Around two years after I started reading about meditation and all the unusual and amazing things one could discover as a result of learning to pay attention, it became abundantly clear that in order to really learn, I would have to do. Reading about meditation is pretty much like studying cookbooks: great for whetting your appetite, useful for discovering new and practical information you’ll need along the way, and no good for satisfying your true need.
Sitting still and quietly came easily to me, once I had made the decision to get on with it. I bought a kitchen timer, set it at five minutes the first day, and kept notching it up one minute each day to build up my tolerance level. When I would hit a point of impossible discomfort, I would dial my timer back a minute for a few days, and then try adding to it again later on. I built up to 45 minutes after a few weeks, and learned a whole lot about myself for having done so. Starting a meditation practice under your own steam is fantastic work. Teachers later told me it’s brave and rather rare. I didn’t know anything about that at the time.
Soon enough, with all of that sitting and noticing, I realized that I wanted a teacher. Those books and all their intriguing, often baffling teachings had whet my appetite for knowing what those authors had come to know. Enter Norman Scrimshaw. Norman is my teacher. Like the meditation teacher you might love to picture, he’s a wise, gentle man who lives on top of a mountain a distance north of here. Norman told me lots of things, but more importantly he lived out what I went to him to learn. He never asked me to believe anything, just offered what he knew for my consideration and investigation. I want to tell you about one of his teachings today. It goes like this:
Everyone is always doing the best they can.
This is a profound hypothesis that took me a while to consider, let alone realize at some level for myself. My mind had a lot to say about how wrong that had to be. Maybe right now you are able to watch your own mind arming for the battle against this outrageous statement. Perfect. One of the main ideas with meditation is to become familiar with the causes and effects of believing the thoughts you believe. This becoming familiar produces a deeply beneficial, and also different set of causes and effects than have been available previously, without your having to make a big project out of attaining anything. I could stop here for today; you’ve got your assignment, for the week, maybe for life.
I’m going to continue, however, and tell you about another teacher, from another tradition. A few years later, I decided to add to my meditation experiences by learning to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR.) I happen to be fantastically lucky in this regard; I live a short 90-minute drive from the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. My first teacher there was Zayda Vallejo, and during the very first class we all had with her, she gave us this same teaching, in a sweet and subversive way.
You all get an A+ in this class, she told us with a smile. Lots of people exchanged glances and chuckled. Good course, the pressure’s off! we thought.
It was only after following the instructions for this fantastic meditation intensive-in-life called MBSR that I saw what she had really given us with this A+. Zayda had invited us to see that we are all doing the best we can, all the time. All of us, all the time, meaning the big ALL. This was her shorthand for Norman’s teaching. And how amazing that simply learning to pay good-hearted attention to life, under the guidance of someone who lives and breathes A+, and thereby to really see what’s happening, that this gives you access to this profoundly relaxing, healing and ultimately liberating truth.
I offer my deep gratitude to Norman and Zayda, and to all the teachers who I continue to learn from. You can find out more about Norman’s teachings through his ongoing spiritual community, Awakening Connections, at http://www.awakeningconnections.org/index.html
Zayda continues to teach at the Center for Mindfulness. To find out more about Zayda and the Center, please visit: http://umassmed.edu/Content.aspx?id=42408