Reflections offered by Jeanne Ann Whittington during worship on Sunday, March 12, 2017
When Michael invited me to talk about how my practice has transformed my life, I was happy to oblige, though it is one of those topics that feels so big it’s hard to know where to begin. I’m reminded of an image in Moby Dick where Melville describes a shark trying to bite a whale, and not being able to open it’s jaws wide enough to grab hold of anything. A 5 minute guideline was helpful, though I’m pretty sure I haven’t achieved it!
I attended my first Vipassana or Insight Meditation retreat in the summer after I graduated from college, and somewhere during that two weeks in the forests of northern California, I remember the thought arising with ringing clarity, “This practice will save my life.” (At that point I was definitely in need of life-saving, having grown up in a deeply dysfunctional family, having suffered a partial breakdown in college and, as a new graduate finding myself very confused and anxious about how to navigate adult life without causing pain to myself and those I was close to.)
That retreat will be 40 years ago this coming summer, and the history of my practice has been a long and winding road. I can’t say that I have always maintained a daily practice, but I can say that I have never lost that sense of finding an orientation, a sense of refuge, something to do to engage with the complicated and painful facts of life, a PRACTICE that would lead me through the dark wood into the open and workable space that I find myself in today.
So what is the practice I’m talking about? Really, it is a group of practices that are different doorways into the same open, manageable space. Over the years I’ve explored a number of different practices, but these are the components of my current practice:
- Sitting quietly, letting my attention settle on the body and breath.
- Sitting quietly, with open awareness, allowing whatever arises to have my full attention.
- Sitting quietly, systematically investigating the components of body and mind.
- Sitting quietly or moving through my day with my attention oriented to awareness itself.
- Scanning my attention through the body, noticing sensations, thoughts, feelings and whatever else arises.
- Working with phrases that incline my mind and heart to friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity.
- Working with the body through mindful yoga and other movement.
- And, in some ways the heart and destination of them all, is understanding that from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep, each moment is an opportunity to be present and to meet what is happening with acceptance, curiosity and kindness.
As a brief aside, I want to say something about the word meditation. The word is a translation that was used — I don’t know when or by whom, but I’m guessing by a European scholar of Asian philosophy in the nineteenth century. It derives from the Latin “meditari,” which means to think over, reflect, study—which is decidedly NOT what meditation is. As often happens with translation, due to the limitations of the understanding of the translator or the limitations of the language to express something outside of it, something is lost.
The Sanskrit word that is translated as meditation is bhavana, which means to develop, to cultivate, or to “bring into being.” What we call meditation is not thinking about something in any conventional way, but is explicitly a process of transformation, of bringing something into being.
And what is brought into being? Mental capacities and intrinsic qualities of heart are discovered, dusted off and developed. There are many, but a classic list, called the Seven Factors of Enlightenment is a good place to start: mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, equanimity. We are all born with the seeds of, and develop varying amounts of these qualities, but few of us are blessed with minds and hearts that don’t need some cultivation and balancing.
For anyone who has tried to meditate and found it hard, this is why — we are literally coming into contact with the wild, untrained, deeply habituated state of the mind, and gradually training it to know its capacity to stay present, to relate to experience with openness, clarity, curiosity, steadiness. This is not an easy project, but it is deeply worthwhile considering how essential our mental state is to our peace of mind and capacity to live well. In the meditative traditions it is understood that the basic nature of the mind is to know things, to have this quality of clarity, but that it is obscured by our conditioned habits — reacting to pretty much everything by liking, disliking, or ignoring and getting lost. So when we work to stay with the breath, to not scratch an itch, to tolerate a painful emotion, to relax until the bell rings, we are “bringing into being” these capacities of wakefulness, steadiness, patience, acceptance. This is good. And though it takes time, each time we return the attention to the breath, relax out of contracted reaction into spacious allowing, we are cultivating new habits that lead in the direction of less suffering and more happiness.
So to give you some concrete examples of “how my practice has helped prepare me to be the person I aspire to be,” (my assignment), I made some notes this week as I moved through the last few days at work and at home. I looked for specific moments when something happened that I attributed to my practice—something that I thought would probably not have happened otherwise.
My observations tended to fall into groups.
The first one I will call, “Coming back and being here.” Maybe this is the most common effect, and one that adds so much fullness and texture to life. This includes the many instances of waking up in the middle of a thought or an action, mindfulness returning by itself, to give fuller attention to what I’m doing, to feel and inhabit my body. This happens quickly, multiple times an hour, and I know it is because I have practiced just this return, again and again over the years. This has many flavors, ranging from a subtle recovery of sensation in the midst of activity—touch of feet or hands, weight, sound, smell, taste, to full-fledged emergence from being completely consumed by thoughts of some other place, time, or activity. This latter always arrives with a feeling of blessing, of recovered safety, of coming home.
The next I will call, “Learning and having options.” By being more consistently attuned to the present and seeing more clearly, I see what’s going on under the surface and have more choices. I notice how my mind concocts views and opinions about everything and everyone, and how rarely they have anything to do with the truth. Seeing this, I can let them drift off and keep looking for what is really true. I can notice my moods as filters that color my experience. In the spaciousness of awareness—the pause that Michael spoke of last week—I can see more clearly that I have a choice about how to respond in almost every situation, and I can choose responses that express friendliness and respect and patience. I can see that when my heart contracts, I usually have a choice to open instead. I can see that when I’m bored or disconnected, I have a choice to deliberately give fuller attention to what I’m doing. And I can see that when I’m about to step on board a train of thought that I know will lead to unhappiness or ill-will of some sort, I can make a choice to not go there.
Then there is “Having patience and forgiveness for myself and others.” This refers to the moments when something difficult arises and seeing it doesn’t necessarily make it disentangle and vanish. This capacity has grown over time, thankfully, as I meet experiences during my sitting practice that are uncomfortable and unwanted with tolerance and kindness. I’m easier with difficult mind states that arise throughout my day, and am learning humility as I see my foibles up close. This leads to more forgiveness of others as well. This category includes moments like going off task to check my email when I decided I wouldn’t. It includes making space for the slightly “off” feeling of having said something that doesn’t feel kind, and being unable to rectify it in the moment. It includes seeing moments of greed, irritation, pride or envy with some spaciousness, not denying them but also not identifying, recognizing that these moments arise because of habits and past conditions, and that by observing with mindfulness I can begin to create new habits and condition a different future.
I also notice better listening: the capacity to be quieter inside, to make more space for others to be themselves. Out of this comes the ability to offer help that might actually be useful.
I notice friendliness arising all by itself, greeting the delivery man, taking a moment to engage, saying hello to someone I might have ignored or avoided in the past.
I notice interest in others arising, and less self-interest and self-concern.
I notice the ability to better accept what comes, to not always think that things need to be the way I might prefer.
I notice gratitude and joy arising, for the simple blessings of life, food, shelter, love, friendship, work, music, nature.
I notice more moments of tenderness for animals, concern for humans and other beings, for our planet, being touched by vulnerability and beauty and heartfulness.
Underlying and infusing all of these other qualities and experiences is something that I would never have foreseen for myself: a feeling of peace, of contentment, of fullness. I trust that I know how to care for myself if I am upset, stressed or off balance. I have a growing trust that I am a good person and have something worthy to share with others. In some very important way, I’m not confused anymore. My practice has given me a sense of true refuge, and a way of meeting my experience that I trust, and that I trust will allow for the continued refinement and transformation of this life.