bring Me the Rhinoceros: and Other Zen Koans that Will Save Your Life. A paragraph in the book took me right back to the previous night and to what I had been discussing with the former student. Painful thoughts, Tarrant said, can arise to show us how a moment appears when we reject it. However, when we realize a thought is hurting us, we are giving ourselves the opportunity to stop it. Instead of taking a thought as proclaiming the reality of our life, it is instead offering up an awareness of what we need to let go.
Or maybe a thought appears out of nowhere (everywhere?) just like a moment does, and the meaning it seems to have is what we give it.
The class was wonderful. So was realizing how life can sometimes offer us such clear lessons in living.
This post s republished on Medium.