Suffering through Meditation Failure
My legs tense with pain, I tried to adjust my hips by lifting my chest, and sitting on my hands until the throbbing stopped. I opened my eyes briefly, noting the fine, dark, smooth long hair of the woman sitting with seeming ease before me. Her shoulders rolled back, and her hands hung limply beside her.
I could feel my forehead wrinkle, and my back tense with discomfort. I hoped my first meditation retreat would begin with ease, but the stillness of the room had me feeling uneasy. I knew my internal critic was on the way. Look at everyone else sitting so quietly. Why can’t you just relax, and allow yourself to enjoy the process? Maybe this was a mistake. I think you need to get up, and leave.
And so went my first three sittings on a brisk but beautiful October day. Well, it was beautiful outside. Inside, I was feeling the woes of failure: the failure to sit quietly, and the failure to belong. I longed to be part of this group of stoic self-reflectors, but instead felt ashamed and afraid. What was wrong with my brain? Why did I struggle to perform the simple task of sitting quietly? How would I get through 9 more days of this in complete silence?
Rescued by Metta
These thoughts pursued, and wet blanketed my well being until the fourth sitting. Carol, one of our three meditation teachers, explained that this sitting would be a guided metta meditation. Metta is loosely translated as loving-kindness. It is the practice of giving compassion and love to others, and then to ourselves.
They say when you truly feel connected, and are serving your purpose it will feel as if you are projecting a beam of light out into the universe. It will be invigorating. Your mind will be focused, and at ease. My light came when Carol asked us to choose a benefactor (someone we dearly loved who loved us), and to imagine offering them the sentiments set in the four basic metta phrases (May you be free from harm. May you be healthy. May you be peaceful. May you live with ease.).
If you have read my previous entries, you will know that I made this task relational. I chose my mother, and imagined the two of us watching her daily struggles on a movie screen. I acknowledged her difficulties. Faced her, as I recited the metta phrases with sincerity, and hugged her afterwards. Then, we switched positions. She watched my struggles on the movie screen. I heard her acknowledge my difficulties with words, and facial expressions to which I had grown accustomed. Then, I heard her recite the self-compassion phrases to me with sincerity. After which, she hugged me.
One drop. Two drops. Three drops. Four drops. I let out a quiet sigh, while tears wet my face. My back muscles began to relax, then my leg muscles, and finally my face. My inner critic was silent. My light projected brightly. My purpose was clear. I had arrived.
Later, I would recount my experience to Carol in the one individual meeting I was allotted with her. I told her how I found my way through metta, and was able to sleep my first full night without the distraction of a sleep machine. Carol fired words with the zip, and directness of gun-slinging cowboy. When she is outside taking in the natural environment, she spits like one too.
Carol wasted no time. “If you are able to connect to your experience and process it through metta, don’t waste your time with insight meditation. Go straight for the metta..” Before I left, she laughed to herself, and said, “You have no idea how much you belong. Now shut the door. Your time is up.” I won’t lie to you. I did what my mother refers to as the happy dance. It looks a lot like the direct effects of being struck with lightning, but with more smiling and jumping. Years of watching her do this dance in response to our small elementary school soccer game successes, sometimes spiking her umbrella with excitement as an exclamation point, I found my way through the dance with ease.
Using Humility-Based Confidence to Empower Others
Fast forward four years later, I found myself sitting with a 17 year old, bags under his eyes, restless leg movements, and quick rhythmic brushing strokes of a boar, bristeled, paddle brush. “Gotta keep those waves, doc,” he told me. He stood about 6 feet 5 inches tall, but slumped over the table, which made him seem much smaller. A life of abuse and invitations to join criminal expeditions wore on his slight build.
When I proposed meditation, he actually told me that I was crazy. Albeit being anxious, he was a man of reason, and obliged me after finding himself unable to answer whether it was any crazier than two guys sitting in a room having a lengthy discussion about hair waves. He wanted an out though. He required that he be able to get out of the room immediately, and shoot the basket around, if meditating made him too uncomfortable.
I was probably only three minutes into this guided meditation, when I turned to face him, and noticed that he was sound asleep. So, I let him sleep. When he awoke, I asked him about his experience. He said that he had not been that relaxed in his whole life. He said that he was just watching his breath as I had instructed, then felt warm, and woke up when our time was nearly up.
He was sure that he failed. I corrected him, and explained that he had actually succeeded. He was such a natural that he was able to completely connect to his present experience on his first try. His present experience was fatigue, and what he needed was sleep. He did a little two step dance, elbows attached to his ribs as he shook his fists to a four count and a melody he seemed to know well enough to hum aloud. He returned to class with his shoulders erect, standing all 6 feet five inches tall.
Of course, he had tough days after that, but he always came back to his mindfulness work. Eventually, he was able to practice self-compassion meditation too. When I asked him what it meant to him at the end of the year, he said that after being kicked out of school nearly every day for a year, he had begun to give up on himself. Finding success in meditating taught him that he was gifted at something at school, even something the smart kids struggled with. He also said that he realized for the first time in his life that he might be able to take care of himself. 17 years of well-recorded failures, he succeeded at something that impressed nearly all of his critics and supporters too. He was also able to be good to himself, something that had eluded him for most of his childhood, save the very early years with mom.
Applying Our Own Humility to Learning and Disseminating Self-Compassion
Sometimes, we have to fail at something that is truly important to us to be able to help someone down the road, who struggles with the same experience. It empowers us to sit through the fire with them. It gives us the hope that, despite their misconceptions and worries, that they can succeed.
One of my greatest strengths is that I have failed at a lot of things. I know the journey back up the mountain all too well. Maybe you can relate to how it feels to really struggle with something that is important to you, and fear that you will have to give it up. Then, despite your loss and fear, continue on anyway. I invite you to feel the same way about self-compassion practice, and teaching it to others. Just because it does not come easily to you does not mean that it will not come.
If you are able to be kind to yourself during the process of learning self-compassion, your sincere experience (whether directly articulated or not) will give someone else the confidence to persevere. How many times has our suffering become a life raft for someone else, who is drowning? It only takes one time to be worth it. Be patient while trying to incorporate self-compassion into your life, your profession, or your treatment.
Acknowledge that your experience does not need to fit neatly into some preconceived path. In fact, the more unique your trajectory, the greater the effect its recounting will have on your chosen audience. It’s not a secret that we remember what is real and unabashed. Sincere narration breeds trust, and trust is all you need to follow your self-compassion practice long enough to experience its benefits. I never would have made the fourth sitting, if my mentor, Chris, had not recounted his past retreat difficulties with great humility and detail.
If you remember nothing else from this entry, remember that we can manage our greatest humiliations when empowered with the humility of someone we trust, who has endured similar obstacles and persevered. In humility, we trust.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 62. In the Books.