Monthly Archives: July 2019

Feeling stuck?

For years we’ve had two patio tables that serve no purpose in our garden. I would occasionally think I needed to get rid of them, but there they sat, year in and year out, unused and unappreciated.

Then — who knows why — yesterday morning I got on my rubber gloves, grabbed some rags, soap and water and went out to scrub down the tables. Ten minutes later they were clean enough to give away. I grabbed my phone, took photos and posted them on the Nextdoor app. That’s fifteen minutes that hardly made a dent in my day, and done! Within twenty minutes a neighbor replied, and an hour later she came and picked them up, saying how they would fit perfectly in her little garden. Now instead of sitting out with no purpose, they are being transformed into appreciated items in someone else’s life.

That’s a small example, but often our lives are filled with small things that can add up to an overwhelming feeling of being stuck. It’s a reminder that it often doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to get unstuck. In this case it took intention and minimal effort. Obviously intention alone doesn’t work, because I intended to get rid of those two tables for years. But I had overestimated the amount of effort it would take to fulfill my intention, so I kept putting it off.

We may overestimate the amount of effort
it would take to accomplish our intention.

Here are three important things to notice about being stuck:

  1. The weight of dread from repeatedly thinking about doing something is more burdensome and time-consuming than actually doing it. In the above example, the time I spent reminding myself to get rid of those tables every time I noticed them was much more time than it took to do it. Many things we put off doing are more time consuming than this example, but for me, regardless of the size of the project, the ratio of dread to the actual doing remains the same.
  2. For bigger projects than cleaning tables, it’s a matter of breaking the project down into a series of smaller tasks. I used to take on a big project with intense determination not to quit until I was done. No wonder I would put the project off! it was exhausting! Now I approach large projects in incremental doses, doing them mindfully like my daily yogi job on a meditation retreat. I found out the hard way that there is no benefit in driving myself to exhaustion. In many cases the quality of the work will suffer, but more importantly, we suffer.
  3. When we think of the big project awaiting us, if we don’t break it down into doable daily bits, we don’t do it at all. Is that not the truth? And so there we are with the dread of doing it at all, and a feeling of being stuck.

These are very practical household examples of liberating ourselves from a sense of being stuck, but of course life offers many ways we might feel stuck — in our work, in our relationships, in our practice, in our sense of coming home to our most authentic self.

Where are you feeling stuck?

Where in your life do dreaded chores, research, outreach or decisions weigh heavily on you? 
Take a moment to write down anything that comes up: Things you know you need to do but keep putting off. Maybe you’ve been putting off making an appointment with your doctor, dentist or financial advisor. Perhaps you keep putting off getting in touch with a loved one. Explore the feelings that get in your way: What am I afraid of?

Explore your intention. In my little example the intention would be: ‘To get rid of those two tables!’ With that intention, a quick ride to the dump would have been an easy solution. But the deeper intention, the more wholesome intention, included ‘to enhance someone else’s life as well as my own by finding the tables a home where they can be appreciated.’ So, ask yourself what is your intention, and then see if there’s a wiser intention there. Sometimes without making room for the wise intention to be voiced, we get more stuck. We’re not seeing the bigger picture.

Explore your dread, the fear that paralyzes you from moving ahead with your intention. What is it you think will happen? There may be some dread of what the doctor will find, what the finances will reveal, what the conversation with a loved one might bring up. But the truth is that you don’t know what the doctor or the dental x-rays or the loved one will say, but in general these things don’t improve with time. Holding off from an action out of fear for what will be revealed generally exacerbates the problem. Haven’t you found that to be true? Is there any time in your life when postponing the inevitable paid off? Maybe. But how often did it create bigger problems? Check in with your wiser intention, the intention to be well and to maintain a healthy body, mind and relationships.

Once you have identified where you feel stuck and what’s holding you there in that stuck place, and you’ve set a wiser intention, ask yourself what wise effort would be in this case. Often it’s just ‘make the call’ or scrub the table. But larger challenges may benefit by making a few notes on the various steps that need to be taken, in the order that makes the most sense, and how much time per day will you give the project. (Also, if you have the means to do so, consider hiring someone to do the project or help you manage it. You will be contributing to their well being and giving yourself time to focus on something that has more meaning for you.)

Sometimes the dread has to do with misgivings about our abilities or whether we deserve what we intend to pursue. Dread of a dream come true is a real thing, and if that is what’s happening for you, take time to examine your fears, your opinions about your own self-worth, your patterns of comparing yourself to others and coming up short, or, conversely, thinking the path should be easier for you than it has been for others. Every path begins with one step, as the saying goes, and the path may be uneven and full of challenges. Being on the path is its own reward, if its the path you chose with wise intention. Living wise effort is living in the moment, letting the doing be spacious, pleasurable and sensate. Wise effort is not focused on imagined outcomes, fearful that things won’t turn out the way we hoped.

Living in fear is punitive, and delaying doing something is a way of compounding whatever problem we are afraid of. This is how we get stuck. How we get unstuck is to notice that we are stuck, to really examine the nature of that sense of ‘stuckness’ in a non-judgmental way, to see how uncomfortable it is, how much time it takes to think about, how many ways, often unskillful ways, we go about avoiding thinking about it or doing anything about it. Then we can see that we are creating this feeling of stuckness and that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Wishing won’t change it, but looking at our intention, making sure it is wise, and then acting on that intention with wise effort, causes a shift for the better.

Image by suju from Pixabay

What is the sound of many cell phones ringing?

The sweetest thing in the world — besides a baby of any species — is a sangha in silence on a meditation retreat. The quiet is delicious, like fine wine mellowing as it ages. Each day of the retreat the sangha (community of meditators) becomes more synchronized and sensate. Slowing down in the silence, there’s presence, awareness and a loving sense of mutual support.

Silence is golden and a sangha in silence is magical. So it was surprising to hear from a student about her husband’s experience at a meditation led by Mark Epstein where attendees were asked to keep their phone ringers on.

Whaa? Phones ON? Anyone who’s ever attended a meditation class or retreat (or a yoga class or pretty much any kind of civilized gathering) knows to at least turn their phones off and preferably abandon them altogether. It has become increasingly difficult to do as these phones have become extensions of ourselves, either in hand or close at hand, the part of ourselves that is connected to the wider world. To silence that connection may cause FOMO (fear of missing out). But meditators have learned to do this, especially in community, respectful of the silence we are co-creating. So to hear that a meditation teacher requested everyone keep their phones on was surprising. 

Well, not really. After all what we are practicing is how to cultivate calm in the middle of a busy world. So learning how to be with the sounds of cell phones going off randomly throughout a meditation is a worthy practice. We are cultivating internal silence, not expecting the world around us to cease making noise. If we can meditate in a room full of cell phones ringing, beeping and buzzing, we can meditate in an airport lounge or anywhere else. And this is a great gift!

We can notice how we create enemies of sound, as well as anyone responsible for a sound we don’t like. We can see how we pick and choose between pleasant sounds (maybe birds chirping, water flowing, rain, etc.) and unpleasant sounds (maybe leaf blowers, jack hammers, traffic and the errant cell phone accidentally left on by a fellow meditator). 

At the moment we notice that we are reacting to a sound, identifying it as pleasant or unpleasant, we have the opportunity to recognize that this reactivity is a jumping off point into thoughts that will take us on a journey far away from ‘here and now’. It all happens so fast we may not even realize how we ended up twenty years ago or a thousand miles away to a place or time that the sound triggered in our brains. Fortunately, once we notice it, it only takes an instant of awareness to gently bring our attention back to the moment. This moment, just as it is. Sounds and all.

Here’s a poem I wrote back in 2006 about an experience on a retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.
The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!
I have never heard anything so beautiful
as the sound of a sangha in silence
earnestly clearing their plates.

Sound can remind us to be present, and to cultivate a pattern of receptivity, kindness, compassion and equanimity, returning again and again to the calm rising and falling of the breath, letting whatever sounds arise to be simply sounds, part of the Symphony of Now, never to be repeated in just this way. How precious is this unique moment in every way. And phhp! It’s gone and now this one, oh so precious, and phhp! Can we gently greet and release all that arises in our spacious field of experience?

On another retreat I attended, teacher Howie Cohn brought all the bells from the Spirit Rock store into the meditation hall and rang them in a random pattern throughout the meditation. It was both pleasurable and helpful in bringing me back again and again from wherever my mind would wander, back to the sensory moment here and now. 

A cell phone symphony might be like that. Still, I hope it was a one-off experiment and not a trend. Because truly there is almost nothing as sweet as the sound of a sangha in silence.

Image above digitally created using an image by Gordon Johnson and an image by David Schwarzenberg, both from Pixabay