Reggie Ray saying, “Life is strange; good thing we don’t have to think about it.” Sakyong Mipham urging, “We need to practice appreciation for our lives.” These and a handful of other sound bites seem the sum total of what I am able conjure upon demand. “Just think about that for a moment,” Pema Chodron once commented. Indeed.
Perhaps my favorite clip - certainly one of the most resonant - was offered by a Shambhala teacher named Alyn Lyon. She was leading a weekend retreat here in Victoria. The focus of this I, of course, cannot remember. Likewise for the vast majority of what she said over those days. I do, however, vividly recall this: “When things arise during meditation - and things will arise…”
She gave these last words ominous emphasis. She lifted her walking cane as she uttered them, tapping it on the smooth wood floor underfoot. “- things will arise…” Though I cannot recollect what came either before or after this phrase, I remember the reaction deep in my bones. I was terrified.
If you are anything like me you came to this practice, at least in part, wanting to stop things arising in your life. Back in those early days, there was a long list of things I wanted to stop coming my way: frustration, disappointment, confusion, fear, shame, irritation. I had some very interesting ways of working to realize this desire during meditation.
I used to visualize myself surrounded by a high brick wall when practicing. I would thump down on a cushion, fuss about in an effort to get as comfortable as the situation allowed. Then I would close my eyes and encircle myself with a high and, I hoped, impenetrable barrier. This in place, I was ready to begin.
Unsurprisingly, this barricade was rarely up to the task. For this reason, I had developed at least three other strategies to realize my objective - the point, I thought, of the practice altogether. The first involved returning to my visualization and fortifying the wall, making it higher, thicker. On a few occasions, I even put barbed wired atop this barricade. The second strategy was to drown out whatever had the audacity to pierce my protection by silently singing Paul Simon’s ‘I Am A Rock’ over and over. The last? To simply get up from my cushion and call it a day.
Needless to say, I didn’t have a clue what Alyn Lyon was talking about at the time. “When things arise during meditation,” she started, “- and things will arise.” Here one can replace Paul Simon’s accompaniment with the sound of her staff striking the floor at each word. Bam! Bam! Bam!
In my own case, I don’t think personal understanding of Ms. Lyon’s point was aided by the mental image I carried of meditators. Just look at them, after all: Hour after hour they sit there and nothing is happening! Sure time-lapse photography might reveal something, but not much. At sixteen minutes we might see someone scratch their nose. At thirty-one, a couple folks may uncross their legs. Around forty-nine minutes one person might nod toward sleep. Generally, however, nothing much seems to be going on.
Appearances, though, can be deceiving.
I used to be a fan of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe. This is a CBC radio show that started its life as part of Peter Gzowski’s iconic Morningside program. It initially aired Mondays at 11:30, I believe. The Cafe world was richly compelling. The adventures of Dave and Morley, and all the other wonderful characters McLean conjured, were such that I rarely missed an episode.
One tale saw Dave, family patriarch and owner of the ‘Vinyl Cafe Record Store’ - official motto: “We may not be big, but we’re small” - gifted with a rare weekend alone. Morely had taken the kids to Florida. There was no one to remind him of household chores, to ask for rides and money, to fight for possession of the television. He was alone.
For a while it was great. Dave went to bed early and woke giddy. He bought some wine and rented a movie. In a moment of pure inspiration, he picked up an old Beatles album, Hard Day’s Night, and put it on the turntable. In McLean’s words: “Dave smiled, turned up the volume, sat down at the table and poured himself another glass of wine. After all these years. The music washed over and through him. He played the album twice and then got down on his hands and knees and pawed about and finally found Abbey Road...He staggered to bed after midnight.”
For the next week Dave’s elation continued, buoyed by the sounds of an ever-present radio. Not CBC anymore, but radio CHUM “hits of the fifties and sixties - the music of his life.” He listened to ‘Kodachrome’ and Neil Sedaka, Lesley Gore and the Shangri-Las. He immersed himself in an endless, blissful flow until Friday morning when it all, quite suddenly, screeched to a halt.
For on Friday morning while shaving, Dave found a blemish. “A small red dot,” McLean tells us, “had appeared on his face overnight.” A pimple apparently, but then, as Dave was about to leave for work, it occurred to him. “He was forty-five years old. Forty-five year olds didn’t get pimples. They got skin cancer.“ His holiday was over: “Dave couldn’t get the blemish out of his mind.”
This is how it goes. We’re walking down a busy street or immersed in something at work. Maybe we’re enjoying a wonderful weekend alone when - seemingly out of nowhere, with no obvious reason or rhyme - there is happiness, longing, hatred, fear, love, boredom, loneliness, lust. There are thoughts of old friends, tonight’s dinner, the coming holiday. Even, it seems, of cancer.
Things, in other words, arise. And often - very often - they grab us.
So it was with Dave. He could not get cancer out of his mind. He tried negotiating. He tried rationalizing. In the end, he just had to do something. So he went to the drugstore. He picked up a tube of Clearasil on the off chance his blemish was really a pimple.
It was on his way to the cashier to pay for this that Dave saw the blood-pressure chair. He decided to get a reading just in case and got trapped. During the reading, the inflated cuff locked Dave in place. It wasn’t until the fire department arrived and a crowd had gathered and the jaws of life were put to use that Dave was finally freed.
Yes, this is how it goes. Things do arise and, for most of us, the response is to get busy. We think a lot or maybe find something to do - like go to the drugstore for a tube of pimple cream. It’s a coping mechanism, this. A way of deflecting the discomfort we feel when those pesky ‘things’ show up. It’s not always a very helpful coping mechanism, truth be told. Often, as with Dave, we end up getting oursleves a whole lot of trouble.
Alyn Lyon was reminding us that the same is true for meditators. Meditation is not an escape; things will arise, like it or not. So all those pictures we’ve seen of people sitting cross-legged, eyes lowered, all those times we’ve thought to ourselves, ‘They look so peaceful’? Don’t be fooled. Just like Dave, those folks are likely going through the wringer. Anger, envy, embarrassment, shame. All of it. Thoughts of past loves, future liaisons, fights at work, and make-ups at home. Even, ‘Maybe I have cancer.’
Unlike Dave, though, those meditators are not going to go running to the drugstore in order to distract themselves from what’s coming up. Perhaps some will build imaginary walls around their seats - an effort that will, in the end, prove utterly futile. Maybe some will sing every Paul Simon song they know - also an exercise in futility. For the most part, thought, they will sit there in the company of whatever’s arising, waiting to discover what might lurk behind the almost irresistible urge to get up and get the hell out.
Which brings to mind another of those sound bites I recall from all my hours at programs and teachings. This from Martin White, a teacher here in Victoria. He once claimed to be able to identify the serious meditators in any crowd. “They’re the ones,” he said with a trickster’s grin, “who look a little bit crazy.”
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