Sunday, August 31, 2014

the imp of the perverse

I've spent the last few years figuring out the things that work best for me. So why do I always drift back into bad patterns when I am most in need of the good ones?

I know that I feel best, and am at my happiest and healthiest when:

I eat a mostly plant based, low fat diet
I get substantial chunks of time out in nature
I meditate for 15-20 minutes every day
I get 7 hours or so of solid sleep a night
I get 30 minutes of exercise a day

But when I am extremely stressed, I do this instead:

I eat a lot of salty snacks and up the fat in my diet
I spend as much time as possible on my couch
I meditate 5 minutes or not at all
I sleep a couple of hours at a stretch
I skip the exercise or put in a token 15 minutes a couple of times a week

With the end result that I feel worse than I need to feel, for longer than I need to feel that way. I know it. I KNOW IT. And yet I keep repeating that cycle. I call it the 'imp of the perverse' because it almost has a life of its own -- my own little demon that just doesn't want to be banished.

I always thought that part of being a grown up was doing what you know you need to do, not just what you want to do. So either I am not a grown up yet, or I was wrong in thinking that in the first place. Or maybe a mix of both.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

inside a meditation retreat

This past weekend, I took a 3 day meditation retreat at the Baltimore Shambhala Center. It was one of my levels in the Shambhala training -- Level III, Warrior in the World. The title is a little off-putting, but it makes sense. The idea is that you have to not only practice to improve things for yourself, you have to get up off the cushion and  live that practice in the world. To face the world as it is, without pretense or illusion, and to cultivate an open heart takes strength and courage -- the courage of a warrior

The basic structure of the retreats is the same. We meet on Friday night for a couple of hours. We meet each other  -- usually 10-20 students, a handful of staff and a teacher. There is an introductory talk to frame the weekend, a new practice is introduced. some meditation, and we have a dharma talk. Then there are the housekeeping details -- who is staffing the weekend, what time we should be there in the morning, whether lunch is provided, what to expect the next day, etc

On Saturday we arrive in the morning and spend half an hour or so having breakfast and getting better acquainted. Then we go in for meditation, alternating sitting and walking. Then some instruction. Usually there is some breakout for discussion, an interview with the teacher or assistant teacher as a check-in, maybe an exercise to try. We might  have a few minutes of yoga. Lunch is mostly eaten together, and depending on the retreat, it is offered as a social period or a silent period. Then more sitting, more walking meditation, a dharma talk and discussion.

We come back on Sunday and the day is more or less the same pattern. We go out to a restaurant for lunch, or you can lunch on your own if you prefer. We sit, walk, do interviews again, more breakout discussion, and end the weekend with a celebration.

That's the framework. What it's like is different. We start out as a group of mostly strangers. Some familiar faces, but often very few. We start out awkwardly, a little uncomfortable with each other. By the end of the weekend at least a few people will have cried, everyone will have laughed, and we will be very sad to say goodbye. There are a lot of hugs as we part company.

I think this transformation happens because we have to be so unguarded, so open with each other. It is hard to stay strangers when people are talking about their thoughts and feelings, their habits and stresses and challenges. We also are physically struggling. Mediating on a cushion on the floor, or even in a chair, becomes excruciating as the weekend wears on. Backs and knees and shoulders and ankles scream and creak with the effort. We sit together and fight to stay awake, to honor the practices, to not zone out or just quit. We support each other, encourage each other, and recognize that we are all going through something similar.

The staff also does wonders to make the weekend work for all of us. They are all volunteers, students like ourselves. They have all completed Level III, which is the point in the practice where you can being volunteering for any of the levels you have already taken. The volunteers sit as timekeepers, act as gatekeepers, facilitate discussion and interviews. They prepare our meals and wash our dishes. They ensure our comfort, ease our hurts, make sure everyone feels safe and secure and cared for. They are there for the entire retreat. In Shambhala, volunteering is both service and practice. They tell us they get at least as much out of the weekend as we do, if not more. I believe them. 

This weekend was like the others. It was hard, it was exhausting. But it also had moments of absolute transcendent joy.

We had to go for a silent walk outside, each on our own. Our task was to stay in the moment, focusing on our senses. It was raining, and the park I walked in never looked so lush and beautiful. The smells and sounds were amazing. The colors were intense, brighter and richer. I noticed things I never noticed before.

We had to take another walk on Sunday. This time we were supposed to walk around the city, really seeing every person we pass. We could say hello or not, but it had to be a conscious choice. And we were supposed to try to stay present and open throughout the walk. I have rarely had so much fun on a walk. The sun was shining, the students were moving into their dorms, the streets were crowded. I didn't have a place to go, or a time to be there. So I walked. I talked with dozens of people. I met and petted a couple of sweet doggies. I had a nice talk with a traffic cop. Spent a few minutes talking with a mom waiting to move her son into a dorm. Met a parent from out of state at the meters and helped him figure out what he was doing. Stopped and gave a beggar a dollar. Had a smile for everyone I passed. I had a nice walk back with another student, finding tons of common ground. It felt terrific! I felt free and happy and weightless.

Sunday afternoon is usually the hardest in terms of sitting in meditation. You are so tired by then; it's a struggle to even keep your eyes open. Your mind keeps jumping around and you keep dragging yourself back to your focus. The windows were open, a slight breeze started up.And then music. Very clear, very loud. A car stereo outside is playing  The Beatles Let It Be. If a room full of people sitting in silence could freeze, it did. Did we really hear what we thought we heard?? A few lines into the song,we're sure we did. Then the first person starts laughing, then another, then the whole room.

Sometimes the universe is NOT subtle.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

mantras for a modern life

I really find mantra repetition to be a useful practice. While I do use a traditional mantra regularly, I also have a few modern ones that have helped me out of a world of trouble. I thought I'd share, in case they were of use to anyone else.

Sometimes, in a self-pitying mood, I get into the whole "why me?" cycle. I find if I just repeat "why NOT me?" a few times to myself, my perspective shifts just enough to get out of it. Who am I to sail through life with no troubles, no worries? what makes me so privileged, so special?  The answer is pretty clear -- shit happens, and we have no IDEA why. It might happen to my neighbor, the person down the street, me. Nobody gets a pass.

When I struggle with a co-worker, or someone doing their job particularly badly, I can  feel myself getting irritated, angry, truly pissed. How could this person inconvenience me this way? My time is valuable. I have too much to do to deal with this crap. Really. That's about the time I pull out "they're trying to do a good job, just like you". Even the inept, the incompetent, are almost always trying to do a good job. Maybe they are just bad at it. Or are just having an off day. Or what they need and what you need put you at cross-purposes. It doesn't work every time, because I'm not a saint, and sometime I'M the one having a shitty day, but generally, it works.

The next one is sort of multi-purpose, and has smoothed work, social life, just about everything. When I find myself feeling slighted, or like the whole universe is out to get me, or people are ignoring me, or whatever, I pull out "IT'S NOT ABOUT ME".  Seriously, the things happening around you, that you think are happening TO YOU, probably aren't. When it rains the one day you had to park 6 blocks away, when a friend didn't reply to your messages, when you caught a cold before your first dinner out in weeks, whatever it is -- IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU.

Okay, I know -- sometimes your friend isn't returning your texts because they really aren't your friend. Or you washed your car (which really does make it rain). But generally, it rained because it was going to. Your friend is away for the weekend at a family wedding, and just isn't replying to ANYONE. You caught a cold because that virus needed somewhere to be. It didn't single you out because you had plans.

With "why not me?", "they're trying to do a good job, just like you" and the ever useful "It's not about me", I find that I argue less, blame less, beat myself up less, and just generally have an easier time of things.