Let’s be straight, sometimes our life circumstances just plain suck.
This is often the very heart of the teachings I have received from the masters I study with. What I learn from them, what I also know to be true from my own practice and life experience, is that while my situation sucks, I don’t have to. How I respond is up to me.
Generally, being human, we develop a finely tuned knee-jerk reaction to greatly difficult situations, and before we even realize it, we are engulfed by a surge of emotions and thoughts. (Or frozen by them.) And as we continue to engage in an internal dialogue with our reactions, we unintentionally stretch out the duration of discomfort while simultaneously longing for it to end. When we are not conscious about it, our reaction to a single challenging moment can expand into an hour, a day, a season…and for some, even a lifetime.
So, what are we to do we do with the more tumultuous emotional reactions we experience? Do we simply smooth it over and say, “Oh, it’s okay. I’ll just choose to be happy instead.” Is that what it means to “choose our reaction”? to “choose happiness”?
No, not at all. If we just ignore or cover up our anger, sadness, or despair in order to “choose happiness” we will simply create an internal time bomb that will eventually explode.
When it comes to experiencing heavier emotions, we don’t want to push them away, nor do we want to hold them tight. Instead—what I’ve learned from my teachers and my own practice, when my circumstances are awful, when I feel miserable, bitchy, or frozen—the thing to do is pause and not “feed” the feeling or shut it down. The practice is to let go of the “dialogue” with my feelings and my opinions about my feelings; and pause to relax my body, breath, and mind as much as I can in that moment. In this pause, I can stop accelerating the situation with additional reactions, and begin to make more room to breathe and see the situation more clearly.
In short, if we don’t exasperate or stifle our experience, we begin to witness the intensity of the situation organically change on its own. Because the truth is—as we all grow to know—“If you’re in a bad situation, don’t worry, it’ll change. If you’re in a good situation, don’t worry, it’ll change.”
This is a truth we’ve all experienced; each rising difficulty eventually becomes a passing difficulty. And in between difficulties, we experience a slew of other qualities from bliss to boredom. As life infinitely oscillates between ease and difficulties, remember Pema Chödrön’s teaching: “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.”
All of the wisdom traditions work with this skill in meditation. For many masters, meditation is the training ground for riding the waves of life and practicing relaxing as everything rises and falls. As we relax with our circumstances we expand our capacity to make more mindful decisions and artful actions with whatever life serves up.
Many people think meditation practice is about perfecting concentration skills or emptying their mind of thoughts. For me, a main function of meditation is the opportunity to develop the ability to pause and relax, with compassion and presence with whatever our experience is, with whatever our thoughts are. After all, if meditation is to prepare us to live a better life off the cushion, then it must train us to stay present and relaxed with all the circumstances we are confronted with. We can practice this right in our meditation; for how we practice reacting to what arises in our minds and bodies during meditation is our training ground for how we react to whatever arises in our lives off the mat.
Thoughts and emotions are not the enemy of a meditation practice. In fact, they are our friends. The practice actually begins when you become aware that you’ve tripped out, and instead of tightening, judging, berating, can you soften up? Can you practice inviting yourself back? This is the ability we are developing, to be able to be kind and come back over and over again. When we notice our thoughts, we can practice relaxing our judgment toward our thoughts as we come back to the present moment of our breath. In this way, we are learning how to create space and lighten up instead of becoming more intense, angrier, and discontent. This act helps us to cultivate the curiosity and friendliness we need for compassionate, clear seeing and a deeper sense of contentment.
TRY IT: PRACTICE NOW
Set a timer for 5–10 minutes.
Sit down in a comfortable position.
Let your body weight drop out of your shoulders, and down into your pelvis and legs.
Let your weight drain down, into the floor.
Allow your breath to settle.
Welcome your breath into your body.
Let your mind follow the waves of your breath in and out of your body.
Relax your body on the ground, and your mind on the waves of your breath.
As your thoughts rise and fall, simply notice. Don’t dialogue with your thoughts or try to push them away. As you notice you’re drifting away with a thought, take a deep breath. Let go and return your mind to your breath. When you have difficulty letting go, take a deeper breath, relax your body and mind as much as possible. Drop your shoulders, release your jaw, and scan your body for any extra tension.
You’ll probably need to do this every couple of breaths, even several times a minute.
But this is the very heart of the practice.
The practice is not to try to keep your mind still, it is instead to notice when your mind is wandering off in thought, fantasy, or dialogue. Judging, criticizing, planning. Notice when your mind is caught up. And relax.
Be friendly toward yourself, toward your habits. And invite yourself back to your breath. Over and over again.
Photo © iStockPhoto.com/mmac72
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