Monday, October 25, 2010

Let’s talk a little bit about impermanence

I have written about this topic before, but it is not a topic that gets old for me. My “judging” personality type prefers things be decided and it is a very strong habit pattern. I like to analyze, sort, figure out, determine, move left or right, settle the score, define, categorize. I have a tendency to wait to make decisions or take action until things are stable. And on the other side of the coin, if things are not stable, I have a tendency to make hasty decisions with the intention of making them stable. There certainly is benefit to having neat and orderly habits, but it can be a real burden at times in the form of perfectionism.

Meditation practice has helped me to feel more comfortable with ambiguity, groundlessness and impermanence. Meditating on the fact that nothing is certain actually brings a sense of freedom. I can sort and determine and plan – and it is good to do so, but ultimately, all that really matters is what is happening right in front of me, right now. Reflecting on impermanence helps push me into the present moment. I can’t wait until some future time to live. The time to live is Now. It is always Now. I have hopes and plans for the future, but none of that is certain. All that is actually certain is what is happening Now. Even what happened in the past is not certain. Thoughts about the past are just thoughts happening now in the present. What happened in the past was only certain at the time it actually happened. Now the past is just a memory and the further I get from it, the more unreliable my memory is of it.

I am not tied down by any negative circumstance because it will eventually change. All I need is patience. I am not tied down by any positive circumstance because of the understanding that it will eventually change. I am more easily able to let good things go when they change because it is not a surprise. There is no delusion that somehow I could make things stay the same.

There is a wonderful Zen story about how no circumstance can really be categorized as good/bad, lucky/unlucky. Jon J. Muth tells this story very nicely in the children’s book Zen Shorts:

There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses. "Such good luck!" the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the farmer.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Such bad luck," they said. "Maybe," answered the farmer.

The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. "Such good luck!" cried the neighbors. "Maybe," said the farmer.

All of the events and circumstances of our lives are relative. And often, we may not even realize how “lucky” we are in a particular moment. There are layers upon layers of conditions contributing to the events of our lives. Perhaps it is for the best not to know how it could be better or worse, only how it is now.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

It feels like a long time since I last posted. It hasn't been that long, but it feels like longer because I have gotten out of the habit of just writing freely whenever a thought crosses my mind. It is ironic that my last post was the earthworm quote, since lately I have been doing some writing for a more public audience, with the intention that I might actually earn some money for some of my writing. It would be nice to eventually get out of the corporate world and do something more creative for a living, like writing or life coaching. Perhaps I will, I don't know. It takes time, I think. And I've never been patient enough in the past to really give my true vocational longings a real shot. I have ideas about the way things should be and then I expect that it be that way NOW. But obviously that is not the way things work in the real world. A seed gets planted, then watered and given sunlight and grows... slowly. Sometimes the growing seedling even wilts, then comes back. If one were to watch it constantly, it would seem like it was never getting anywhere.

So often I feel this way about my life and meditation practice. I meditate nearly every day and have for about 7 years, and the benefits are so gradual and subtle, almost barely even noticed. I still have the same anxieties, struggles, insecurities. Old baggage comes up again and again.

But when I stop and really look at my life at this point, I see how far I have come. It seems like a miracle has happened, even though it has taken 7 years of slow and patient work. Morning anxiety is more of a friend than an enemy and doesn't hit me nearly as hard as it did for so many years. I am less afraid of making mistakes and more willing to own up to them than ever before. When I hear thoughts of ill-will toward myself and others in my mind, I can no longer entertain them. I see craving, I see impermanence, I see suffering. I can no longer run away - and what a relief!

At first the not being able to run away was quite painful. What? You mean I need to face this stuff? I thought meditation was supposed to be relaxing!! Early days of meditation practice and retreat practice contained a lot of idealistic self-judgment for me. How can one look at all one's ugliness and not have some sense of self-disgust? But thanks to my skillful teachers, I have found compassion instead of disgust for my monstrous qualities. Self-love instead of self-hatred. I CARE about this pain, I told myself again and again. And you know what? I found that I actually do. And that caring for myself in that way is healing and amazing and beautiful.

I just love this quote I saw on a coffee cup in the office of my marriage counselor several years ago:

"Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars." From the poem, "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann.

So perhaps that is an overly used quote, but there is a reason for that. It is true and it is good. Be GENTLE with yourself. Have compassion for yourself. Care for yourself. That is what gets us over the hump and ends the battle within.

So the point I am trying to come to is that this did not happen for me overnight. I can't discredit the immediate benefits of mindfulness meditation - they are incredible (calming, stress-relieving, grounding). But sustained effort in maintaining mindfulness over a long period of time, I am only beginning to recognize the benefits of. And why should I think that a career change would be any different? Starting out slowly, from where I am, not expecting any big, immediate results, being satisfied with small successes here and there. These are the keys to big life changes. Big life changes start out small and evolve slowly and naturally over time with persistence. Persistence and discrediting of the voices that try to talk me out of what I really want for my life.