This morning, as I sat in a meditative pose, I could feel the throbbing pain of my knee. I let my thoughts tumble one over another – how I’d failed to do the daily exercises to deal with the injury, forgot to take ibuprofen, took the stairs too frequently. They continued to tumble down on me – I hadn’t met my writing goals for the week. I ate too much. I didn’t spend enough time with my family. I wasn’t patient with the cats. Tumble, tumble, tumble.
When I find my meditation the center of a campaign of me-shaming, I can only practice acknowledging the thought and letting it float by. I try to loosen its grip on my psyche, imagining stepping on its fingers as it clings to the side of a cliff. My meditation is not a peaceful one. A thought steps out of the shadows. No more suffering.
There is pain and then there is suffering. I began to think about the pain I was feeling and how every action I took or didn’t take, prolonged the pain to the point of suffering. Why would I make myself suffer? Intellectually, it makes no sense, but emotionally, it’s apparently my jam.
I come from a long line of martyrs/survivors. It’s a mindset I both admire for its tenaciousness and despise for the very same reason. The problem is when the abusive parents are dead or reformed, when you can stop turning in pop cans for a meal, when you finally stand on your own two feet, find stability and have the potential for happiness less than fleeting, your brain is still in crisis mode, still waiting for the next shoe to drop. And when it doesn’t happen, the brain gets creative.
Even as I write this, I’m chastising myself for writing about first world problems – that all I have to do is watch the news and I’d see real suffering. But suffering, regardless of the source or how minor, does not make someone a better person. Pain is different – pain tells us something is wrong. Pain tells us we are in need of a solution, a palliative, a different direction. Suffering is like guilt or anxiety – only good for the lesson, a reminder to change course. Beyond that, it’s cruel and exhausting and pointless.
I finished reading a book about overcoming perfectionism. I gave it a B- in my notes and that made me laugh. The author’s target audience would not be generous in their reviews. She did a good job of building and explaining scenarios from whence perfectionists emerge. And it wasn’t about people with high standards for their own work. It was about people like me, who nearly choke on the phrases “This is good enough. I am good enough.” When good enough seems like an insult.
Sometimes when I write things, I think how often they’ve been written about, how often I’ve heard “get out of your own way” or “say positive affirmations”. I can hear that advice a thousand times over and I never absorb it. It sits in a mental waiting room. It waits for a connection, like a call on hold. Waiting for me to figure it out.
I rarely read newly published books or go to movie theaters. One day, I’ll be in a bookstore and pick up a book on the clearance shelf. It was published ten years ago. I’ll read that book and it will feel like this new, wonderful discovery that no one has any interest in discussing. It’s mine – an organic discovery. Like most lessons, they don’t take hold until we discover it ourselves.
Meditation can be one of those westernized new-agey things that can come couched in a lot of fuzzy terminology and equipment (you can buy meditation pillows, stools, incense, books, CDs etc.). For me, these are things that give meditation all the appeal of a new exercise class using bowling balls and colanders (I’m sure it’s coming).
There are enough books that tell you how to meditate. There are testimonials that make it seem like you are shortly to be transported to nirvana if you can just touch your fingers and thumbs while sitting cross-legged. But you’ll need the special magic carpet. Or you can read accounts of people who sit and do this for hours on end.
I just wanted to make space in my life to stop everything. I can be very self-assured when I talk about running and gardening and how it’s meditation in motion. And then my body smacks me upside my ego and kneecaps me until I’m shuffling about and wincing at every move. So what are you going to do now, you smug bastard?
My meditation is messy and imperfect. I remind myself to adhere to the advice of Pema Chödrön. Approach it with curiosity and see what arises. So I get up in the morning, grab a pillow and timer and I make myself sit, breathing in and out until the timer beeps. I started at five minutes and now I’m up to a grand total of seven. Seven minutes in which I implore my brain to let the thoughts float by. Seven minutes that I fidget or, as happened last week, begin to snore softly.
Sometimes I imagine it’s like having to watch an entire campaign speech just to get the sound bite for a news story. I have to sit every day, rolling my eyes at my attention-seeking brain, just to find that sliver of light, that second of wisdom or insight. But I’ve made the space and I am curious to see what’s next.