The Pause

The way meditation works still freaks me out. I’ve been practicing with more or less consistency for a couple of years now, and the part that is consistently weird — like in a good way — is that the benefits of meditation sneak up on you. During meditation you just sit there focusing on your breath and trying to get your brain to shut up. Its not profound. Its not even particularly interesting. If nothing else, I’ve discovered how perfectly boring my head is most of the time.

The cool part of meditation doesn’t happen during meditation. It happens when you start noticing the pause. It is the little space between one thought and the next. Between one thought and an action that follows it. It’s a space I have been searching for my whole life.

One of my great struggles in life has been wrestling down my “big feelings.” I remember so many times expressing my frustration in counseling sessions — how the strategies I tried to manage my feelings amounted to trying to corral wild horses with a three foot fence. Even when I wanted to slow down or tame my feelings, it was so difficult. I felt I failed more often than not.

Meditation seems to do the trick here in ways nothing else has. Mostly it is subtle. I’ll catch myself having a shitty feeling or thought, and its followed by a little space where I can check the thing out and ask if it is useful. Most always it isn’t. And then you re-frame the thought or forget about it.

There are two reasons in particular that this makes me happy. The first is that I don’t get sucked into vortexes of crappy feelings like I used to. The second is that it is easier to be kind. I don’t know if I have any fewer unkind or judge-y thoughts about other people than I used to; they always just seem to pop in to one’s head. But there’s the pause again where I can replace the petty unkind appraisal with something. It goes like that:

Bitchy Me: “Wow that’s a skanky top she’s wearing.”

Pause: “That’s a mean thing to think about a perfect stranger. What the hell?”

Better Me: “She looks like she is enjoying feeling sexy. She looks confident and happy. Good for her! ”

Better me is much better than bitchy me.

So the thing is, this happens to me all the time now. I think it is because when you meditate you get used to seeing your thoughts and feelings and (usually boring) stories much more objectively. So if things pop in to your head you don’t have such a sense of attachment to them. Instead, you can choose who and how you want to be in the world instead of just “you happening to you” all the time.

I am profoundly grateful for this turn. For the pause. It’s a work in progress of course. But it does yield some little rewards most days, and I think it’s helping me to be more calm and more compassionate. I really value these things even if I can’t live up to them all the time. So progress is good.




On Authenticity

I have been thinking a lot about authenticity of late. Lots of triggers here:

First, I’ve been doing all this reading and contemplating about coaching relationships and coaching support groups, and the thing is that you can’t get anything out of these relationships without being vulnerable. People who are truly open to change will, with very rare exception, find they have to be themselves before they can find themselves. Man, that is hard. It takes real courage.

Mulling holiday excess. I wrote earlier about holiday celebrations that are motivated by the joy of sharing versus those that are motivated by “display.” I’d mentioned that there are no simple dividing lines here, because it is pretty natural for us to both love pulling out our best stuff for people we care about and to get caught up in caring about what strangers think. Continue reading

On Not Taking Things Personally

I read Don Miguel’s The Four Agreements about fifteen years ago. It really is a lovely book, with self-evident wisdom in its four big ideas:

  • Be impeccable with your word
  • Take nothing personally
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Always do your best

Like much of what constitutes genuine wisdom, the Four Agreements are deceptively simply. And that deceptive quality is important to acknowledge because it can be a real source of frustration when you are trying to use guidelines like this to “self-improve.” It’s certainly frustrated me over time, anyway.

But something nice crystallized for me in a recent podcast. Sharon Salzberg (she’s an American Buddhist teacher) was talking about how unsatisfying it is to practice meditation or loving kindness and it is so… wow. Nothing. No deep insights. No rush of enlightenment. Lots of times, not even the compassion or calmness that one kind of hopes will come out of such activities. Lots of days it’s just… nothing. But, she says, it’s really important to remember that the evidence of growth doesn’t reside in those moments, but in how you later show up in the world.

I realized that this has been true for me in my life: I actually am kind of better. More patient. Less self-centered. Kinder to myself and others. Quicker to get up again after being knocked on my ass. So it was nice to have this moment of realizing that my faith has been rewarded in some modest ways. It isn’t really faith in a religious sense: It’s a faith that continued efforts to be a better person are worth it, even when they’re really hard and there is little immediate reward for those efforts.

The “take nothing personally” idea in The Four Agreements is a case in point. I’ve had a couple of pretty hurtful experiences in the past month, but was ultimately uplifted when I realized that I had achieved some capacity to distance myself — my sense of self and my self-worth — from those painful moments. Fifteen years ago, staring at Miguel’s great idea that I “take nothing personally” was infuriating because I “got it” intellectually, but it wasn’t helping me a damn bit in the moments where I was most caught up in hurt, anger, and all those other crappy feelings that come with feeling oneself the object of another’s judgement.

It’s different now though. Could I pinpoint exactly when it has changed? No. Is it perfect? No, of course not — we all have our days and moments. But it is much, much better. So I think Salszberg’s observation is another bit of wisdom that looks simple, but isn’t. It’s this: keep trying, be patient, and be gentle with yourself when the insights and changes you are seeking don’t show up right away. They will with time and practice. Promise.



The Recipe Box

Lots of us love our mum’s recipe boxes. I was pleasantly surprised about five years ago when one of my daughters asked for mine. Turns out that something of all those years I spent in the kitchen had given her a touchstone… some sense of comfort and place.

As we get older, our parents still stay our parents; our kids still stay our kids. I still rely on my folks for advice, and comfort, and feeling like I’m connected somewhere even if the rest of the world feels like it is spinning away. They’ll never claim to have it all figured out, and neither will I. Who does?

So the recipes in the Recipe Box here aren’t really recipes. They don’t guarantee perfect outcomes. This is just my best way to keep trying to give my grown up kids what I can offer in terms of meaning-of-life stuff, just as my folks have done for me.