Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Weeks 28 & 29 - Adjusting the Focus

My husband and I recently partook in our annual Spring tradition of picking up trash at our favorite park. All year long, we bring our dog Trooper to this nearly 400 acre park, right in our little city, to romp and play and cavort through the woods. It only makes sense that we give back for all that we gain through our experiences there and do our part to keep her clean and enjoyable for anyone who visits.

Our walk normally takes about an hour, depending on which trails we take. The day we picked up trash recently, it took three hours. Not because we walked that much farther, but because we were that focused. We combed the woods, walking slowly and methodically scanning our own respective side, hoping to catch a glimpse of aluminum shining in the sun, or an unatural color (think Mt. Dew green) that stands out against the earth tones of chestnut and ochre. We were so intent on our mission, and so successful, we collected three bags full. It's always amazing to me what, and how much, we can find.

It seems that most of the time, unless there is a can in front of us on the trail, we don't see the litter. And yet when we focus on it, we find enough to fill three bags. It isn't that the litter isn't there -- but that in essence, we choose not to see it. By letting our attention wander, it's startling what we miss. When we train our attention this carefully, we allow ourselves to see what we believe never existed. We're amazed and wonder where it all could have come from.

This is the kind of focus meditation is made of, the kind that opens us up to a whole new world in terms of remembering who we are and what we're capable of. It allows us to see what we never saw before. And frankly, it is precisely this that scares the pants off of most of us even considering silent time contemplating our own inner workings. To train that kind of attention on ourselves can be disconcerting even in the best of circumstances. Really, who wants to be made aware of the fact that every time they get stressed out they instantly reach for the cigarette, or the drink, or the sugar-fix? Especially when we've worked so hard at leaving these things to our unconscious. Put it back in the dark recesses of the attic -- it doesn't exist if we don't see it, right?

No one likes being presented with their shortcomings. How often do we recognize unhealthy habits in others and can't see them in ourselves? But when we allow ourselves the time and space to meditate in whatever way works for us, we learn to adjust our focus and turn our attention to how our mind works. When we can begin to witness it without condition, we begin to see what we've tried so hard not to see. And then, change can begin.

In previous years, it used to be that picking up trash would depress me, or worse, piss me off. I'd grumble about the state of the world and ask over and over again, "What's wrong with people?!?" Not surprisingly, there is never a satisfying answer to that question. Anxiety would flood me as I tried to stop for the day, knowing there was still so much out there, still so much to do. I never knew my limits and I'd grow obsessed. I never knew where my responsibility ended. Even after picking up bag after bag full, I felt guilty, somehow feeling I should do more. Somehow feeling like whatever contribution I made, it was never enough.

It seems that my anxiety surrounding this annual do-good event stemmed from fear. It's almost as if didn't want to see the trash because I felt an obligation, an overwhelming sense of duty to pick not just that one piece up, but ALL of it. Whether I could see it or not, I felt it was my job to take care of it. While I outwardly trained my attention on seeing trash, it was as if I was saying to myself, "don't see the trash, I don't want to see the trash." If it presented itself, I had to deal with it. This was the way my mind worked -- I had myself so caught up that I felt I had no choice.

Being afraid of seeing -- if I saw, I was obligated -- I actively pushed things away and resisted them. I was living my life with my eyes closed so tightly that I never really knew what it meant to willingly live with my eyes open.

It wasn't until I started meditating regularly that I learned how to invite myself to see whatever I saw -- without condition, without obligation. What I didn't know when I began this project was that it's only when we see something that we are given the power to do something about it. Now, for example, when I see the litter, I recognize that I am being presented with an opportunity -- I can pick it up, or not. I have a choice. It is no longer about deciding whether to open my eyes or keep them closed...it is about knowing that in keeping my eyes open, whatever it is that I see, I can choose how I respond.

Meditation has shown me that once I recognize how my mind works and how it can unconsciously run my behavior if my eyes are closed to it, I am newly informed and can make any number of different choices. There is no obligation or duty per se, just how I choose to respond. Sometimes I may choose to pick up the trash and sometimes I might choose to let it lie...essentially, it doesn't matter. In the end, what matters is that I know I have a choice -- and take responsibility for the choice I have rather than playing the victim, acting as though I have no choice at all.

My time meditating has allowed me to know myself more fully and know where my priorities are, to depend on what I care about, and to respond in kind. By learning to adjust my focus, I now understand that seeing is infinitely more constructive for me than trying so hard not to ever was.

This year as we pick up at the park, I feel much more comfortable -- as if somehow I know my place. I feel connected with the way of things. I trust that it is better that we have picked up trash than if we hadn't and that no matter how much we do, it's always enough. I know that any choice to contribute to the good is a sound choice -- I don't second-guess that anymore. I have faith that to have made the effort is what matters more than how much and how often.

And more than anything, I am sure that it is better to see and choose our focus than to shut our eyes and fear...//

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Weeks 26 & 27 - Peaceful Mind

Spring has most definitely sprung, although I guess you wouldn't know it with an April snow predicted this weekend. But alas, such is Spring in Minnesota! The weather has been absolutely gorgeous, sunny and pushing 70. The tulips have breached their soil ceiling, the maples are sprouting seeds. After weeks of itching to get outside and plunge my hands into the dirt, my prayers have finally been answered. And to my wonder and amazement, my life in the garden has been significantly altered.

Let me back up a moment and describe for you the way it normally goes. Normally, I get home from work after a drive that I don't remember because my mind is completely occupied by prioritizing the numerous things I want to get done in the yard and garden today. After letting Trooper out, I flounder for a while wondering what I can wear that I don't mind getting dirty, while I'm mentally planning out what tools I need so I can try to get everything together and not have to make a thousand trips to the garage. By the time I get outside, an hour has gone by and I start to feel anxious about the fact that the sun has moved behind a cloud and how little I fear I'll be able to get done compared to what I expect to get done. Once I start weeding or planting or whatever it is I end up doing, my mind is off rehashing my day at work or wondering what we're going to have for dinner, or.... Well, it's not pretty, but you get the picture.

And now as for my wonder and amazement: I pull in the garage after a perfectly peaceful drive home, let Trooper out, notice a weed in the garden and end up with my hands in the dirt. I putz along for as long as feels right, taking in the sun and the breeze, the chattering of squirrels and singing of the birds. All along, my mind is a sweet, complete and delicious blank.

Makes me want to take a deep breath, just to write it. Everybody now..."ahhhhhhhhh".

Now that's what connection is all about. I've heard about it, I've certainly written about it, but I wonder if and for how long I have actually experienced it. Until now. I no longer worry about the clothes (my jeans can be washed) or the list of what needs to be done (whatever presents itself in the moment is what needs to be done) or which tools I have (if I'm missing something, it's a nice excuse for a walk).

And that, I guess, is the key: I no longer worry.

Nor do I fuss. Nor do I try so hard. Now, it isn't an always...I am a work-in-progress, after all. But somewhere along the line I find I've stopped having to think everything through or plan everything to a T. I no longer feel the need to nail everything down. Now and again I still find myself jotting down a list of to-do's, but it's mainly now about making space than it is about making sure I don't forget. If I forget, maybe it wasn't so important in the first place. I now allow room for that possibility.

If I had to put a name on it, I guess I'd have to say I'm trusting more. Whatever arrives is what's required -- no matter what that something is. If I missed the sun and rain has taken its place, what can I do? It is what it is. Maybe today was meant for reading a book instead. Honestly, this never used to occur to me -- if I had an agenda, come hell or high water, things needed to get done. Don't get me wrong...I'd read my book, but with guilt cozying in along next to me. The jeans I crawled around in the other day, which happen to be my favorites, now have stained knees...which only means it's time I really learned how to treat mud stains more effectively. When I feel like being done for the day -- especially when my back tells me so -- I'm done. No guilt, no frenzy because something didn't get done. Tomorrow is another day.

I can't help but wonder -- was I really this bad? Who knows...maybe only in my mind. Which seems to be the point -- meditation is essentially about learning to work with the ramblings of the mind. Not to fight them, not to control them, but to work with them. When it has a mind of its own (pun intended), the mind is impossible to live with. When it learns to relax, when it's willing to take a break now and then, when it's willing to work in service of me rather than against me, it's not so bad to be around. Lately, it's not so bad to be around. Clearly, this meditation thing is paying off.

This may not sound like the first moon landing to anyone, but this is mind-blowing (pun not intended, but it works...) for me. Without all the mindless mental gymnastics, I can hear my body when it's talking to me, I can be a part of my surroundings, I can participate in the moment, I can listen to my heart. And I can respond. Not react, but thoughtfully and purposely respond.

My mind has become a peaceful place -- I've never known such beauty in the world. There is gratitude here I can scarcely describe.

I finally feel as though I've crawled out from under my own thumb. I feel like I get to live again, but the funny thing is, I never even knew I was dead. Maybe that's a little drastic. Perhaps I was merely hibernating. Perhaps the true me was like the flowers and the trees that are once again coming alive, to fully embrace a new cycle of this Life.

So the question begs, what will this new season be like?//