Meditation Talk: Meditation - A Practice of Undoing
I would venture to guess that most of us live pretty hectic lives. Between demanding jobs; taking care of ourselves, our homes, and our families; and the myriad of small, mundane tasks like grocery store trips, emails, car registrations, dishes, laundry, so and so forth that fill our days, it can sometimes seem daunting to have something else to “do.” This is the very reason that it takes many of us years to build a meditation practice into a habit, a “permanent” (for what permanence can mean) experience of our day to day lives. I try as often as I can to encourage the energy to practice by reminding people that it’s our minds that determine how we feel about every moment of our lives - like the training people undertake before running marathon, meditation prepares us to experience with joy each moment we are alive. If this is true, we don’t have time NOT to practice.
Recently, however, another way to frame meditation and mindfulness has begun growing in the forefront of my experiences, and I’d like to offer that today. It feels as though rather than a doing, meditation is more a practice of undoing than anything else. Let’s say, undoing through the process of being.
In this way, I’d like to intentionally imply that as we practice meditation we are not “doing” at all; rather, we are undoing in order to find peace in simply being.
So, let’s explore this a little. From the very first moment we enter the world from our mother’s wombs, we, or rather our minds, begin to learn. Largely unconsciously, we spend our youth and even our adult years formulating habits and patterns of beliefs that frame our realities. We are conditioned by our culture, our families, and the repetitive experiences throughout our lives that train our minds to have certain expectations of outcomes based on whatever gets input into our systems via experience. In a less arbitrary way, as infants a certain body sensation causes us to cry, mom provides milk, and that sensation goes away. As we age, this becomes of knowing hunger. For some of us, in our younger years we may have cried when we felt sad or hurt only to be told to close it up, stop crying, or pull it together - if this was our experience, we learned crying wasn’t ok or safe, and so as adults we might feel shame if the desire to cry arises in our bodies - this quickly becomes a habit of shutting down when we’re hurt OR becoming angry. In essence, we learn throughout our lives how to defend and protect ourselves from hurt and suffering, and I think if we really dig into what this means for how we operate in our lives, it often means being disconnected and unfeeling.
I watched a video recently that I absolutely loved because I think it speaks to exactly this idea of being conditioned to protect ourselves and what that means. In it, a man with long red hair in a ponytail begins by saying “underneath all your clothes, you’re all just a bunch of naked weirdos.” Has anyone seen this? Ok, so as he goes on, he describes how as a child every time he expressed his weirdness, he was invariably ridiculed and made to feel shame. He learned that to be authentically himself meant he would suffer, so instead, he learned to please people. How do we do this, he argued? Largely by being “like them.” Toward the end of video, he made the statement that normalcy is an epidemic disease in our country, and the more I sat with this, the more I think he’s right. If you look largely at our society, we pretty much see cookie cutter people working cookie cutter jobs living in cookie cutter houses going on cookie cutter vacations etc etc. Why?? In essence, because the pain we experienced as kids for being different than everyone else taught us how to effectively hide in our skins. I see this all the time with my 10 year old. I’m so proud that he continues to grow his hair, which is longer than his shoulders despite being made fun of at school, but the day he decided to wear his hair in a ponytail was also the last as he expressed when he came home “I’m never wearing my hair like that again, and I don’t want to talk about it.” Maybe he’ll remember that experience or maybe he won’t, but more than likely when he’s adult he’ll know he doesn’t like his hair in a ponytail even if he has no idea why.
This is one example of the way we build habits, expectations, and ideas of who we are from the moment we are born, and as always, this is another reason I think mindfulness through the practice of meditation is just really cool and can be fundamentally life changing. Mindfulness gives us the power, moment by moment, to see our own conditioning - to look at how we are responding and interacting with an experience and to question our own thoughts and ideas. We can do this in small ways like ordering food, folding clothes, or doing dishes a certain way to much bigger ideas like whether we believe certain stories about who we are, what we like, and how we feel.
In essence, our practice on our cushions becomes the safe space to explore tearing down all the walls we’ve built to shield our authentic selves and see what it’s like to be just a naked weirdo.
Brene Brown is a researcher and self-described storyteller who has spent her career studying what makes people happy and invariably what doesn’t. She gave a TED talk years ago in which she described how the absolute one thing that crossed all cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic barriers to create lasting happiness in people is vulnerability. The willingness as often as possible to open, authentic, and sometimes painfully raw. Things like being the first one to say “I love you” in a new relationship...ugh! So scary right?! But through her research she discovered that it’s those people who are willing to throw themselves in the fire of vulnerability over and over again that are consistently the most happy. And what’s the one thing she found that most powerfully inhibits vulnerability? Shame.
This is why I believe meditation to be a practice of undoing. We have spent our whole lives doing: learning how to cover ourselves up in order to prevent the feeling of shame. We’ve learned how to be socially acceptable rather than how to authentically connected. Learned how to ignore the feelings in our hearts in order the maintain control in our lives. This is, perhaps, why coming to the cushion is scary for some people (and I want to say that this is experience should you ever encounter it is absolutely normal and ok!). It can and often is quite scary to begin to see ourselves, raw and uninhibited for the first time - to begin DEEPLY feeling our own bodies - to see our thoughts and ideas as they arise and wonder whether or not we actually believe them! Who are we if everything we’ve told ourselves is the truth of reality might all just be a story? I’ll offer, however, that we are not and never have we ever really been “me,” “I,” or a “this is who I am.” Who thinks they’re the exact same person as they were in high school? How about just a year ago? Right, so we all already know that we are changeable and even unconsciously we’re already constantly changing.
Hopefully this takes a little of the pressure and fear out of the idea that becoming vulnerable has to be scary, and instead begins to open us to the possibility that that kid buried deep inside of us with a love and vigor for life, an open heart, and an undying sense of passion and desire for connection is just waiting for us to let them out of the cage of our conditioning.
I have found in my own life, that my meditation practice was the first place I ever really allowed myself to feel safe enough to take off all the masks. Jack Kornfield calls it “the sanctuary of you,” and I find this to be poignantly perfect. If we allow ourselves to be a temple of our own exploration and experience, then we grant ourselves permission to be completely exposed moment by moment - to feel whatever comes up, to hear the stories and thoughts generated in our minds, and to be curious about what they’re really like and even how we are and maybe want to relate to them. As we explore being vulnerable with ourselves on our cushions and find over and over again that we are safe and ok without the masks and barriers, we teach ourselves a new habit of finding comfort in being open and connected. Our practice becomes the space of undoing, unlearning, and relearning at all once, but this time as we learn we do so consciously and guided by the willingness to love and accept ourselves and others for who we are. I don’t know, maybe it’s an odd goal, but I think I’ve learned that what I’m really doing here through this practice of mindfulness is allowing myself to become more and more the naked weirdo the kid me would be proud to know.
The beautiful thing is that when we give ourselves permission to be vulnerable, we also make space for others to do the same - showing the world through our presence and openness that it's not just safe but also exquisitely delicious to be yourself.