Detail of San Anselmo Creek, watercolor by Will Noble
One of the greatest benefits of meditation for me has been to be able to see thoughts and emotions as threads passing through my spacious field of experience rather than as aspects of myself that define and confine me. The thoughts may be shaped by a series of life events, just as the flow of water is determined by the shape of the landscape. But the landscape is also shaped by the water, constantly being carved. Neither is completely solid, and neither are my thoughts nor the patterns of behavior they may shape within my experience of being alive at this moment in time.
Imagine in this ever-changing stream there are little eddies, whirlpools where twigs and leaves get tangled and stuck. This is a good metaphor for the tightly-knotted mental formations that in the past I either didn’t notice or just accepted as unavoidable parts of my inner landscape. I now see them too as transient. Just because they’ve been hanging out there for decades doesn’t mean they are solid and impenetrable.
But those knots of thought and emotion do entangle us, don’t they? We might not even realize it as we go about our busy lives, maybe a bit mindless because who has the time to be mindful? Out of seemingly nowhere and for no reason we can explain, maybe we find ourselves caught up in painful thinking. Was it something someone said? That will likely send us off into a whirlpool of anger or hurt feelings. It could have been something someone said a long time ago that we replay again and again. It could even be something we imagine someone saying to us that they would never do! We have the capacity to hurt our own feelings! Amazing.
If we don’t bring ourselves into the present moment and develop a practice that helps us notice these recurring thoughts and emotions, then we can get stuck in a painful pattern.
It’s a bit like if your home was full of poorly arranged furniture. Maybe there’s a couch that sticks out into the hallway that keeps banging your shin or stubbing your toe as you walk by. Maybe you rail against the pain but don’t notice what caused it. You’re so used to that unpleasant sensation that you think this is just how it is. And then maybe you start paying a bit more attention, and you learn how to navigate the space mindfully, rerouting yourself around that sticking out couch. And then one day you recognize that the couch is not locked down in place. So it is with these mental formations. Avoiding them is a stopgap measure. Investigating them is at the heart of our practice. Investigation is one of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening.
Investigating with compassion and clarity, we may be able to see what’s causing us pain, and then with time and continued practice to see the permeable and impermanent nature of all things, including mental knots.
You know that first line of the AA serenity prayer? “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” We’re cultivating that kind of wisdom with our practice and our willingness to investigate in a way that brings insight. (Not all that surprisingly, mindfulness meditation is becoming part of the AA experience in many meetings as a useful tool to do the important work of freeing oneself from addiction.)
My little grudge fest
A grudge is definitely a mental knot, whirling clump in the stream of my mind activity. Lately I’ve been noticing when a grudge arises. It keeps surprising me how many grudges I have and how long I can hold them. Decades! A lifetime! Oh my. That’s not very compassionate, I tell myself. Shouldn’t I have forgiven that person long ago and forgotten whatever they did to offend me so?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Forgiveness, it is often said, is not about the other person, but about our own tight holding onto bad feelings. Forgiving is letting go of those feelings and embracing the here and now. All good. But it’s possible that forgetting may not be as wise. Let’s investigate.
Recently I was reading a regular column about relationships in our local Pacific Sun weekly. A man was asking how he could get over the girl friend who had dumped him when he loved her so much. Amy Alkon, the ‘Advice Goddess’, cited some research that said it is useful to purposely remember all the negative things about the past love that you can conjure up, as a counterbalance to the idealized version you have been conjuring up.
Interesting. In the past I had a friend who I enjoyed so much, but who, time and time again, ended up verbally attacking me. Clearly, in the parlance of Buddhism, that friend was not a part of my sangha — the community of people that support me in my meditation practice and wish me well. Looking back, I can see that maybe in order to get over that friendship and not be sucked back into it, always with the same painful result, somehow I knew to develop a strong mental formation of all the harmful things that person had done to me. So there it is: That tight knot of strong opinions that have protected me well all the years since. A grudge that serves a purpose.
Sounds good. But let me not be too quick to tie that knot in a bow. An important part of my process has always been, even as I seem to have developed this grudge for my own well being, to send that person metta, loving-kindness, whenever she comes to mind. And I believe that makes all the difference in any relationship and in any mental formation. Otherwise, it can be a knot of anger straining to explode.
So it looks like my grudge served a purpose, but I can investigate further and ask myself if it still serves a purpose. Is it still necessary to remember her ill-will and vicious words in order to keep clear of her? It’s been decades and I have no idea where lives or even if she is still alive. But here’s the thing: If she were to show up at my door, I might very well still need that grudge, that purposeful reminder, to stave off the desire to engage in the fun we had together, and maybe I would convince myself that she has changed so much that we could be friends again. So even now, that grudge needs to be there, sorry to say. May she be well. May she be happy.
Perhaps this brings to mind for you a past relationship that you know you are well out of. Maybe it was more than just a casual friendship, but a life-partner relationship. Perhaps you have a mix of memories, some wonderful, some painful. What is of value for you here and now to remember? Are your negative memories serving a purpose to protect you? If so, is it possible to see them in that way rather than a torrent of torment that throws you into a dark place even now? Is it possible, even though you never want to see them again (or at least the wisest part of you doesn’t!) to wish them well. May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be peaceful. May you be happy. We wish this for all beings, without exception. And when we cultivate loving-kindness as an ongoing practice, feeling it wholeheartedly for ourselves first and then extending out into the greater community of beings, we also create a path of return from getting lost in the past or the future. We send loving-kindness to whomever we were thinking about, and we return to this moment, just as it is.
I will keep noticing my grudges as they arise, and I’ll check them out to see if they are serving me in some way or if they are just causing me unnecessary pain. Such investigation is useful and powerful!
What about you? Are you having a little grudge-fest too?
I notice my pet peeves popping up from time to time, those irrational irritations that I have a hard time overcoming. The other night I was at a poetry reading and there was a poet sitting a few seats away from me, waiting for her turn to step up to the mike. Instead of being attentive to the beautiful reading by the poet at the microphone, she kept rustling through her papers in preparation for her time up. That really bugged me. It was so disrespectful. It was so self-centered. It was so not in the moment. Oh, I could go on. But here I am, a meditator and meditation teacher who says in my guided intro, ‘Let all sounds arising in this moment be part of the symphony of now’, (I kid you not! I do say that, and it makes sense in context.) So why do I find so much irritation around this particular sound. Why was this woman’s rustling of papers not part of my ‘symphony of now’?
Every sound we hear can affect us, registering as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The rustling sound was not unpleasant in and of itself, but it was a distraction, making it even harder to hear the reading over an aging muddled sound system.
Noting the sound isn’t all that goes on when we register an unpleasant sound or other sensation, is it? We could stop there, and that’s part of the practice of meditation, to notice that pleasant-unpleasant-neutral experience, and then return to the breath. We do that practice because that feeling tone, especially an unpleasant one, acts like a diving board into the vast sea of thoughts that drown us in waves from other times and other places, adding buoyancy to our harsh judgments and anchored opinions.
In the case of the rustling papers, to me it seemed disrespectful to the current speaker and to the rest of us, so my mind felt the pull of the sea of remembering other occasions where I may have felt disrespected, and that lent an out-of-proportion reaction to the situation.
Sound familiar? Out of proportion reactions, either within ourselves or in others, operate in just this way. They take a current irritation, bolster it up with past examples, and boom! Scary stuff in some cases, right? Not all people curb their impulses arising from such irritation, do they? Lucky for that poet, and for me, I didn’t act out my pet peeve. 😉
Instead, when someone annoys me, I try to muster some understanding of what their experience is and how it might adversely affect their current behavior. As a poet myself, I can relate to a poet who is next up on the reading roster wanting to be ready. But why had she waited until now to organize her writing? I always know what I’ll be reading in advance. Well, goodie for me. Maybe she has a lot going on in her life, and this was her first chance to prepare. Maybe she’s holding down two jobs, taking care of a dying parent and… Okay, okay. Bless her heart. May she be well. May she be at ease. May she be happy. May I let my annoyances go.
Noticing pet peeves, it’s useful to see what other experiences may be compounding our irritation. We’ve looked at the supporting cast of memories that act like a little cheer-leading team, egging us on. But our irritation is also exacerbated by our mood, having had a rough day, experiencing physical pain and other factors. For me in that moment, I had pain in my hip and sitting in a hard chair was difficult. Without that would I have even noticed the rustling? Hard to say.
Another important contributor to our annoyance is if we think the perpetrator is doing it on purpose to annoy us or for any other reason. A student in class this week noted that we get in the habit of taking bad behavior by others quite personally. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Can we remember it’s not about us? Yes they put us in harm’s way, but that wasn’t their intention. Yes, they should have been more skillful, but are we going to let the fear they brought up spark a rant that will no doubt make us less mindful of our own driving?
Here’s a Buddhist story that fits in well here.
A man is sitting in a rowboat fishing on a foggy morning, when he notices another boat coming toward him. In the mist he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and the dread of the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Now he’s really angry. This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar, not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe, but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.
Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. It had just come loose from its mooring. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and checks his fishing line.
You are not your knots
We all have pet peeves and grudges to one degree or another. These preferences are worth noticing and exploring. What isn’t useful is taking them on as identity, seeing them as who we are: ‘I’m the kind of person who…’ This need to identify with the free-floating patterns of mind and to use them to shore up a sense of separate self, comes from fear of not being seen, loved or respected. The fear can activate unskillful and even dangerous behavior. So it’s definitely something to notice.
Next time you find yourself caught up in a mental knot, see if you can recognize it as permeable, impermanent. Maybe it’s there to serve a purpose, maybe not. Either way, it’s worth exploring. And if you explore, practice kindness. Your grudges and pet peeves are not enemies nor badges of shame. Greet them as holders of useful information they are oh so ready to share. Are you ready to pay attention?