contemplation

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 12 - Unpacking Our Own Stories

This is the twelfth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

For another project I am working on, I have been writing a lot about the concept of contemplation.  While contemplation can take many forms, my own contemplative practice is meditation.  I use meditation to unpack the thoughts that are taking up space in my mind.  I do not clear my mind, instead I flit from one thought to another to my breath, then back off to another thought again.  While ultimately, I believe the goal of meditation is to flit less and less, this way of practicing has yielded some really great insights into my personal narrative.

What I mean by narrative is the story that I tell myself about the events in my life.  When I sit down, I have a view of my street, and as I see snow clouds rolling in, I am likely to think, “Can you believe it, snow again, what an inconvenience!”  This is a natural response.  Another way of approaching this thought, however, is to look for the way I am telling the story: These clouds are a problem for who?  For me.  Why? Because they don’t give me the weather that I want. I am inconvenienced, the injustice! So, I take it kind of personally.  If nothing else, I find my mood souring, or I begin thinking about all the things I am missing out on because of the selfishness of weather patterns. 

Either way, I am telling the story of disappointment.  I am let down.  I am not getting what I want. 

These sentiments are now going to affect the next thing I do, and the next.  Usually, this can go on for quite a while. Usually, there is a cascade of emotions depending on how I have written my own story.   What meditation has done, however, is allow me to engage in a contemplative way with my emotions.

By unpacking the narrative, the flavor of the story, I can become far aware of my own effect on my day.  I can instead choose a narrative that supports growth and happiness.  I can choose to say, “More rain clouds, I guess that means I work inside today!” or “That’s the weather for you, what can you do!”  The difference, though subtle, is noticeable if one is paying attention.

Spring arriving has me thinking about how we tell our stories.  It is a time of growth and renewal and, naturally, the end of winter.  In each season we see how the cycle keeps moving forward: growth, life, death, birth.  We often get stuck in our preferences - like a preference for personal/environmental and spiritual growth - or get preoccupied with our fears  - ones surrounding stagnation, change and death - and this flavors all the other aspects of our lives.  As Maezumi points out, each of these states serves as a teaching point.  None are intrinsically good or bad – they offer us a perspective through which to see events as they are presented to us:

“So what is life? What is sickness? Who is getting old? Who is dying? What are these different perspectives teaching us? 

It is not a matter of four kinds or two kinds of perspectives as such. Each one of us has a different life and yet the same life-the life of birth, illness, old age, and death. How do we best live this life…?”

For me, contemplation and meditation are about answering Maezumi’s question.  How do we best live this life?  Do we taint our experience with (often unconscious) obsessive insecurity and fear, or do we take the lessons, realize that we each have the same life and work to unpack our thoughts one day at a time?  My practice has allowed me glimpses of the stories I tell myself, and I look forward to learning many more.  This week, consider your own stories.  What are they tell you and what perspective does that bring?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 1 - Settling In

In case you are unfamiliar, this is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on a excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

I think the first week of any new practice is a difficult one.  This week was no different, but I am happy to report that I completed all 4 days of sitting this week.  It was particularly hard, because two of those days I was out of town.  This traditionally disrupts my routines, as I am staying in someone else’s home, not really on my own schedule, and just generally out of my comfort zone.  What made this time different for me, and led to my success, was two-fold; one, I felt accountable to you – I said that I was going to write on this experience, and I really felt like I should try to not crumble to the first obstacle that came my way.  Two, I didn’t let myself rationalize or talk myself out of it.  I am really good at coming up with all the excuses for why I don’t/can’t follow through on commitments.  This time (maybe it was because of the practice) I caught that inner dialogue, identified what was happening, and simply told myself that when I could find some time before bed (I was chatting late into the evening with my hosts), it would be fine to sleep a little bit less so that I could stick to my guns.  I short, I didn’t give myself the opportunity to talk myself out of my commitment.

In terms of length, the program doesn’t specify any predetermined amount of time.  Though I have had a practice of sitting on and off, I opted for a goal of 10 mins of meditation.  For me, this is a pretty attainable amount of time, and it set me up for the highest chance of success (if my life gets crazy, I would even be ok with 5 min).  If this is your first go at meditation, choose a time that works for you.  1 min is better than nothing at all.  As I see it, if I want to overshoot that goal, great! But I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I am feeling like I let myself down if I don’t sit for 30 min every day.

I found the excerpts that come with each daily email to be really nice.  Focusing on a specific feeling or thought is a little outside of my comfort zone; I usually practice with a focus on the breath only.  These emails usually suggest a specific focal point, and I tried to stick to that.  Here is the excerpt this week that most resonated with me:

I encourage you. Please enjoy this wonderful life together.  Appreciate the world of just this! There is nothing extra. Genuinely appreciate your life as the most precious treasure and take good care of it.

I read this right after scanning through news headlines on my phone.  As I am sure you can imagine, there is a disproportionate amount of negative versus positive news.  I find it quite easy to get bogged down in all that negativity, so to have this gentle reminder to come back to this moment, feel myself in my space, listen to my body breathe, and practice appreciation, allowed me to let the news of the world melt away – making room for silence, calm and genuine appreciation.

I think that is enough for this week, though I am looking forward to what the next several months brings.  If you have any questions of comments, please reply below, or email me and I would be happy to talk about your questions, experiences, or reflections.

Be well, friends.

J