Category Archives: seat at the table

You already have a seat at the table!

seat-at-the-table-of-life.jpgYour seat at the table of life is reserved and everyone sees you sitting there. Do you?

You were born into this complex web of life and you are an intrinsic part of it. Whether you were adored, ignored or abused, you exist. Your body exists in physical space and you are an energetic presence that has palpable impact on all around you.

Does that feel true to you? Perhaps it does and you wonder why it even needs to be said. But for many of us, especially women, there is a sense of waiting to be invited to have a seat at the table. This causes all kinds of misunderstandings. If you feel you do not have a seat at the table, then you speak and act from that belief, causing confusion and suffering all around. Imagine it: Everyone else sees you at the table, but all your thoughts, words and actions stem from the desire to be at the table. Since you are already there, your words and actions seem out of sync, oversensitive, obsequious, or as bad table manners because of the rude way you demand your right to be there.

What? Wait a minute! How can this be true? Good question. We’ve been exploring in the past few posts what we accept as true and this is as good a place as any to question our own assumptions, as well as any new concepts presented.

I have been exploring it in my own experience. I spent portions of my life feeling completely invisible. In fact there have been days when even my car seems to disappear and people drive as if I’m not there. They are startled when they almost crash into me, as if I appeared out of nowhere. That’s pretty invisible. I’m sure some of you reading this can relate to feeling invisible. Others might feel quite the reverse, as if you are too on view, stand out like a sore thumb, feel seen as an object rather than a person, feel misplaced or awkward. Either way we don’t feel a natural intrinsic part of the whole web of life, but overlooked and left out.

I assumed that this not having a seat at the table was a challenge for my generation of women and those before mine. But sadly my younger students are still struggling with it. They are powerful but don’t see their power. They are at the table but are either still waiting to be invited to have a seat, or they have stormed the table and demanded to be seated. But everyone sees them as already there, part of the ongoing conversation of life, so why are they silently beseeching or so strident about their right to be there that everyone else feels threatened or at least uncomfortable?

A woman with impressive credentials and a show-stopping resume may still be waiting to be invited. She feels she has earned her seat but is waiting for someone to pull it out for her, or at least nod at an empty space and encourage her to sit. But if people already see her as sitting at the table, why would they invite her to sit? In her mind she’s standing around waiting, and in their minds she’s just a lackluster or prickly participant in the table conversation of life.

Decades ago when I was entering the corporate world, I read a book titled Games Mother Never Taught You. One sentence grabbed me and turned me around. It said something like “In business, women are playing gin rummy while men are playing poker.” A woman works hard to build up a ‘good hand’ — the right degrees, the right work experience, etc.– and expects that hand to win her the game, fair and square. But a man is willing to go for things he might not even be fully qualified to do, thinking, (as one of my students husband says) ‘How hard can it be?’ With sufficient bluff and swagger, he expects to win. (Whether he can do the job when he gets there is a whole other issue, but he’s up for the challenge.) This is a huge difference in mindset, isn’t it? Inspired by that book, I asked for a raise and got it. I exuded a book-inspired self-confidence that was valued for the position I held. I had no self-confidence, but hey, this was poker! The old ‘fake it til you make it’ advice. And it worked.

But this is a blog about meditation and insight, not a guide to corporate gamesmanship. So let’s see how this translates into the rest of life and why it matters.

If we all have seats at the table of life, we are all powerful. It’s not something we have to acquire. We are empowered as cohabitants of this life, interconnected, collaborating together to bring forth our deepest, hopefully wisest, shared intentions. Our unwise intentions come from fear — the fear of not being seen, of not having a seat at the table. If we discount our power we may do unskillful things and think they have no consequences. Whose feelings could possibly get hurt by a nobody like me? What difference do my actions make? Or, conversely, deciding to do unskillful things to get the attention we crave.

If we are not aware of our power we may be causing harm all around and not even know it. Can you see in your life where this plays out? Do you feel you have a seat at the table? If not, notice how your thoughts, words and actions seem to activate confusion and even negativity in others around you.

With the practice of meditation and opening to the infinite lovingkindness of mettaMay I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy. — we can come to a clearer perspective of our natural place in the scheme of life. When we send metta out to all beings, and remember that throughout the world there are others sending metta out to all beings, we can come to recognize that hey, I am a being! I am one of those ‘all beings’. It’s not just that I have a right to be here. It’s that I am here. I have a seat at the table. I have power because I exist as an intrinsic part of the web of life. Everything I do affects that web and all life. So let me take responsibility for my power and use it wisely.

Try a little metta practice now:

After teaching this dharma talk on Thursday, I went late to the week-long intensive poetry class I’ve been taking, and guess what? There was no seat for me at the encircled tables, and no one stopped in the middle of class to invite me in. What an opportunity to see my thoughts that arose around that sense of feeling invisible! But then I realized, hey, I am a part of the class, so I pulled up a chair and people on either side smiled and made room for me.

Getting Things Done – Spacious Action in Action

Wherever we are in any given moment we can remind ourselves of our intention to be fully present and compassionate. It’s simple but not always easy to remember, but it is so rewarding that we can soon develop a habit of doing so.

But how does being present and compassionate get things done?

Meditation practice fosters within us a sense of generosity and creativity. Spacious action arises out of those skillful impulses in whatever form is the clearest expression of our natural talents. Do we have the patience and persistence to sit until we are ripe and ready for skillful action? Do we feel we have the time and the permission to do so? Probably not! In our culture we are encouraged to ‘go for the gusto,’ to be goal-oriented, to plan for the future, to dream big, to ‘not stop ‘til we get enough,’ to ‘go for the Gold,’ ‘be all that we can be,’ etc. etc. Where in all these prompts to perfection, all these indications that we are not enough as we are, would be find room for simply sitting? And we come back to that question of how would we get anything done?

Gandhi is quoted as saying, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

How I wish I had heard that quote back in the early nineties when I went through an extended lapse from regular meditation practice because I felt I didn’t have the time! Thus destabilized from my foundation of awareness, I paid no heed to my body’s call for a respite, for a time of silence and sitting. Instead I kept my nose to the grindstone and honored every commitment I made to others, but did not take the time to honor a basic commitment to take care of myself. At that time there were no well-publicized local retreat centers that would provide me with the simple life of sitting that I clearly needed. So what did I do?

I got sick. Illness is the one long-accepted form of retreat in our culture. Get sick in the body or mind and we will be forced to rest. We will become so unskillful or disabled that others will insist that we stop what we are doing and go away and don’t come back until we are well enough to pick up our burden again. Maybe we end up in a mental ward, a cancer unit or a prison cell. And there, if life were fair, the healing would begin. But instead chances are we get caught up in yet another intense culture where we feel threatened and overwhelmed…unless we are able to recognize the opportunity to let go and simply be.

I was heartened to read recently that in an Alabama prison there is an ongoing meditation retreat program for inmates who choose to participate. I wasn’t surprised that it has been extremely successful and that the recidivism among the members of that incarcerated sangha is much lower than the rest of the prison population.

When I was diagnosed with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome) I felt fortunate that my illness was not life-threatening. All I had to give up was a career with which I’d had a love/hate relationship, half our family income, and the ability to do more than one thing a day beyond feeding my family and cleaning our home. Suddenly my overwhelming array of choices was eliminated.

Imagine that! If you could only do only one thing a day, what would it be? It became so clear to me who and what nourished me and who and what drained me. That was the deciding factor for any social encounter, any outing or any activity. The foods, films and people that put me into a tailspin of weariness were off the list. Television and novels that had been my days-end vacation were off the list! How had I not noticed that all these things were draining me? How had I not noticed that my nice corner office at work had been abuzz with freeway noise that I couldn’t hear after a while. How much energy had it taken for me to provide an inner muffle for that sound?

This discovery of what nourished me and what drained me was the product of my return to meditation, the one thing I could do as much as I wanted during my illness. In fact, for nine months I experienced a physically-enforced personal retreat. Through meditation I touched that deep connected mindfulness that creates the possibility of skillful spacious action. Until then I paid little attention to the many decisions and choices I made during any given day. I did what I had to do to get things off my plate, to get past where I was and onto some more tolerable future place. No wonder I got sick!

Now, thanks to the widespread practice of meditation and the development and appreciation for emotional intelligence, we have greater access to and greater acceptance of the knowledge to recognize when we are on autopilot, when we are becoming unskillful. We also have the resources available in the form of meditation instruction and retreats that can provide us with the ability to stay present and compassionate. Yet many of us are still not giving ourselves permission to let go for even a half hour a day and give ourselves what we need.

In the state I had been in working up to my illness, I was so disconnected that I didn’t feel deserving of anything for myself. I also felt that it was not something I could ask for. At some level I hoped that someone would give it to me, but I didn’t speak up and let it be known that I needed it. When my doctor told me I needed to quit my job, I went on half-time. But it wasn’t until I used that freed up time to meditate and get in touch with the inner wisdom that each of us has access to that I got it that I needed a complete time out in order to heal.

So what is it that kept me from asking for what I needed? It was a sense of unworthiness. Imagine sitting at the dinner table, feeling you have no right to ask someone to pass the salt. When I began meditating, I recognized that I was an intrinsic part of the universe, deserving what every being deserves, no less, no more. With that awareness I could accept my seat at the table and if I needed something, I understood that if I couldn’t reach it, it was reasonable to ask whoever was closest to it to ‘please pass the salt.’

I could also begin to recognize others who also felt undeserving of a seat at the table and I began to see that the table is infinitely expansive and there is plenty of food for all, so part of being at the table was inviting everyone to take their seat, their rightful seat that for whatever reason they had vacated or hadn’t been told was theirs.

What does it mean to you when I talk about accepting your seat at the table? What does it mean to you when I say ‘Feel free to ask for what you need?’

When we talk about skillful action we also talk about unskillful action because it helps us see more clearly. In this imaginary table we have constructed, we might see that there are those who see the seating and the food as limited, who look like they are sitting at a poker table and accruing chips instead of at a dining table with plenty of food and delightful conversation.

We can look at our own actions at the table. Are we eating off someone else’s plate? Are we telling others what they should and shouldn’t eat? Or are we allowing each other the full reign of our own seat and table setting?

How are we relating to the plate in front of us? Is it full or empty? Is it enough? Is it too much of one kind of thing and not enough of another? If we are looking longingly at another person’s plate or wishing we were in another’s seat, we can return to our mindfulness and skillful inquiry to ask what is driving that desire to unseat someone else or take what they have when there is plenty at the table and we already have a seat?

What are we afraid of? It always comes back to that when we get to a place of scarcity and contraction.

On a silent retreat at Spirit Rock a while back I realized that ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to prove, nothing to hide and something to give.’ It wasn’t the first time I had realized that, but somehow phrased in that way, it was something I could write down and pin to my bulletin board where I can see it every day. It still informs me, and sometimes surprises me.

Once we begin to see that, even though we still have habituated patterns of fear-based beliefs and behaviors, we can begin to rest in awareness. We can really appreciate what is in front of us, even when it isn’t all chocolate pudding all the time. We can learn to look around and see what needs doing and understand what it is we bring to the table, what we have to offer from our set of skills and gifts and interests. Through the practice of meditation there is a natural shift of focus to what we have to offer, what is upwelling inside us from our natural generosity of spirit without any sense of agenda or recompense, just a joyous love of life and gratitude for this experience, even though it is sometimes painful and challenging.

Since we are not monks or nuns, since we are not on retreat constantly, we have options and challenges. Our needs are not taken care of by others. But in some deeper sense, we are taken care of. For those who believe in God, there is the personified understanding of being children of God, held in a loving embrace. For those for whom this personification doesn’t resonate, there is the scientifically based understanding of the interconnectivity of life, that we are all stardust, one being, and that each of us, even those suffering and struggling with outrageous misfortune, are intrinsically valued.

Maybe we feel we are not valued by some specific other – a parent perhaps — against whom we may rail, feeling abandoned or brutalized. But if we continue to come back to our intention to be present and compassionate, we will shift from feeling dependent on the permission, admiration or love of others. They don’t own the table. They don’t have to pull out our chair. We begin to see we are already seated, already here, at the table of life, nourished by the wholeness of being, accessed at any moment through awareness of the present and a willingness to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

So this is the way we get things done. We accept our seat at the table and we maintain the clarity and compassion to enjoy the interactions with others around us, to pass the salt to whomever needs it, and to not be afraid to say, “Could you please pass those sweet potatoes? They look mighty tasty!”