If I ever come to visit you and I end up being late, it’s not because I got stuck in traffic or because I took too long getting ready. 95% chance it’s because I believed I was smarter than my GPS.
I’m a grown ass woman. I understand that in general computers give us good information. I know that GPSs are created to get us to where we want to go in the most efficient manner possible. I know it in my head, but I always believe in my HEART that I know the best, fastest ways to get places.
I’ll frequently plug my destination address into my GPS, look at the options it gives me, and then scoff in disdain, convinced that I have this brilliant route in mind or superior knowledge of the roadway system that will surpass any suggestions my GPS could offer. And EVERY SINGLE TIME, I’m wrong. But, I keep doing it. I know, insanity at its finest. I’ll probably keep doing it, too.
Now you’re forewarned for when you decide to invite me over. Probably tell me I need to be there 30 minutes before I actually do.
GPS foolishness aside, sometimes in life there is no clear path forward. Or at least, there’s not always a path that you really get excited about taking. Sometimes no matter what choice you make you’re going to end up hurt or devastated or heartbroken. These situations are the worst. Open door A, you get pain. Open door B, you get pain. Oh, and not choosing one of those doors is not an option.
Per my last post about part of my life blowing up a while back, I was presented with one of these super fun choices of pain, or pain. I saw it coming from a long ways away and tried to do everything I could to find a happy ending, a way through that while maybe not pleasant, at least wouldn’t wreck me. Even as I saw what reality was, like the stupid game of trying to fool my GPS, I kept thinking I could conjure up a brilliant backroads detour to avoid the imminent suffering I saw looming ahead.
Dammit. Reality is just like my GPS. I can’t outsmart it.
So, I looked at my two painful options, and I picked one, and everything fell apart, and I fell apart with it.
As my beloved “adopted” spiritual teacher Pema Chodron says, sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart. Although, if we’re truthful about it, things will often just fall apart without asking our permission first. This is the way of the world. So the real question then, is what are we going to do when everything does fall apart? When we feel like we are at the end of ourselves? When there is no hope? When we suddenly doubt everything about ourselves and are convinced we are unlovable and stupid and nothing good will ever come our way again, and we don’t know what to do next?
These are the places that terrify us, and we try desperately to run away from the horrible feelings that can overwhelm us when everything has fallen apart. We’re miserable but grasping and clinging for anything that can help us find our footing again, to ease the pain for just a moment. And so we drink, we shop, we binge watch Netflix, we search dating sites to find someone who might help us forget our broken hearts, we work relentless hours, we run too many miles when our bodies plead for rest, we ruminate in our minds and try in vain to change reality by thinking of all the should have’s, could have’s, would have’s – if we could just go back in time.
Staying in our broken places, with our hearts open, feeling our feelings and refusing to run away, is the hardest thing in the world, and the bravest thing that any of us could ever do.
When I was growing up, meditation got a bad rap. This was primarily because the people talking to me about meditation had no clue what they were talking about. In all fairness, they had also been educated on the subject by other ill-informed sources. I was taught that meditation is a New-Age practice where we are supposed to empty our minds, and that’s a bad idea because it just leaves room for demons to jump in. People would often proof text that story from the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew:
“When the evil spirit goes out of a man it wanders through waterless places looking for rest and never finding it. Then it says, ‘I will go back to my house from which I came.’ When it arrives it finds it unoccupied, but clean and all in order. Then it goes and collects seven other spirits more evil than itself to keep it company, and they all go in and make themselves at home. The last state of that man is worse than the first—and that is just what will happen to this evil generation.”
I’m trying even now not to roll my eyes at the weird ways people can use sacred texts to push their own agendas or bolster their own fears.
Anyway, I was leery of meditation until I was in my 30s and started looking more deeply into contemplative Christian prayer and then Buddhist teachings. I finally found out the truth, something that would have been awesome to have learned as a child, that meditation is in fact not about emptying your mind. That’s kind of impossible anyway, unless you cut out your brain or knock out your neurological circuitry. Meditation is about learning not to cling and attach to the endless stream of thoughts that come down the pipeline. It is about learning not to believe all the stories you tell yourself about reality. And very importantly, it is about learning to sit with whatever IS, learning to accept it, know that it will eventually pass, and that none of it will kill you.
Meditation is hard. It’s simple really, but the actual doing of it is hard. I think this is why so many religions at lower levels love the traditional notion of prayer. It allows us to talk and talk and talk to whoever we think is out there listening, and we can complain and offer our wish lists and beg for things to change – basically it gives us a sense that we have a little say so in our situations, or at least a little arguing power. Listening prayer is a step up….we do a little less talking at God and wait for Them to give us direction or a word or inspiration. The thing about meditation though, is that the whole trying to get God to change things or to tell us what to do is not the focus. This is what makes it difficult to do, because we don’t want things the way they are right now. We want them to be different. We want God to fix them, to make our bad feelings go away, to help us feel better and yet again have a clear path ahead of us.
Meditation is about sitting with the way things are right now, not trying to change them. The goal in meditation, especially when everything has fallen apart, is to not run or avoid what you’re feeling. It is about teaching you to stay with the uncomfortable feelings, riding their waves of intensity, know that they are impermanent and will pass.
I am very aware of the things I do to try to avoid pain, or things I can do to give myself that little pleasure kick of dopamine to feel better when I’m not happy with reality. During the morning it’s coffee, jolt after jolt. In the evening it’s a glass of wine to take the hard edge of sharp feelings off. It you see me post on FB a ridiculous amount within a short timeframe, it’s either because my FB friends are seriously curating quality content that particular day, or it’s because I’m trying really hard to avoid feeling something. I’m good at running non-stop with project after project so I don’t have to stop and feel the feels that hurt. I listen to podcast after podcast, or audiobook after book, to try to figure out ways to actively change my situation, instead of allowing myself to sit with it and accept it. None of these things are all that bad inherently, but they set me up for prolonged suffering and the illusion that I have control over more than what I do. And I usually just end up exhausting myself anyway.
I was talking with someone I know the other day briefly about active mediation versus passive mediation. Some people prefer to meditate while moving – doing yoga or walking or something like that – because sitting meditation doesn’t appeal to them or it seems too “Eastern” and unfamiliar. I’m all about active mediation. I feel like biking long miles is a good place for me to focus. Swimming lap after lap is cathartic for me, and feels very meditative, because there is so much focus on the breath. Inhale, exhale, all in a rhythmic pace…necessary to make sure you don’t lose your breath. Just you and the water and breathing.
I also think that sometimes certain “adventure” sports are great meditative experiences because you have to focus so completely on what you’re doing that you can’t pay attention to you brain’s thought pipeline. Rock climbing for instance. Probably not the best time for you to ruminate about the past when you’re looking for that next solid foot or handhold that will save you from crashing from a fall.
But in the end, I think that active meditation has its limits because it still allows input from the person doing it. It still gives that since of “you’re doing something to contribute to the situation, to change.” Maybe we don’t have to fully accept things as they are then, we don’t fully come to the end of ourselves, until there is nothing left for us to do but just sit and feel and allow.
Hmph. Listen to me, talking like I’m a meditation expert or something. I am most certainly not. I probably know just enough to get myself into trouble….but it also feels like I know just enough that it is helping to save me right now.
A few years ago I went to an 8 hour Buddhist-Christian meditation retreat. It was the first formal meditation I’d ever done in a group, and I think I slept for about four of the eight hours. I was very proud of myself, though, because I slept those four hours sitting up and I don’t think I ever let out any audible snores.
That experience was really painful for me though, because I didn’t know enough then about what can happen when you first start meditating. I didn’t know that when you first learn to get quiet, all the junk that you’ve been working so hard to stuff down for your entire life suddenly begins to float to the surface. I was so shocked when, sitting there peacefully before one of my intermittent naps, that memories and emotions were flying into my awareness like gangbusters, and it was OVERWHELMING. I left the retreat angry and agitated, and certainly not excited about meditation like when I arrived.
Later I learned that this was normal, and that meditation is all about letting whatever is going to arise, arise. You don’t fight it, you don’t try to figure it out, you don’t try to fix it. You just let it come, and then you let it go.
Pema Chodron tells a story in her book When Things Fall Apart about a childhood friend who had recurring horrible dreams where monsters were chasing her. In every dream she ran away from them, but was always pursued, and she would wake up after these dreams obviously upset. Pema asked her one time what the monsters looked like, and her friend replied that she didn’t know, she had never looked at them. Her back was always to them as she ran away. So, the next time she dreamed this dream, she turned around in the dream to face the monsters. They saw her turn, and stopped a ways away from her. They all looked different, just various monster types. And then, one by one, they faded away. And Pema’s friend never had this nightmare again after looking at the monsters head on.
This is what we are doing in meditation. We see what comes up, and we look at it headon. We don’t shirk from the feelings that come up in us. Because they will pass.
I meditated a fair amount in the past and then gave it up. It felt more like something I “needed” to do to become woke, to become more aware, to move farther down the spiritual path. But lately, I have been drawn back to it again as a matter of desperation. I no longer want to endure pain in vain. I want the pain that comes my way to be transformed into something that benefits me and benefits others. And so while meditation once felt like a chore, it now feels like a comfort, a respite, a place where I can compassionately allow myself to feel all the hurt and despair with soft hands and an open heart.
And part of it is because I trust others that have gone down this path before me. As the author Susan Piver calls them, explorers of the shadows, the patron saints of darkness. Part of what has gotten me personally into so much trouble is that I’ve spent most of my life doubting myself and not trusting my own inner wisdom. I’m learning to do differently now, but I’m also smart enough to know not to reinvent the wheel of how to deal with suffering. Do I absolutely believe down to my core that therapy, and meditation, and trauma work, and good self care and all of these things will heal my broken places and get me to where I want to go? No, not yet. But I know the people that I can trust…the ones who have been through their own dark nights of the soul and made it out, who were able to transform their pain, the ones who can now help show me the path. There are certain GPS voices that I know most of the time better than to argue with.
Ultimately, I think the scariest thing you can do in life is to sit in your darkness….to just STAY….and let it teach you. It takes a crap ton of courage to befriend the hard things and take on your own suffering when you really aren’t sure you know how to do it or when/if it will ever end.
But going back to the options of pain I mentioned earlier. There are two kinds of pain, usually. There is wisdom pain (aka GPS pain). This is the pain that will take you where you want to go. It hurts like hell at the time, but it will transform you and heal you over the long term. And then there’s the pain that comes from you trying to avoid hard things, negotiate with life, and causes you to habitually make stupid decisions over and over. It’s the pain of being on a hamster wheel of reliving the same kinds of scenarios like Groundhog Day, only getting short term relief here and there from your coffee and wine and Netflix binges and dating sites, because you’re afraid to look at your big life monsters once and for all. (Here I go again, totally mixing metaphors). It’s the kind of pain that results when you keep going back to the same kinds of people that have repeatedly hurt you, instead of stopping to figure out what core thing you believe about yourself that is compelling you to do that.
I’m trying really hard to sit in my “damn it, everything just fell apart!”-ness. To do it compassionately. I’m trying really hard not to find ways to distract myself. Although, I am a little miffed with the universe tonight, because I suspect it helped me unknowingly misplace my ID so I couldn’t buy the wine I wanted at CVS to take the edge off the big feelings I was feeling at the moment.
I am kind of proud of myself though. Because, for once, with something really important in my life, I took the route recommended by the figurative GPS. I picked the wisdom pain. I didn’t want this pain in the short term; I really wanted the other thing….the thing that I thought maybe I could manage to hold on to for a while by grasping and clinging.
But, I finally chose myself. And choosing myself meant choosing the right kind of pain. I decided at a certain point that I do not want to keep repeating the same life dynamics over and over and over, thinking that I could create a new ending, a new destination for the same roads I kept taking. I decided to stop and look at all the huge monsters in my life once and for all. I”m trusting all the great explorers of darkness that it is the right choice and that transformation will come if I just stay with all that has fallen apart, allow all the arisings, and remember that pain will come, and then it will go…right on time.