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Practicing When You’re a Mess

After the shelter in place orders came down in March, the committee inside my mind – composed of pretty rational, staid types – joined hands and collectively dove into an abyss. After having been a daily meditator for more than 25 years and having spent those years touting to others the power of mindfulness to help us navigate the challenging moments of life, I decided to run away. Nothing in my life or my practice had prepared me to deal with a lethal pandemic that seemed to have swooped down on my reality like a COVID-shaped meteor heading straight for me. I went through the full gamut of painful emotions – my mind routinely immersed in feelings of loss, grief, panic, impatience, anger. I was a complete mess.

An inveterate news junkie all my life, I suddenly shunned all outside input, dreading the next shocking headline from CNN. I obsessively washed my hands, spritzed bleach solution on doorknobs and handles, got into arguments with my partner about the right kind of mask to wear, insisted on cooking all our meals during the week, and with relentless focus shopped online for toilet paper, rubbing alcohol, and dish soap. I meditated every day, but my practice didn’t seem to help at all. A week went by. I was still a mess. My partner and I worked from home and frequently got in each other’s way, and my emotional brittleness made things more tense. When she would come in from a walk and begin to share the latest shocking news about the pandemic, I put my hand up and told her that I didn’t want to hear about it. That in itself was a huge role reversal for us; usually, I was the one who gave her news updates, and she was the one who said it was too much. Then, as a way to combat the anxiety of not knowing what the latest headlines revealed or the current progress of pandemic curve charts, I began reading potboiler detective novels so that my mind could find a place to escape. I literally read nothing else for weeks.

Another week went by of more fear, horror, cooking, remote work, seemingly ineffective meditation sessions, online shopping, and detective novels. I was still a mess. It seemed as though my meditation practice had completely let me down, that I was incapable of cultivating any redeeming awareness at all. Instead, I sought refuge in distraction, avoidance, fantasy, things we mindfulness practitioners are encouraged not to do. Move toward the difficult, we are told by our sage teachers. But I was having none of that. I relished my comfort food, my novels, my avoidance.

Some time around week three, I noticed that I appeared to be a little less of a mess. Don’t get me wrong. I was still a mess, but what I noticed is that the part of my mind that was aware I was a mess was somehow more aligned with my sense of self. All of a sudden, my window of tolerance was more open, and I experienced more space – more awareness – for being with things the way they were, and for seeing the fact that “I was a mess.” Somehow, without my noticing, the freaked out committee members in my mind had slowly, gingerly, crawled up from that oozy abyss and had begun to look around to see if it was safe. More days passed, and while I still washed my hands frantically, I was generally able to relax more as well. Little by little, I began taking in some news, and I was able to talk to people about what was happening. I was still a mess, but also not a mess. Maybe a 50-50 mess. It almost felt normal.

After three weeks or so, the idea that “I am a mess” seemed to have retreated. While I had assumed my meditation practice – of being with things the way they are, with mindful awareness – had abandoned me during those incredibly stressful early days of the pandemic, in actuality, I discovered, my practice had been working all that time. It was actually serving me, even though it didn’t look pretty, even though it was downright ugly at times. I realized that just because things are really hard and we’re responding in a less than perfect way, it doesn’t mean that we’re not practicing with it. It just means that things are really hard and we are doing the best we can. With this understanding, I realized that my practice had held me in this challenging time, even if I didn’t know it. Like others, I am a work in progress, navigating this crisis with the tools and the conditioning I have. In retrospect, avoiding the news and reading potboilers was skillful means to calming my nervous system. While meditating every day, which had seemed so ineffective for weeks, nevertheless kept me at least partially connected to the realm of awareness, so that when my nervous system did begin to calm down, I was able to notice the thought “I am a mess” not with judgment but with self-compassion and interest.

More than ever I realize that our practice doesn’t need to look “good” in order for it to be working. We don’t need to have radiant smiles like blissed-out people on magazine covers. Our practice doesn’t need to be perfect, and above all, we don’t need to be perfect. We just need to commit ourselves to practice itself, whether good, bad, or ugly, and do the best we can. With that commitment, the fruits of practice reveal themselves in their own way for each of us.

Retreat Post Compilation

2011-05-04-1SpiritRockNow that I am unplugged from my devices and to-do lists, I get to find out what my mind is really like. And who I really am.
I tend to feel very mortal when I’m on retreat. Without to-do lists, email, blog posts, relationships, calendars, there’s just my basic human mortality – the pulsing, vibrating, sensing of pleasure and pain in the body, and my mental habits. There is nothing else external to distract you from the simple truth of body sensations of pleasure, pain, and neutrality coming and going, mental states of grasping and aversion coming and going. It’s all very elemental. You see yourself as being a natural process which is limited in duration. The preciousness of life becomes abundantly apparent.
When I sit with all my mortalness in meditation, I am apt to reflect on the things I am doing in my life and whether they are an adequate expression of that precious mortality. Am I living the right life? I don’t tend to ask this questions when I am caught up in the everyday details of my life. But on retreat, with nothing around to mirror my assumptions about what is important and worthy of my attention, I am forced to become intimate with my elemental aliveness – to be intimate with the simple fact of being human. And when I can do that, the great questions start to resonate.

Take Time to Be This Holiday Season

This is the time of the year when everything seems to get intensified. Our work schedules are usually extra busy with end of year or seasonal deadlines. Add to that all the events and pressures of the holiday season, whether it’s your office party or planning for the holiday dinner you committed to make or sending out cards or shopping for gifts. There’s a certain joyous frenzy to it all. It can be a fun time of year. But it’s just as likely to be a very stressful time of year when we find ourselves going through the motions of the season without any presence of mind, in a kind of dissociative trance. We become so wrapped up in doing things that we forget our being completely. We become completely unbalanced.12-28-09 ornaments083.jpg

Paradoxically, this is a great time of year to just let yourself be. Taking some time each day to sit and breathe is critically important especially during high stress periods like the holidays. Even ten minutes a day of breathing can make a huge difference. Who has time for that? you might ask. How sad that we so often neglect to connect to ourselves. What does all the giving of the holiday season mean if you’re not able to give yourself the gift of your own attention? You’re not being selfish. You’re honoring your own mental and physical health by taking time out to breathe. To become still, silent, and simple. In that silence and stillness we can reflect on what’s important to us, about the kind of year we’ve had, about our successes and failures and our aspirations for next year. Even during a busy day you can remember to practice STOP whenever you feel you need it — just noticing your breath, your body sensations, and acknowledging whatever thoughts or emotions happen to be present, without needing to change how things are but simply opening to how things are.

So please, give yourself the greatest gift in the world this holiday season – the power of your own attention and self-care.