Week 19: Share My Path Series.
Many times, as we wander down a path, our mind takes us on a separate journey; we may want to look into the trees and find that bird which chirps at us but instead we contemplate what may lie further up the trail. This is so slyly done that the bird becomes an afterthought.
In meditation we circle back to find the chirp.
This is the working side of contemplation; the act of circumscribing our own thoughts while looking deeper into that which we’ve caught. And it is in the doing, the working, which the fruits of the practice manifest.
Janine, on a Thai train, was suddenly attacked by a “strong feeling of absolute dread”; a feeling that she was in the “wrong place.” A panic ensued. She raced first back to her hotel, seeking ‘safety’, then quickly cut her trip short and returned home.
She told no one.
“After some time I sought medical help,” she told me, while also experimenting with “all sorts of alternative remedies, from hypnotherapy to St. John’s Wort.”
And then she circled back.
“I gradually began to recover, although more by facing my own fears than by investigating their causes,” she says.
Strolling down a trail whose head was podcast instruction and whose twists and turns brought her in contact with Buddhist teachers who “embodied the sort of calm confidence” she sought. Janine began the work of contemplation. Her first job: an 8-day silent retreat that she’d ‘mistakenly’ enrolled in without reading the course description.
“I made the common assumption that it [a retreat] would bring instant peace and tranquility,” she admits, “but soon realized that longer periods of practice cleared space for all my issues to come up.” As Janine circumscribed these thoughts something else became glaringly apparent: “I was causing my own suffering,” she admits.
Invigorated by the retreat experience, and the revelations they would enlighten, Janine would go on to three more. The stricter, the more austere, the more appealing they were. “Looking back I realize,” she tells me, “that I approached it as a challenge and endurance test, rather than learning experience.”
Oh the traps which lay upon the path; the pretty meadow full of mosquitoes, the lunch spot over-run with fire ants, the ego. And, while in hindsight we my wish to have avoided the traps, the truth is we learned something.
Janine learned she needed a daily practice. “Right now I am still meditating for 20 to 30 minutes a day and also doing yoga every day,” she shares. So while her intention may have been to test herself, the result, while different, is positive.
The idea of circling back comes up again later in our dialogue. Janine, speaking to some of the troubles she’s experienced in her practice spoke to her lack of concentration.
“My tendency [is] to want to do things perfectly and to be good at things,” she shared, but then I “feel disappointed when I’m not living up to some mythical ideal of the ‘good meditator.’” Of course it was only in Janine’s contemplative practice that she realized her perfectionism. “It’s all grist for the mill,” she shared.
Janine’s also struggled with indecision; which path to follow. “I’m coming to realize,” she tells me, “that too much ‘spiritual window shopping’ is counterproductive.” But, in the same conversation, she shares that she tries the paths not because she’s “flighty” but because she’s still not found that path the she would call her own.
This questioning, but also acceptance, if balanced, I’d argue is far from counterproductive.
“Meditation has allowed me to meet my shadow with kindness and some acceptance,” Janine tells me. “Instead of suppressing the fear and anxiety it opens you up to face it.”
“In fact you gradually realize that if you turn away from suffering it increases, while if you turn and face it your suffering decreases.”
And has it?
“I’m increasingly allowing myself to show vulnerability,” she says, “meditation has shown me where I needed to break down barriers and be less protected. In terms of mood, I’m much happier. Ironically this has come about by my realizing that I don’t have to pretend to be happy all the time. I can experience anger, fear, and stress in the moment, not suppressing them, and then watch as they leave as quickly as they came.”
“The discovery of my inner witness—calm and clear in the center–,” Janine says in closing, “is motivation in itself.”
It’s difficult, as this interview comes to a close, not to circle back and visualize the change that occurred between Janine’s escaping the unknown fear on the train and her acceptance of fear now. But in that enclosed recollection I’m sure lies a lesson for each of us.
Share My Path is a journalistic archive of the paths taken by practitioners of meditation. Through community sharing of our paths we’ll help others find theirs.
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Last week’s installment of Share My Path: Community Makes the Difference: Find Yours!
The installment that started it all: Your First Time: Sometimes it Hurts.
A random installment:The Power of a Practice Explored Together.
A list of all previous weeks: Share My Path.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise