While the particulars vary from person to person, we all have ingrained patterns that shape our experience of living. One’s spirituality, though, can be a tremendous resource for transforming these recurring themes. At the very least, a consistent spiritual practice allows us a calm starting point from which to venture into the world.
Meditation is especially helpful in bolstering a steady center, a claim now verified by decades of research. Meditation can go a step further, however, providing a method for directly refining our unhelpful tendencies. We can do this by embracing them with awareness.
Embrace fear, anger and despair?!! I gotta be kidding, right? Nope! For eons, folks have successfully worked in just this way with the full range of bothersome human impulses.
To begin, we simply observe our responses as they occur, naming them accurately and noticing their quality. We refrain from acting and, instead, simply breathe through our physical, emotional or mental reactions. A minute or two of this kind of attentive awareness will often do much to soothe us. Understanding then has the opportunity to arise, perhaps bringing with it a more helpful response.
However, sometimes our reactions are not so compliant. Deeper work may be needed. If so, we must assess our situation honestly. Some issues require a friend’s presence or the assistance of a professional. Others are less taxing, though we may not have the time or energy to grapple with them in that moment. If either is the case, it’s still best not to fuel our upset. We would do well to “change the CD” by exchanging our current experience for a more pleasurable and quieting activity or thought process, recognizing that we can address our difficulty at another time.
If the moment is ripe, however, it would be wise to first calm ourselves through some sitting or walking meditation. This is when a steady practice comes in handy. By learning to regularly move into a peaceful state, it becomes more accessible to us when needed. After all, if a bicycle was your only mode of transportation, ya wouldn't want to wait for a crisis to learn to ride, would ya?!!
Once an inner stillness has been reached, we invite our upset into our awareness and simply continue with a mindful embrace, noting minute shifts in our experience. “I keep following it in the present moment and recognize and name whatever it is right now,” Buddhist monk, Brother Phap Thanh, explains. “A seed manifests, I observe it and I notice that at some point it changes. I just keep following it and naming it.”
When we invite anxiety, for example, to sit with us, we simply notice as it grows stronger, weakens or subtly shifts into another emotion. We welcome, without judgment, whatever arises through employing what Phap Thanh terms “a radical openness”.
In this way, we tend our painful places as a mother cradles her infant or as a big brother cares for a younger sibling. Calming occurs and a friendly relationship begins to replace an adversarial one. Over time, our rough places soften and we grow more adept at ascertaining the true impetus for our discomfort. Our developing skills can then move deeper, transforming our wounds closer to their root.
When we sit with ourselves like this, we touch a spaciousness our internal whirlwinds usually obscure. Before, our upset consumed us. Now, as we tenderly hold our distress, we realize we are so much larger. This expanded awareness gradually becomes our steady ground, allowing us to notice sooner when we’re being carried away by our reactions.
As we continue to cleanse our inner experience, we grow too in our ability to rest deeply within that unfathomable vastness that embraces and sustains us all.
I wish you well returning to your calm center, no matter the winds that blow.