“Don’t believe everything you think”—a bumper sticker I saw while driving my son to school today.
I’m not sure I would have noticed this bumper sticker ten years ago, but today it made me laugh and want to meet whoever was driving the car. This person was surely an enlightened being to have such a bumper sticker on display.
As a young woman going through the painful stages of growing up, I presumed my thoughts and I were one, with no separation or divide. A thinking, breathing, self-conscious amoeba-like lump of body mass, pulsating through life, reacting to whatever was in front of me.
Now I understand the power of getting tangled in thought, and I’m also aware that those thoughts are separate from who I am. They float in and out and I can get hooked if I’m not paying attention. I often do get hooked—I’m still a beginner.
Meditation has helped me see how destructive the stories I tell myself can be, and also how utterly fascinating they are.
Sitting on the cushion, I sometimes create elaborate tales involving my friends hating me, my husband wanting a divorce and my son thinking I’m the vilest creature to walk the planet. Other times, I’m extremely boring, making grocery lists in my head or planning a weekend brunch. Remember to call this person, I say to myself, hooked on the thought; unable to break free.
Unable, or unwilling? I admit, sometimes I am not willing to let go of the thought.
I want to take that magic carpet ride, even if it’s only planning a grocery list. While hooked, making a grocery list is the most important thing in my life. In another moment, there is nothing more crucial than deciding what to have for dinner tomorrow night. I jump on, sometimes fully aware that I’m climbing aboard. And off I go. Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says these are the most powerful thoughts, the ones that take us far away from the present moment. They hook, grab and sweep us off our cushions and into another world.
Coming back to the breath and labeling the thought “thinking” is an important part of meditation. When I do eventually fly back onto my cushion, I’m aware. Oh boy am I ever aware. I’m painfully aware that I allow myself to keep being swept away time and time again. All this awareness is good, I know. It’s a fundamental part of changing anything.
Sometimes I wish I weren’t so aware, though. Blissfully ignorant, happy to skim along the surface, not going too deep into anything, denying what’s going on around me.
I had a friend in high school that fit this description beautifully and I envied her. I envied the way she would not think about things like death or the fight she just had with her boyfriend. She could just shake these things off like drops of water and look up at the sky. “The birds are singing,” she would say. But sometimes the birds don’t sing and it’s with awareness that we realize this and know it’s true. In order to be here, present in this often painful world, we need to first be aware.
Over the years, I’ve tried to protect myself by building walls around me. Those walls soon became a towering castle, a dark and stormy fortress guarded by frightening knights with many weapons. I was always prepared for battle. I fought a lot. My whole life, actually.
And then one day, after the birth of my son, I grew tired of fighting. I realized that the fortress I had worked so hard to build was actually created by my thoughts and habitual patterns to protect me. I grew up protecting myself, just like my parents had grown up protecting themselves. In building those walls, I thought I was shielding myself from pain, rising above it, trying not to feel it. But even with that giant fortress and the steel armor, I could still feel the pain. It still hurt. I tried to push the feelings away. But the pain swelled and became so overwhelming that eventually all I could feel was anger.
I stayed angry until I couldn’t stand myself anymore.
A good friend told me about Shambhala Buddhism and how the teachings had helped her through some dark times. I was interested but I wasn’t ready. And then a year later, I was. I signed up for a class and it changed my life. I learned that the fortress I built was actually causing me harm. It wasn’t allowing my heart to shine through. It wasn’t allowing me to really live in an open and vulnerable way. Over time, I had hardened from fear and anger. It took me a long time to realize that not everybody lives surrounded by a fortress.
It was completely mind blowing actually. But also devastatingly sad to know that I had spent most of my life surrounded by walls. Walls I had built.
What I learned in studying Shambhala, a form of Tibetan Buddhism founded by and brought to the West by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, with the teachings and lineage continued by his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is that everyone has basic goodness. And that even the most impenetrable fortresses can be broken down with love and kindness. This basic goodness is accessible here and now.
It was always accessible. It was always here. I just couldn’t see it through my armor.
We have a choice. We can choose to keep our blinders on and build and expand our fortresses, get caught up in our stories, our anger. Or we can be courageous and choose to “sit in the middle of the fire,” as Chödrön says, by interrupting our storylines that have hooked us and coming back to the breath. There is enormous strength that comes from being able to sit with this raw and naked energy instead of always reacting to it. It’s about letting yourself feel instead of denying. It’s the uncovering of vulnerability and reconnecting with your heart that was shielded for so long. This is where change happens.
As my son grows, I want to tell him that he doesn’t need to build a fortress. That there is no real battle to fight. That he’s safe where he is, with himself, with us.
I am slowly beginning to dismantle my armor. It is taking a long time. It took over 30 years to build though, so I imagine dismantling it is going to take awhile. For a not-so-patient person, I’m surprisingly okay with this. I’m just so grateful to have begun the process. It started with awareness. And continues with not always believing everything I think.
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