We have been looking at the freedom that rises out of the regular practice of meditation. These are not things we have to strive for or changes that we need to make in ourselves. These are the naturally arising benefits of spending say, a half hour each day in meditation. I mention all these freedoms not as commodities to be acquired or goals to be reached, but as gifts that you might notice receiving as you continue to practice.
We each receive these gifts in different orders, in different ways, to varying degrees, and there are probably many gifts that I cannot tell you about, because they are not my experience. All Buddhist teachings come from the direct personal experience of its teachers. There is an established framework of concepts and terms to help interpret the experience, but there must be the experience. It is through this encouragement of direct experience that Buddhism has stayed a living teaching rather than desiccated dogma. It’s like sourdough bread making. Buddha provided the initial starter, but each of us adds our own flour, our own practice and intention, to make the dharma dough fresh each day.
The Buddha ended his dharma talks by saying, “Don’t believe me. Go find out for yourself if this is true.” And every Buddhist teacher’s greatest hope is that students will question the ideas proposed in dharma talks, take them out into the world for a test drive, take them into their own lives, their own experience, their own hearts, and ask “Is this true?”
Teachers speaking from direct experience end up sharing their lives in anecdotes as grist for the mill of sharing the dharma. And the freedom I share with you today is certainly the one that is most intimate to me and that has probably made the biggest difference in my relationships with others. It is the story of being freed from the fortress of my defensiveness.
When we were first married forty years ago this week, Will told me I was the most defensive person he had ever met. It seemed that he couldn’t say anything without me bristling with hurt feelings.
It is hard for me to imagine now, yet I know it was true. If you had asked me about my childhood memories back then, I would recount every experience where my feelings had been hurt, where I had been humiliated, slighted or made to feel stupid.
I remember being teased, and it is easy to see in retrospect how I used all these experiences as building blocks for the fortress. Every comment that anyone made, no matter how benign or light-hearted or even loving, I took in and interpreted through complex filters that turned everything into slights, criticisms, or name calling that somehow made me wrong, stupid, naïve or ugly. Then every time someone DIDN’T say something, I would interpret that negatively as well. For me at that time, silence was not golden, it was leaden and toxic.
Thus experienced, it’s not surprising that my relationships with others were difficult. To befriend me was to walk through a mine field and try not set off any of the millions of land mines I had planted as tests of your love for me. Agh! That anyone bothered is amazing to me now.
How fortunate that I came upon meditation when I was still relatively young, in my twenties. And how surprised I was to suddenly see that fortress for what it was, and to watch as it crumbled away with regular meditative practice. Over the course of years as I continue to meditate, I still on occasion find more leftover bits of the fortress, lone walls standing with no foundation or purpose, but still sending little messages into my system that might, if I’m not noticing, prompt a habitual reaction. My awareness of them lets them disintegrate, at least for now. These walls are leftover unquestioned assumptions that, under the light of insight, can’t justify their existence. As long as I keep the light of insight shining, this freedom from defensiveness is a gift to myself and all around me. (Trust me!)
So what is it that actually happened to me? What is it that happens to meditators in general? Why does a simple practice of meditation produce such radical changes in our psyches? Scientific studies show some of the physiological changes that happen with meditation, including the raised levels of gamma waves. Studies show that during meditation, a flux in blood flow and activity excites certain neurons. The act of maintaining attention sustains activity in designated regions. The brain’s grey matter begins to grow, actually changing its physiological shape.
Of course scientists can’t put a value on whether this change is for the better. But as meditators, we know the value from our own felt experience of living our lives with the benefits of meditation.
Now, I didn’t know about the physiological aspects of any of this, but I suspected there was a chemical component. When I lived in San Francisco’s Haight–Ashbury in 1966, not surprisingly I had a few chemically-induced psychedelic experiences. I called my experience ‘losing my ego.’ In sharp contrast to my normal life as a typical disgruntled, critical, judgmental adolescent, suddenly I was simply delighted to be alive and engaged in the senses. I recognized the gift of life, the humor, the beauty, the complexity and the simplicity. In that state, I seemed to have none of the bristly, defensive qualities that usually plagued me.
But even as great as it was, at some point I would turn to a friend and say, “Remind me not to do this again.” I could feel the extreme and unnatural strain on my body, suddenly flooded with an overload of mind-altering chemicals.
A pivotal point for me was one ‘trip’ when I had a vision of a mountain with many paths going up it. Some of the paths were vertical, some gently switch backing up the mountain. Some were rocky, some lush — all different, but all eventually went to the top of the mountain. I observed people on these paths, earnestly plodding, one footstep after the other. It looked boring, and I noticed that I was already at the height of the top of the mountain, already experiencing what they were seeking. But then I noticed that they were on solid ground and I was in a balloon that was deflating and descending. I may have been experiencing the benefits of this heightened perspective where I could see the wholeness of life, the interconnection and rejoice in that awareness, but I was losing altitude rapidly. There was no way I could sustain my mountain top experience. I realized the only thing to do was to set the intention to climb the mountain myself.
So I have been climbing the mountain ever since, first on a path fueled by an eclectic variety of teachers and books, then for a while with Dances of Universal Peace, then a more intensive period of group and independent meditation that resulted in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, and for the past couple of decades I have been plodding along on the Buddhist path. I have found it to be a path that is well-traveled over the past 2500 years, but always fresh, not worn out. I travel in silence but feel surrounded by a loving and supportive sangha (community) of practitioners, with teachers who, if I get lost, shine a light on the path so I can find my way again.
Do I feel the way I did when I was tripping? Sometimes. One time on a retreat I even had some of the visual effects I remember while walking in the woods, not the patterning but the luminosity of life shining so brilliantly, even in the shadows; that same day I remember hearing a symphony in the clattering sounds of utensils on dishes and chairs scraping in the dining hall. On my most recent retreat I became intensely aware of the mystery of all that is, how so much is hidden, and it’s absolutely okay. I relaxed into the delights of the don’t know mind.
But these experiences are so much better than those brief trips from back in the day, because these are naturally arising rather than ingested, and my body is comfortable, wholesome and cared for. Even when I don’t have that same intense experience, I feel the awareness, the clarity and the sense of connection. In my daily life this has become a constant presence, this feeling of being very present. I can trust in these gifts of joyous awareness as long as I continue to meditate on a daily basis. I am on the mountain path, and it hasn’t been boring at all!
Thanks to dedicated meditation practice, I no longer see myself as the object of others perceptions but as the universal life force expressing itself through this perspective from this particular point in space and time. When I do think of myself as a unique and separate being, I feel compassion for my humanness as I would for any other unique and separate being I know or see in the world. I am more in touch with my child self than before, and therefore more in touch with creativity, fresh eyes, carefree laughter and pure pleasure.
The fortress of my defensiveness has crumbled, for there is nothing left to defend. Instead there are all these universally shared experiences and traits to be curious about, and the shared joys and challenges of this human experience. The fear of being judged seems to have fallen away. I admit I have not been put to any real test. I am surrounded by the kindest of family members, friends and colleagues who have no intention to harm me. But I subject my creative work to critique, my speeches to evaluation, and my commercial writing and design work to committee, so I have many opportunities to get my feelings hurt or receive confirmation of any negative belief I might hold about my lack of ability. Now if people love something I do, I thank them but don’t feel the same kind of relief I used to feel. When people have negative comments, I appreciate their interest, their creative assessment, and consider their comments seriously, but don’t feel they have attacked me in any way. What a difference! Now I have a sense of collaborating to increase clarity and connection through these various forms of expression. Much more fun!
Being freed from the fortress of my defensiveness is a sweet surrendering of all that had seemed so vitally important for my own survival. I thought I had to be smart, pretty, clever, talented, skillful, savvy, knowledgeable, etc. in order to be acceptable. In order to be loved. What a set up for misery that was! I didn’t stop to notice that what I loved about people, the traits I found most endearing, were often the least ‘perfect’ aspects, and certainly the least striving.
Freed from the fortress of my defensiveness, I am happier, safer, more supported and enriched. I am acceptable in my imperfection. I am fine with saying “I don’t have a clue!” I am fine with being totally uncool. Because cool or uncool, in this moment I am free.