“As a species we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort.”
“Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move towards our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience.”
“Attending to our present-moment mind is and body is a way of being tender towards self, towards other, and towards the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.”
All quotes from Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.
It’s a chilly October evening as I write this. Today I saw vermillion sugar maples and the rain is reminding me that in not so many weeks it will be snow. Recently, I’ve caught hold of some germs and found myself feeling shivery and waking up with painful sinuses. The cold symptoms don’t bother me much, but I do find it’s much harder to meditate when I am sick, breathing is harder and the body doesn’t feel so wide awake or keen on sitting. But I still do it even though my mind is not serene and my body would rather be in a bathtub. I am wondering why do we meditate? Isn’t it easier and more time effective to find a therapeutic medication to take the edge off the anxiety and give a little glow to our reality?
I know from experience that meditation is the way to come home to myself. Pema Chodron calls it, “learning to stay.” Human neurobiology is programmed to run away and avoid when things get difficult. There is a reason that flight is the first response to threat when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. If we just could get a snack, get more comfortable, find a really good ergonomically designed chair so my neck wouldn’t hurt, then I would be able to meditate. Meditation is the process of dropping in and befriending the self. When we practice meditation even on those days when it’s hard or simply another task to get through, we are doing two things. The first is the act of stilling the mind, beginning with calming the body. Secondly, the act of repetition encourages the body/mind to feel safe because we continue to show up despite external and internal conditions, when it’s cold and rainy and when the sun is shining.
If you’ve been meditating for a while, you probably have set a certain standard for your meditation and will discern if this was a “good” or “bad” meditation. We get particularly enamored of those good meditations when we feel solid and connected and the body is easy, tranquil, and strong. And we are equally dismissive of those meditations where the mind darts from the supermarket to the email we need to finish, to the necessity of finding a roofer, or maybe the dog has lymes disease, or the kid does, or I do and what about the neighbor who has a sign up endorsing the wrong political candidate…
What I have learned about these sub-par meditations is that they are testimonials to showing up for ourselves non-judgmentally just as we are. We are not trying to squeeze ourselves into the mold of a Buddha or saint. When we meditate, it’s an opportunity of connecting and accepting ourselves as we are in this moment. There is nothing to get rid of. The anxious mind is noted and seen with compassion—of course it’s busy; it’s afraid to get things wrong. We can be equally accepting of ourselves when we have a “good” meditation and recognize that there are innumerable conditions, our circumstance, our teachers, our physical health that all contributed to creating this transitory experience of calm and stillness.
When we meditate we also remember that we have a body. Most of us, most of the time, are disconnected from our bodies. If we are a person of color working in an historically white institution, a single mother trying to support her family and care for her young children, a person of non-conforming gender, someone who comes from a Muslim country and is categorized as a threat, or living with a chronic illness, all of these conditions create an internalized vigilance and an often unconscious fear which may manifest as physical tension. When we continue to show up and inquire about how we are, we encourage the body to relax. We engage with our un-recognized fear and actively let the body know it’s safe and let go of our vigilance even for a short amount of time.
How present we are with ourselves influences how relaxed and safe we feel. When we train to bring compassionate, loving acceptance to our situation, to the feelings in the body/mind we lay down the neural pathways that support continuing this activity of checking in, getting curious, and accepting what is. This week, I am saying, “this is how it is right now.” This phrase comes from meditation teacher and mother, Kalama Masters, who gives retreats on equanimity and impermanence. Showing up for ourselves regardless of our internal weather develops our trust in ourselves and our ability to befriend ourselves no matter what the outside conditions. Recently a friend told me, “there’s no good or bad meditation. There’s only meditation.” It’s about showing up, showing up, and showing up some more.
May we all trust our light,