It's a Matter of Practice

For the past five years, I've sat down just about every day to practice meditation and only recently have I realized exactly what it is I am practicing. 

The revelation came a few months ago when I was about to undergo some outpatient surgery. Deep in the vast cavernous space of the surgery prep area, a nurse with a well-practiced monotone directed me to remove all my clothes, place them in the plastic bag and change into the hospital gown, opening in the back. There was a clue that I was in the subordinate position. Still I followed her orders, hopped up on the gurney, pulled the thin sheet over me and waited to see what the next person would do to me. The next person was a nurse anesthetist with a cool surfer dude personality and even though he put me at ease a little bit, it was really starting to sink in that someone would be cutting something off of me soon. By the time the anesthesiologist came around to approve the silly sauce about to be injected into my veins, I was at full tilt worry and anxiety. She introduced herself and then remarked to me how unusually calm I appeared. What was my secret, she wanted to know. 

That’s when I realized something about my meditation practice. I do sit down daily to practice something, but calling it meditation makes it seem a little loftier than it actually is. Most of the real estate in my brain has been staked out by anxiety and fear, grief and despair, doubt and uncertainty and misgivings. It's not that I'm calm while I'm sitting in stillness, I'm just practicing remaining calm as my emotions toss me around.

So when the nurse pulled the curtain shut behind her and separated us into the very clear categories of patient and healthcare professionals, I felt my anxiety level shoot up and I observed my thoughts race to terrifying conclusions. This was stress and this was appropriate for anyone about to have surgery. I was not feeling calm. In fact, I was extremely anxious. But there was something different about me than the other people hooked up to IVs in the pre-op center whom this doctor was about to anesthetize. I was comfortable with my anxiety. I was comfortable with my anxiety because for the past five years I have practiced remaining calm as emotions roil through my body.

Substitute in any anxiety-producing situation of your own for my stint in the land of outpatient surgery. It might be a client asking you the one question you dread; it might be your co-worker throwing you under the bus. Lots to choose from here. Being on intimate terms with your own anxiety might just shift the way you handle stressful situations.

You can say I meditate, but I say I observe the anxiety while I cultivate the calm. This takes a lot of practice.

If Hamlet meditated

Plagued by anxiety and  his father's ghost (not to mention his creepy uncle), the Prince of Denmark pondered the most famous mantra of all time: To be or not to be. That was and always will be the question. Hamlet did not meditate and his anxiety  has entertained for centuries. Anxiety ratchets up drama. See for yourself.

To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover’d country from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action.–Soft you now! The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons


Point of it

Usually, the question is:

  • How has meditation changed your life?

It's hard to answer because I don't have a clear recollection of me before I meditated. I used to get anxious. I still get anxious. I used to worry a lot. I still worry a lot. But sometimes I tell myself there's nothing I can do about this particular worry and sometimes I listen and put the worry away.

I like this question better even though no one ever asks:

  • How has your meditation changed the world?

The world is a better place. War. Famine. Hunger. Disease. Sex slavery. Illiteracy.  It's all still there. But, I've noticed  small things and have had small conversations. I've taught a couple people to meditate. I've listened to words said by people who are saying something they think no one can hear. I notice connections and honor those connections. I observe questions more than answers. There are connections between strangers and non-strangers, things I was not privy to before. And I've said things to people I would not have had the courage to say before I learned to meditate.

And some of these things have changed  things, that may have changed some other things I don't even know about. Dominoes. imagesIt takes just a little push to tip the first one over and then you step back and watch the next one tip over that  sets off the next and the next and the next. And then maybe the world changes just a little bit. And when I think about that, it makes me a little happy.

The Influence of Anxiety: Days One Hundred Sixty Five - One Hundred Seventy One

Harold Bloom, an eminent literary critic, has written many books of note, but one of his his most well-known texts is The Anxiety of Influence, a treatise that explores a creative problem faced by poets who are intimidated by the poets who have come before them.  Writers read and writers compete with all that has been already written.  As much as I love to read Cynthia Ozick or Bonnie Nazdam or Virginia Woolf, reading their work always makes me humble.  Humility does not help to get the job done.  Arrogance is the stuff that gets a novel written. Mr. Bloom spoke the unspoken when he explained the collision course of contempt and respect a writer must travel.  It occurs to me that the anxiety of influence is a problem for writers, but the influence of anxiety is a universal problem.

An illness may be debilitating, it may be painful, it may even be deadly, but the disease is just one portion of the crisis.  The other part is the anxiety that accompanies the illness and that anxiety may be just as crippling as the disease.  The same goes for just about any situation I can think of.  Writing an essay requires the concentration to write, yes, and also requires the writer to deal with the anxiety of meeting the deadline and being a proficient writer.  Hitting a golf ball requires a bit of skill, but mostly it requires the confidence to hit the damn ball down the fairway.  There is an element of anxiety to almost any situation and the influence of anxiety on us is powerful.

Meditation lessens the influence of anxiety.  Options become available, time expands, horizons broaden.   Harold  Bloom speaks of  "creative correction,"  a term that is well applied to meditation.  Meditation is as individual as the person who sits and in its magical way, allows us to creatively correct the course of our lives.

Use the tools: Days Seventy-Three - Seventy-Six

Anxiety, my old friend.  All the things I have no control over, those are the things that worry me most.  The more unproductive the worry, the stronger it wraps around my belly, my throat, my head. Yesterday, I turned off my phone for an hour and met with my teacher and friend, Lee.  I listed my worries, health and emotional concerns for family members.  Even though I know my worries are reasonable (I don't look for drama), I am disappointed in myself.  Shouldn't the meditation have diminished all that misdirected anger and free floating anxiety?  Really?

"Let's use the tools," Lee said and we meditated together.   I went in very deep.  Dreamlike thoughts floated by, nonsensical things I can't remember now.  The blur is appealing.   The ephemeral lovely.