Meditation is the glue that’s held me together for years. I honestly don’t think I could have made it through the last year without it. But over the last few months, something new and wonderful is happening inside, because of what I’m learning and bringing into my practice. Talking with one of my co-workers at lunch today, I realized that I can articulate some of this change. I want to write this down and share it, just in case it helps nudge one of you, my friends, to develop or deepen your own meditation practice.
Last January, I attended a six-week class at Sukhasiddhi called “Extraordinary Samatha”, and this month, I’m in a follow-on class called “Extraordinary Vipassanā”. This one-two punch is helping me find gratitude in most of the moments of my life, helping me feel relaxed and cheerful and appreciative and kind most of the time. I cannot tell you how precious this is, but perhaps you can imagine it for yourself. I rarely feel anxiety or depression, and I’ve gotten much better, even skillful, at following my feelings, speaking plainly, being completely honest. I remember that, even a few years ago, my inner experience was an almost ceaseless stream of thought, with a liberal sprinkling of contempt, upset, criticism and anxiety.
That experience is dissolving. Seriously. It’s almost as though my inner process is slowing down, becoming more spacious. Now I usually notice when I’m having a thought or a feeling, before I act on it. When something comes at me that is unexpected or painful, I can often choose my response. It’s different than the way I used to “edit” myself, stop myself from saying something because I was afraid of what would happen. This is more like “hmm, I feel a little angry, I wonder why?”…and I ask myself the question, and even get some insight, before I say anything. At the same time, my thought processes can be just as quick as ever, so it’s not like my thinking is slowing down. And when I need to focus, my focus is just as good, just as sustainable as it always has been.
Wikipedia has a nice article on vipassanā, which also describes the relationship with samatha. These are two types of meditation: basically, samatha is a meditation for getting grounded, quieting the mind, and becoming present; vipassanā is an inquiry or insight meditation on our own internal process, our senses, how we perceive things, and how feelings and thoughts arise.
I’ve been doing samatha for about 15 years, as this is the kind of meditation taught at the Pathways Institute workshops and retreats I started attending and facilitating in 1996. Vipassanā is fairly new to me, as I’ve only had a little experience with it at Spirit Rock events.
I’m learning that there is a progression inside, from sensory data (sight, smell, touch, etc.), to perception (labeling what I sense), to a feeling and perhaps even an emotion…and all of this happens before I have a thought process. I’m sure there are some people reading this who will nod and smile, and others who wonder why this is even relevant. All I can tell you now is that it is relevant, that this awareness is what is helping me to be more spacious, more kind to everyone around me, more kind to myself. This unfolding is just beginning for me. Hopefully I can write again about it in the future, with more insight and deeper awareness. In the mean time, I’m more joyful and content. It’s just that simple.
Oddly, this learning has brought a whole new level of grief to light. I wonder what would have happened if Nancy had been able to share this with me, if she had taken on her own sitting meditation practice. For the truth is, she never did, even though I invited her many times. Perhaps the tragedy of her passing would have been averted. Perhaps she would have found more ability to love and be loved and show compassion, who knows? The “what if” game is endless, and pointless. The reality is, she is gone, and my new-found self-awareness demands that I let these thoughts go, and be present with what is. So I let them go. But I continue to grieve what might have been.
So, if you are grappling with your life, your inner critic, your anxiety or sadness or lack of wonder in the universe, if you argue with your partner or say unkind things to your children, please find a way to sit and meditate. Please.