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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Resting in the Pause

Meditation teachers often speak of the pause that occurs after one out breath ends but before the next in breath begins and also after the in breath ends but before the next out breath. Contrary to what many of us believe, breathing is not continuous. To be honest, while I have always found that fact interesting and an aid in maintaining mindfulness, I wasn't sure that it had benefit beyond the meditation cushion or (in my case) chair. Then I noticed a change in myself. I noticed I wasn't reacting nearly as fast as I used to, and that is loaded with benefits.

When we can learn to pause before responding to a situation, from relatively benign to potentially violent, we are more likely to respond in a way that is actually helpful rather than one that exacerbates the situation. Part of the reason we are able to do this is that we see the actions of the other more clearly and discover that they are most likely responding from their pain and/or fear rather than what is actually happening. This helps us to respond with compassion even to potentially violent people because we understand that nothing personal is happening. In fact, when I think back on the times that I have responded in ways that were less than helpful, I was almost always responding to what I perceived was a personal attack. Over time spiritual practice helps us to see that there really is no such thing as a personal attack because attacks are always the result of distorted perceptions.

This reveals the problem with those programs such as CDs that claim to put you in the meditative state of a long term meditator. Even if they actually put us in that state, they cannot give us the experience of sitting with our lives year after year. There are no shortcuts, but the benefits of sustained effort are more than worth the time!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Compassion and Truth

The Dalai Lama has famously said that loving-kindness is his religion, a sentiment that has been repeated on countless bumper stickers, in countless social media posts, and just about everywhere else you can imagine. When I first heard about that concept, I thought that it was rather airy-fairy, rather insubstantial, the kind of fluff that new age pseudo-spirituality is loaded with - and then I decided to try practicing it.

At first it seems very simple. It seems like all we need to do is take the welfare of the person we encounter into consideration. We not only avoid doing what hurts them, we also try to take action that will in fact help them. It sounds so simple, and it is - as long as we only encounter one relatively content person at a time. Sooner or later, though, we are bound to encounter two people who aren't getting along. How are we to tell what is best for both of them, especially if their disagreement goes back years? What if their disagreement is taking place in public, and our intervention - even when well conceived and perfectly carried out - will leave at least one of these two people diminished in the eyes of the witnesses? How do we act in the best interest of a person who is about to do physical harm to another? How do we respond with compassion to an angry, raging person who might harm us?

These questions and many more point out the truth that while loving-kindness might sound light-weight, it is anything but. While theoretical solutions might be easy to arrive at, our attempts to apply them in the real world often show the situation to be much more complex than our theories anticipated.

I have come to the conclusion that the person I most need to show kindness to is myself. That doesn't mean that it would be healthy or desirable to permanently isolate myself in a self-love fest in a distant cabin far away from civilization, though as a vacation spot it might be very helpful, indeed. It does mean that my ability to practice loving-kindness toward others will be severely impaired if I end up compromised due to lack of self care. It is perfectly acceptable to not know the best action to take in a particular situation and so take a pass and just walk away. It is perfectly acceptable to take time off to care for self. We really do not have to solve all the world's problems.  Rather, we are called to address the ones we can and stand with those who need the support of community. At times we do have to intervene either physically or verbally, but more often we just are called to be fully present.

As one who has battled rather unhealthy childhood training all of his life, I need to constantly remind myself to care for me. I'm far from perfect, but getting better and better as time passes. That being said, there is still a long way for me to go. Part of being compassionate toward myself is learning that having a long way to go is perfectly permissible!