Meditation Talk: Gifts of Practice
A dear friend recently asked me, “what has changed in your life as a result of your practice?” Now this isn’t something I have never asked myself before. For the last 7 years I have had overwhelming moments of gratitude for my practice phrased from my yoga teacher training as “you know your yoga practice has changed your life when…” and just having that verbiage has granted an awareness of the moments when I have chosen to behave or relate to experiences in a way that I know, in the moment, is different because of practice. However, though I have taken note of these shifts in the moment, this encouragement last week to consciously revisit all the spaces that meditation and a way of being and living mindfully has changed my life was a welcomed contemplation that I’d love to share with you today. My intention in this offering is simply to provide encouragement as well as permission on your journey through life and awakening.
I think it’s fair to start with the answer that immediately arose in my chest when this sweet friend posed the question. “It’s not that I’ve become any less human,” I told her. “But rather that the way I relate to myself and my experiences is what is different: kinder, more loving and accepting - in difficult moments I often find myself being tender and caring for myself rather than pushing the difficulty away.” The gratitude I feel for this shift in experience is immense, but there are two pieces in here that I’d really like to touch, and the first is maybe the one that’s more subtle. I want to start here by acknowledging that I am not any less human. What do I mean by this? Well, for a number of years as I practiced meditation and mindfulness and as my capacity to know what was happening in my body and mind grew, I started to see and feel how reactive I am to what’s happening around me. Someone cuts me off in traffic, rage! I hurt my wife’s feelings, shame and armoring. I teach a class and someone walks out, disappointment and stories of not being enough. While I’d like to acknowledge that, yes, over time some of this reactivity has eased: I’m not longer at the whim of road rage, though sometimes things still affect me; I no longer immediately believe that a failure means I’m not ok; arguments with loved ones no longer leave me wrought with shame every time...in essence my body’s reactivity to things has certainly softened a bit around the edges, however, the edges are still totally there, and I am just as human as ever.
The permission I want to give here is that life has never stopped being life, and I am not any less human. I didn’t fall from the sky as some perfect being who never suffers. I have desires, pains, frustrations. I still to this day experience whole days and sometimes even weeks when the whole world feels lackluster and blah, and my dears, for years my quiet self-critic told me I shouldn’t feel these things anymore because “hey! Now you’re a meditator! Pull it together!” The reminder I want to give all of you is that yes, sometimes being human is hard and painful, but if you lose the bad, my dears, you’re bound to lose the good. Starting a meditation practice with a goal of never suffering again is like trying to love life while you’re numb to everything around you. If we’re open, if our hearts and our minds are bodies are open to the good than we are open to difficult too. What I’ve realized over the years is that while yes, mindfulness will over time change the way our minds were unconsciously conditioned from the time we were children, that those deeply rooted brain highways are hard to cover over and keep from expressing. When someone belittles you, it’s bound to hurt whether you meditate or not, but what doesn’t have to stay the same, and what I’ve found has intimately changed in my own life is the way I hold myself in those moments of pain. Rather than pushing them away, telling myself I am bad or not worthy, or believing that I deserve the suffering, I hold myself in a cocoon of love and care. I allow the pain to be there, feel it deeply because as the poet Kahlil Gibran says,
“And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
I read this quote to say, there is nothing inherently bad about sorrow, about the physical experience of sadness and pain. We learn through our practice that all things change and absolutely nothing lasts forever. This wisdom has granted me tremendous peace in moments of raw humanness, for the inclination is push away at everything that hurts us, but the ironic reality is that it’s the pushing it away that forces it to linger, to become a festering wound. We can’t effectively allow ourselves to heal and move on if we’re not willing to look at what hurts, to be with it from an udder place of love and compassion. It is this that is probably the greatest gift of my practice - the permission not only to be human and in my humanness to be imperfect, but also to hold myself as if I were my most beloved friend in the moments that feel hard and wounding.
When I am not pushing away from life, not telling anything that arises that it’s unwelcomed here, it is, in essence, the most authentic expression of love I have ever known. In that open acceptance, I can love myself, and I can freely and uninhibitedly love life and others.
Ultimately, what I feel this has granted in my life is simply a greater sense of peace, wellness, and satisfaction. Regardless of the external circumstances of my life, which are largely out of my control, for the most part I feel like life is beautiful, things are good even when they are hard, and I feel happy and lucky to be alive. Perhaps for some of you, this is already how you live - in being open, I will admit that in my youth that wasn’t the case for me, so to feel an stable ground of happiness and contentment is rather novel for me, and though I know anything in my life could change or unravel in any moment, I feel in my heart that my roots to ok-ness and love are a stable ground that can never be unearthed even through the greatest of heartache and strife.
I remember as a kid that my dad used to read a book called “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” and perhaps like me, some of you found that a lot harder to practice than to idealize. I’ve learned over the years that, in fact, our minds are hardwired to sweat everything until we know for sure it’s not going to impact our survival. This is another way I mean to give you permission to be human: to be human means having a hypervigilant and constantly scanning for threats mind. However, through the gifts of practice I have found my mind becoming less innately reactive but even bigger than the small shifts in unconscious reactivity have been my ability to choose how I respond when my brain kicks me into discomfort. Victor Frankl says,
“Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Through practice I have learned that my innate and unconscious response is not only not me but that it doesn’t have to define me. Not every thought I think or feeling I feel is true or right. More than anything else, I have found that mindful presence increases the space between a stimulus and a response. As I bring attention to what is happening in my body and around me BEFORE responding, I have the chance to choose how I want to engage - who I want to be and what I want to emanate in that moment. Oh what a gift to not be trapped in what happens outside of my control! I have become a more patient and loving mother because I pause before I respond. I have become a more authentic human and friend, willing to share my suffering and difficulty with others rather than hiding behind a mask of “everything is great,” and on a deep level, I have learned to be patient with and love myself (and invariably others too) even in the moments that I make mistakes, or inadvertently hurt someone, or get something wrong.
The last thing I want to mention is that in addition to being hardwired to hypervigilance, our minds are also honed into the negative, like I said early constantly looking for threats. I’ll encourage you when you leave here, to look around, start noticing all the things you normally ignore. The mind is such a beautiful and powerful organ. It has more connections than known stars in the universe! BUT. It only really cares about you making it to see tomorrow. When you pass a tree, very rarely do you see the tree in front of you but rather your mind inputs a general concept of a tree. We do this all the time. Ignoring anything that doesn’t have meaning to us as powerfully good or bad. Modern psychology tells us that we need 3 positive experiences to every 1 negative experience to feel like our life is going well. By getting out of our heads and into our actual lives, we have the chance to take THOUSANDS of things that would have otherwise gone unnoticed and turn them into moments of beauty simply by paying attention: effectively tipping the scale heavily to bliss.
So, I’ll leave you today with this thought to carry with you: “I know my practice (yoga, meditation, mindfulness) has changed my life when…”....see what happens for you.