What’s the speed limit?

You’re driving on the highway, paralleling the New England seacoast on a busy summer weekend. Traffic is congested and still flowing. Most drivers have adopted a roughly common speed, going a touch over the speed limit. Cars enter and exit with little disturbance to the flow.

And there’s that one car you encounter every few miles. The driver is darting in and out, switching lanes frequently, moving faster than the rest, braking and accelerating all the while. You feel your fingers grip harder, your jaw and gut tense, and your foot touch the brake, as that person in such a hurry quickly injects into the small opening between you and the car you’re following. Senses are heightened and at least to some degree frightened. You see other drivers jiggle, slow down or speed up to make room for the oncoming driver.

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Chances are high that you’ve also been this driver at some point, perhaps even recently. If you can, bring to mind what that felt like. For me, it is similar to the encounter I described above, except consistently so. I’m driving completely tensed up, for the long haul. I’m on the greedy lookout for any advantage, not interested in the overall sense of everyone getting where we need to, each in our own good and safe time. Having unconsciously adopted the stance that it’s all about where and when I need to get, I’m just sufficiently engaged with the sense of the other cars and people around me to stay relatively safe, but not properly so. It’s pretty much all about me.

Now consider the speed you’ve adopted around just about anything you’ve undertaken recently. Maybe it’s the apartment you are searching for, or the project you’re involved with at work. Maybe it’s the 20-minute trip into the grocery store last night, start to finish. Whatever you’re doing, you are doing with a certain speed limit assumption. Fast is going to be perfectly appropriate when you dash to grab your toddler before he steps into the pool; is it necessary when you’re asking the next person in your retail establishment for their order on a busy day? Where other people are part of the flow of the project or transaction’s traffic, do you sense into what the speed is overall, and enter and exit accordingly?

If you’re operating over the appropriate speed limit, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Slow down and pay attention, for all of our sakes.

Sticky Thicket

We’re in the second week of a 6-week meditation series I teach in the workplace, and I just received an email from one of the students who started out with us. She can’t continue the class. Things are too busy in her office, they’re short-staffed, they need her, she just can’t afford to get away. She’s very disappointed and hopes to do the class the next time it’s offered.

I understand, of course.

I can’t know what’s going on in her life, at home, with her office. Every one of us working stiffs is going to go through periods where we need to draw all our resources together for the hard push. I’ve been through those events: mergers, major contractions of the business line, lay-offs, software conversions. There is no way I would have attempted the radical act of sitting still in the middle of any of that. And that’s too bad, for Past Me. She could have used that.

Here’s the rub with meditation. You have to stop. You have to be willing to stop. You might even have to fight for your right to stop. For this particular class, that means you can find yourself one day into a 6-week series and the epic battle begins.  You’ve committed to structuring 15 minutes into your life 3 times between now and the following week’s class meeting. Think Prince Charming and the forever-bramble forest he has to slash through to get to Sleeping Beauty’s tower. Only the brambles are your boss, your kids, the dirty dishes, your running shoes, book club, 5 email accounts, “what’s for dinner?,” your co-workers, employees, clients, and the heap of health insurance and charity solicitation and monthly bill paperwork that’s spilling off your kitchen counter. In fact, it’s not really any of these. It’s your adherence to them, literally. The bramble consists of an utterly sticky tangle of unexamined entanglements, and their priority above what is most essential for a human life. This is the stickiest of thickets.

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If you can slash through all of that and be still, for 15 minutes, or even just truly breathe without agenda for 20 seconds, you might actually find the awakened beauty called You.

When you insist to the world that you will discover and honor that, the thicket falls away. And Nothing stands in your way.

Bigger on the Inside

I have to admit, my family and I are enjoying a nice little binge into the current revival of the British television show Dr. Who. If you’re anything like me, you love this particular combination: a little time travel, intergalactic drama, constantly refreshing romantic interest and an infinite range of period costumes. One of the recurring bits in this show involves the phrase, “it’s bigger on the inside.” I won’t ruin the joke, but it got me thinking recently that this is also a fairly accurate statement about the mind.

Tardis

Of all the reasons people report to me when they show up to learn meditation, the most common involves something like getting the mind to quiet down, or to out-and-out shut up. Frankly, this makes perfect sense. In my observation, we’re living in a world that is generating more complex, rapid-fire, high-stimulation thought streams every day. The rate of increase seems to be rising as well. It’s almost impossible to catch a short break from the relentless mind, or to approach anything like decent rest. Who doesn’t relish the idea of being able to produce quiet mind on demand? But forget about making the mind behave itself. Hands down, the worst meditation instruction you’ll ever hear goes like this: To begin, quiet your mind. You may, if you’re lucky, enjoy a very brief interlude of clear sailing. After about 3 seconds, the mind kicks back on line, you call yourself a failure, quit, and get back to more important things like writing blog posts about what a flop you are at  meditation. This is a real loss. Because of a little imprecision in instruction, aspiring meditators don’t stick around for the reasonably short period of time necessary to get the chance to experience the subtle qualities of the mind.

The trick with the mind is to leave it be. I mean, really leave it alone. It’s like how you handle a sidewalk hawker, that guy who is going to keep up the sales banter to get you to pay attention.  Untrained, your mind is like this guy, producing long strings of narrative, discursive, slightly or not-so-slightly unsatisfied chatter. Even just catch his eye, and he’s got you on the hook. If you give anything to the 98% of your mind’s output that requires exactly zero of your attention, you just encourage more of same. Meanwhile you miss the vaster domain of mind available beyond the accustomed. Back on that crowded sidewalk, you turn your attention toward the crowd, the sky, you smell the scents and take in the sights all around you, and soon enough the hawker’s sales pitch is fading into nothingness. With a chattering mind, it’s the same. Let it go on, as it certainly will; it has a certain momentum it needs to spool out. Meanwhile, there’s an interesting array of sensations, smells, feelings, sounds within you and around you in the actual world of your experience. Choose one of these to orient to, and just smile and shake your head politely in a “no thanks” to the mind’s dwindling strategy to get you to buy.

And, be patiently ready for that view into the quiet mind when it appears soon enough. It’s like nothing you can anticipate, not possible to understand by virtue of someone else’s feeble description. It’s a lot like the Tardis. It’s bigger on the inside.

~ Margaret

The Best Way Out

Robert Frost famously included, in a long piece entitled ” A Servant to Servants,” the bit that

…the best way out is always through.

The most useful thing I’ve learned from meditation is to see how much of life I end up tossing out or avoiding because of a moment of pain. One little jolt of disapproval from even a relative stranger, and I might go spinning off into some drawn out dance of fix-it-fast-to-keep-everybody-feeling-comfy-most-especially-ME. This is avoidance, and to spin into that path is to just spin and spin, going nowhere. The trick to going “through” is to stick right with the jab of nausea and the fake smile, and to know these as simply momentary off-ness and reactive artifacts. These discomforts last practically no time, send up a little flurry of thought-based falsehoods, which when allowed to clear themselves lead to a perfectly fine follow-up moment that contains all manner of viable possibilities.

As a meditation teacher, I most often find myself simply offering people invitations to see what they don’t like. The face burn of shame, the throat-fist of anger, the heaviness of despair…If you can see it, you can tend to it. If you tend to it, then it gets handled, without unnecessary drama. Soon enough, then, you and it make peace and/or go on your merry ways. If you spend your life doing everything but see it, you and it’ll be stuck together for the duration.

What is it you’re working so hard not to see your way through?

~ Margaret

The Bastard Muses

A quarter of a century ago, Cleanth Brooks, an avid student of all things literary warned Americans about the deceptive powers of the “bastard muses”. We think of a muse as a spirit that inspires us and gives us insight. The opposite would be a spirit that sucks the life out of us and blinds us to the truth. Brooks listed three such muses: propaganda, sentimentality and pornography. His words bear repeating.

  • Propaganda, which pleads, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause or issue at the expense of the total truth.
  • Sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by, and in excess of, the occasion.
  • Pornography, which focuses upon one powerful human drive at the expense of the total human personality.

All three share the capacity to portray any subject out of context. The most artful propaganda relies not on outright lies but lies of omission; ignoring facts that are relevant but contrary to the advocate’s position. Sentimentality gives us emotional satisfaction but ultimately is just a diversion. Pornography, whether sexual or violent, is a more raw form of sentimentality and has the same effect.

It is the recurring theme of this blog that we need to be thoughtful and aware of the external and internal forces that work upon us. I think Brooks did a nice job of summing up three of the prevailing factors that lead to tunnel vision. You might want to do as I did when I read them — tally up just a few examples of the propaganda, sentimentality and pornography that surrounds us. It’s not a cheery activity but it will keep you on your toes. And unfortunately, you will find it easy to do.

Many thanks to my friend Tom Stites, who is spearheading a drive to save local journalism through the Banyan Project, for bringing Brooks’s words to my attention.

~Jon

Productive Discomfort

My friend Amanda, whose family has run and owned a NH auto dealership and service organization for four generations, recently introduced me to this potent business concept, Productive Discomfort. They’re using it to speak about a business stage they’re navigating, as they move toward an important and unusual new way of workplace culture. I’ve noticed that it gets at one of the critical elements of meditation as well. Anyone who has signed up to keep learning and growing will recognize this stage. When you first start a new activity, parts of it can feel unnatural. As adults, we forget this feeling because we’ve mastered so many of the basics. We’re usually traveling around, masters of speaking, walking, e-mailing, driving, etc. So with taking up a new skill, the experience of stumbling, reflecting, trying again and integrating learnings can feel predominantly like failing. Nobody likes to fail.

In practicing meditation, one of the first things to get comfortable and even skillful with is a BOATLOAD of “failing” practice. Because what you’re teeing up to do is to direct attention, moment-by-moment, on a chosen element of focus, and because your attention is relatively untrained, it’s highly likely that you’ll experience a high rate of mind-wandering, especially when you first start. Your reaction to all of this mind-wandering may be to feel like a failure, with all its attendant discomfort. Well and good. This is the place to launch from.

The act of meditation is a holistic act. The intention is always to learn to receive perceptions into the field of awareness, and to learn to do this more and more universally. So, the very discomfort of feeling like a failure can be perceived. Perceiving this is precisely within the scope of the practice. Therefore, there is no moment of failure. The more you can see what arises, whether that be your attention resting on the chosen object for a given session of meditating, or becoming aware of attention sliding away, or becoming aware of having been lost and drifting in a mind fantasy having nothing to do with the here and now, the more productive your meditation practice becomes. Being curious to the physical sensations and emotional moments of failure, while holding a sense of never really failing, is the great sleight-of-hand you learn, by allowing yourself to “fail” and “fail” and “fail.”

Some meditation traditions actually make a big deal out of setting up discomfort, in order to get at this lesson quite energetically. I’ve found that there’s plenty of discomfort just in walking around; I never needed to set myself up for much extra. It’s hard enough to sit on my cushion and stay still through urges to squirm, itch and get up to shoot the breeze with someone.

Staying steady through discomfort gives you the chance to choose a response rather than the usual straight shot to the reactive itch or squirm. If your typical way to handle failure is to back away or storm off somewhere, what would happen if you started sticking it out sometimes, as an act of productive discomfort?  It might have profound implications over the long haul. It might give you a brand new range of moment-by-moment choices that are a lot more comfortable and effective. That’s the kind of outcome I find vastly productive.

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Thanks to Grappone Automotive for the title for today’s post. I recommend you learn about their forward-thinking business culture, and even better, stop by and see it in action.

~Margaret

Endless Fascination with the (mostly) Trivial

This Friday evening through Saturday evening has been designated National Day of Unplugging. According to their site, “We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our iPhones and BlackBerry’s, chronicling our every move through Facebook and Twitter and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of ‘silence’ that our earphones create.” My 23-year-old daughter, a social media professional, advised me of this a couple of weeks ago. She’s taken the pledge to unplug for those 24 hours. Since signing on, she has been working to structure her digital life in advance for this step away, I presume to avoid getting fired or something equally dire. (Here’s the Unplug link she sent me, please visit!)

Next, let’s consider the game Phone Stack. With this digital convention, friends out to dinner together put their phones in the middle of the table and agree to unplug for the course of the meal, or pay a penalty. Our Kempt online author puts it this way:

…..As the meal goes on, you’ll hear various texts and emails arriving… and you’ll do absolutely nothing. You’ll face temptation—maybe even a few involuntary reaches toward the middle of the table—but you’ll be bound by the single, all-important rule of the phone stack.

Phone stack

For my own part, nothing beats Facebook for a go-to, all-purpose time and attention vortex. It’s so easy to peg my activity there in terms of connecting, gathering information about the world’s interests or causes, and cheering my mentors and friends on. Of course, that lasts about 90 seconds. After that, whatever there is that I call “Me” is gone, lost down the drain of never-ending posts.

Social media, via the vast array of devices that keep us plugged in from room to room, moment to moment, is the very latest in Opiate for the Masses distractions. Do the billion bits of intriguing, charming, alluring ephemera have you in their grip? When your addiction begins to degrade your social connections, when you are unable to resist urges despite knowing the consequences, if it makes you feel unbearably anxious to stop, then it’s time. It’s time to step back, feel the burn of withdrawal and reflect on the bigger picture. The world misses you. The world really needs you to pick up your gaze and get in the game.

And yes, in case you are wondering, we’re still holding hands with our friends practicing Lent.

~ Margaret