How do you know when we’re present?
I believe there are so many things that need to be dropped in order to be in the present moment. I thought I had a pretty concrete idea of what this meant, but a three-day silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society allowed me to truly start seeing the many different layers that surround this beautiful ability to just be.
On Labor Day weekend of last year, I went into retreat, excited to throw myself into the strict, timely routine of meditation and mindful activities. I thought that I could train my brain to be different, as well as modify my habits.
I’m going to backtrack a bit so that you can understand my inner workings a little more.
I grew up in a pretty strict household where “perfect” meant completing errands and assignments with deadlines from your checklist. There wasn’t enough time to stop and observe what was going on inside of me, let alone accept or understand it. This was considered a waste of time, a sign of weakness.
My only job was to push forward and accomplish whatever it took to make my outer environment perfect. This could range from cleaning the house and being impeccably organized all the way to getting great grades and striving for a perfect career. I was trained to ignore my inner voice from a young age and was even led to believe that it was impure and would lead me to make terrible decisions in life. The only thing worth investing in was that which would get me closer to material goals.
My goals started to change from the moment I started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction through Meditation course. I wanted to be calmer, a better listener, a more tolerant family member, more focused and successful, and gain a better understanding of this human life.
I never felt obligated to have a meditation practice but there have been moments where I would get mad at myself for not waking up early enough to practice before going to work, blaming my lack of focus and moments of lashing out on inadequate commitment towards my practice. I honestly thought that there would come a day where I would perfectly be able to meditate every single day at the same time without any interruptions. I now understand that what I strived for was an illusion of perfection.
En route to the retreat, I tried to bring myself to the present moment. I thought, “If I just feel the breath and am able to observe that which is in front of me I’ll be in the present.” Trying to override whatever was going on inside, emotionally or mentally, was the side job. I even tried to pay minimum attention to the fact that I was pushing it all down because I thought that it was more important to be present with the outer world than with the inner.
I’m sure deep down I understood that this didn’t align with what meditation truly is, but the present moment was equivalent to perfection for me. I arrived at the Insight Meditation Society extremely excited to view the schedule and get to work.
I woke up earlier than recommended on the first full day of retreat because I was determined to accomplish every little thing that was on my schedule and I wanted to add in a mindful walk on the trails through the woods. I wanted to do, I wanted learn, and I wanted to accomplish. I had my heart set out to gain even though I had no idea exactly what it was that I actually wished for.
This doing and accomplishing attitude wore me out later that day and I gave into my exhaustion. Even though I initially fought it due to my fear of failure, I finally gave in and allowed myself time to rest when the afternoon sitting meditation session in the main hall ended. I started to realize that this exhaustion, this fear of failure, this constant wish to accomplish was a vicious cycle that would lead me nowhere.
The same actions I thought would steer me toward growth and evolution were taking me away in the opposite direction.
This newfound insight shone light on my thinking patterns and my strict views. The practice of meditation sometimes felt like a chore, a task, part of the checklist because of these habitual mental patterns. This awareness allowed me to work toward letting go, to just drop my views of the end result and the grasping I had to some spiritual or fulfilling outcome.
I did this by sitting, slowly breathing in and out for about five minutes, and then allowing the natural breath to lead the way. I would then get out of my head and into my body by feeling all the feels from inner emotional twists and turns to the physical feels from my toes all the way to the highest strand of hair on my head. I sometimes viewed myself as sitting amongst the eye of the storm, the storm being all of the layers of perceptions that create my reality. I observe it and imagine myself holding it in a porous net where all is permitted to come, go, and flow as it pleases. I am simply the witness. Giving all of this attention allows it to have its time so that it can dissolve.
This insight enveloped me throughout the rest of the retreat. I felt my uncomfortable back pains while sitting during the meditations and dharma talks. Fully diving into my body, I accepted that the pain was there. I also accepted that there was a desire to shift and relieve this pain. I didn’t cling to the pain, didn’t judge it, or get frustrated that it was there. There wasn’t any clinging to that desire to get rid of it neither. I was simply fully experiencing all that was going on physically, mentally, and emotionally within me but I just sat there, felt it, and observed it.
It was as if I was me, as well as, someone on the outside just observing, anchored by my acceptance. This inner viewing and acceptance awakened awareness and deep peace within me. It allowed me to feel centered, not being pushed or pulled in different directions. A layer of constructed perception melted away. This brought me joy. I headed home at the end of the silent retreat that Monday fulfilled because I was able to understand what it meant to let go.
I dropped the work, the striving, the wanting, the end result. I dropped it all and I was embraced by the same thing I was fighting off; just being with imperfection while observing the full range of reality, both inner and outer.
The desire to be better, to evolve, to focus more, to be more dedicated, to make better choices, to do more are all viewed as good. I’m not saying they aren’t nor am I saying that they are. What I’d like to bring to light is the acceptance of what is, the inner love, the embracing.
Jack Kornfield has a quote that I tend to remember when I think about compassion: “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” Most of our actions are geared towards change but why is this if meditation is all about acceptance, about just being. The thought that acceptance can only exist with pure love totally flies right by us.
So, how about we learn to love ourselves so much that the way we are with all of our flaws and fails, imperfect bodies and uneasy minds, and all of the slippery situations that tend to throw us off our path simply lead us to care more deeply and compassionately for ourselves. In this way, we can fully embrace all of the ups and downs on the path of change, that we envision, with a genuine smile upon our face and warmth in our heart.
We are our caregiver. We are our own loving companion. Our happiness lies not in how perfectly we meditate, never committing a mistake, or by always striving for change but in how deeply we care and love ourselves. No one can love you as much as you can.
Your love is the greatest gift you can ever receive in this human experience. Your love is your greatest teacher. Your love will teach you how to let go of all things, thoughts, people, and places that do not serve you. It will naturally lead you toward where you need to go.
Author: Haila Rodriguez
Image: TW Smith/Flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Emily Bartran
Social Editor: Callie Rushton