July 26, 2010

A postcard of the ocean

Photo credit: Stacy Lynn Baum, Creative Commons license www.flickr.com
I was a teenager when I first encountered the statement, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” (It seems to me that dance might actually be a very effective way to evoke architecture... but let's leave that detail aside for now.) This quote comes to mind when I remember that I first learned about mindfulness from books. Reading about mindfulness is a lot like talking about music. You can find plenty of words to describe what music does, or how it makes you feel, but no amount of discussion can convey the true experience of music. It's all secondhand.

My first experience with mindfulness was secondhand. About six years ago, I started reading books by Western Buddhist teachers like Surya Das and Pema Chodron. I loved the words, which felt like spiritual poetry to me. Mindfulness seemed like something to aspire to, something beautiful and pure, beyond my everyday experience.

Two years later, in my first weeks as a graduate student at a Buddhist university, I became a true student of mindfulness. In weekly meditation classes, I learned how to meditate Tibetan-style: shamatha-vipassana (calm abiding / clear seeing), which is an eyes-open awareness practice. When I took a seat on a cushion for my very first meditation session, I fell into the struggle that epitomizes true practice.

And boy, was it a struggle. I had thought that I knew what resistance felt like. But sitting practice showed me the true depth, color, and texture of my resistance, all the layers of experience and fear that had brought it into being. Sitting on the cushion brought me face-to-face with the specificity of my own experience. I began to understand that mindfulness happens in our willingness to be in relationship with the gritty, uncomfortable, awkward details of our inner lives. (I also learned that avoiding the actual act of sitting, out of fear or overwhelm, does not result in one's self-awareness mercifully going away. But that's a story for another day.)

In merely reading about mindfulness, I had been gazing longingly at a postcard of the ocean. But when I became an active student of meditation--on the cushion and fully engaged in relationship with myself--suddenly I was standing barefoot at the edge of the world in the stinging salt wind. When I finally stepped up to meet the ocean, I knew for the first time exactly how small I am, and (yet / also) how vital I am within the complex web of human connection.

But what about those days when we feel too defeated to even try to practice? If you're like me, you get frozen into inaction by a desire to practice perfectly. What helps me is to reframe practice as being less about mastery--what is there to become perfect at, really?--and more about just showing up to maintain a friendly relationship with myself. Know, too, that what you do as a practice is far less important than your intention. Although I do revisit shamatha-vipassana occasionally, these days my mindfulness practice takes many different forms. Instead of sitting, sometimes I do several minutes of savasana (“corpse pose” in yoga). Some days I do a little Shiva Nata.** Some days writing is my practice, and some days it's making art. Some days there is no intentional practice, and I am merely a student of the moment-to-moment: noticing what's happening inside, knowing that I can choose how to react, and just coming back to my breath as needed.

Whatever your practice or not-practice, if you're showing up with love, then you're doing it just right.

(**That's not an affiliate link, y'all. I just like Havi Brooks an awful lot, and I want more people to know about the amazing work she does.)

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