Thursday, 1 March 2012

Practice In Pink

Meditation is sometimes dismissed as navel-gazing, an indulgence afforded a precious few while the rest of us sink into struggle, heartache, and worse. “How can you just sit there?” someone once asked. “There’s so much trouble in the world, I have to get out and do something!”

This is an understandable sentiment. Looking at meditators, it does to all appearances seem as if we do ‘just sit there’. The language that sometimes accompanies practice does little to dispel this sense. When words like ‘non-attachment’, ‘emptiness’, and ‘illusory’ are used, the impression of disconnection with the everyday - an impression I suspect the speaker above was feeling - is often reinforced.

In truth, however, meditation is about neither sitting there nor disconnecting. The practice is incredibly active and, if at root meditation is about anything, it is about reconnecting. Something I say in virtually every introductory class and workshop: “Meditation is about reconnecting with our lives and, through this, the world.”

Something happens when we sit. Our minds may be pretty chaotic for a while, but eventually their wandering lessens in frequency, duration, intensity. We begin to settle into ourselves. We start to relax. As we relax long-standing patterns of tension dissolve. These patterns lock up experience in our bodies. Anything we can’t or don’t want to know about gets tossed behind bars and kept out of conscious awareness. As tension dissolves, these bars start to melt and what we didn’t want to know about is given an opportunity to express. The pain at the base of our neck. The frustration we feel at work. The numbness on the right side of the big toe.

This is the process of reconnecting that occurs as we meditate. Somatic holding loosens and experience that was pushed away is given a chance to return, to be welcomed and embraced. To put this in more psychological terms, that which was unconscious is given an opportunity to become conscious. Unconscious experience could be anything: tenderness toward an old flame, fear from a first day at school. Once returned, however - once integrated into conscious awareness - these experiences open the possibility of a deeper, more intimate relationship with the world around us.

I was bullied as a kid. For five or six years I was targeted by a group of neighborhood boys. How bad was it? I was teased, chased, robbed, threatened, punched, choked, and harassed. I was shot at with BB guns, an air rifle. Divots and stones ricocheted off my forehead and the side of my face.

But how bad was it? I used to peer out our living room window every morning before school, checking to see if the road was clear. If it was, I would leave the house with blood pounding in my ears and run as fast as I could to the schoolyard where an illusion of safety was more easily maintained.

But how bad was it? I was afraid they would kill me, those guys. Not that they would stay up late concocting a plan for my demise. I worried that their bullying would one day simply get out of hand. That a punch would drop me to the ground and they’d swarm. That a rock would crack my skull. That they would coax one of their number into using the switchblade he brandished. That they would bring out a real gun in place of the air rifle packed with hard, stinging dirt - “Just to scare him, you know?” - and things would go terribly, terribly wrong.

I was bullied as a kid. For five or six years I was targeted by a group of neighborhood boys. This got so bad I would lay in bed some nights, fearing what another day might bring.

The curious thing is, though, for the longest while I didn’t really know this. By the time I entered junior high the worst of the torment had ended. They still came after me, but not as often and not quite so viciously. A couple other guys really took it on the chin through those years. Their bikes were stolen, their lockers set ablaze. One of them was dragged into a vacant lot and beaten.

I watched much of this from an uneasy distance. Something about what I was witnessing turned my stomach, but I didn’t in any way link their lot with my life. I couldn’t equate myself with those guys. I wouldn’t allow myself to recall how awful it had all been. Even this early on, the experience of being bullied, of fearing for my life was being “tossed behind bars and kept out of conscious awareness.” In order to survive, I was disconnecting from this part of my existence.

This disconnection went on for a very long time. Decades. Through many conversations, my wife - who has known me about as long as anyone - became familiar with some ‘difficult’ school years. But I never talked in detail or offered much emotional content because these simply weren’t available to me. “I guess some guys were pretty mean,” I might say. “But the school yard’s a tough place...”

Then one day while I was meditating, I felt as if I had been struck on the side of the face. This was a shocking experience. To that point the day’s practice had been so still, so relaxed. It was what many of us call a ‘good’ session. Apparently out of nowhere, though, my body jerked to one side. My left cheekbone took up an ache so deep I wanted to cry out. Maybe I did.

As I continued to meditate, memories returned. These were fleeting, fragmentary. The flash of a blade. A clod of earth soaring heavy toward me, rocks apparent just before contact. The barrel of an air gun at point blank range. This went on for several years - sometimes unbidden, sometimes while writing, most often, though, as I practiced.

Feelings eventually joined this torrent.

Finally, last summer, what happened to me became undeniably real. I cried for a while, then wanted kill those bastards for what they’d done.

So to anyone who believes meditation is just ‘sitting there’, I offer encouragement to take a closer look. Sit down, place your attention in the body, and stay. Then give yourself time, a whole lot of time. Eventually something will show itself. This won’t, I guarantee, be anything you can anticipate. But it will show itself and it will offer you the opportunity to welcome, to reconnect with some part of yourself that has, for whatever reason, been lurking in the shadows.

Then you can begin looking for the bridge.

As soon as we reconnect with a ‘lost’ aspect, we are given a chance to enter the world in a new way. The fruit of our meditative labor does not necessarily separate us from life. At its best, the practice and its result provides us a portal into life. Our recovered hurt, affection, fear, confusion - these can be bridges that link us with anyone else who has ever experienced something of this sort. They can help us respond to others in ways we had never imagined. They can act as catalysts for empathy, compassion, solidarity, companionship, and even action.

One year ago I don’t think I would have written this article. I would have prepared dinner as I often do, with CBC Radio playing in the background. The segment about ‘Pink Shirt Day’ would have flowed over me and been forgotten like most others. But today, this short piece about BC's ‘Anti-Bullying Day’ (the last Wednesday in February) caught my ear.

I put down my kitchen knife and the onion I was slicing. I listened to stories of what some kids go through because they are red- or yellow- or brown-skinned, gay or trans, skinny or heavy, because they wear the wrong clothes or like the wrong music, because they stand at the edge of the crowd instead of its center, because they seem weak or strange or vulnerable.

There are those who never really recover from this kind of treatment; their lives remain pale and stunted long after the most obvious torment ends. There are also those who kill themselves in order to stop the hurt. They leap from bridges, hang from rafters, see pills, guns, fast cars as a way to at last escape. Maybe that would have been me if I hadn’t been able to ‘forget’ so quickly. This might be the silver lining to the process of ‘putting behind bars’: it kept me alive. It kept me alive long enough to learn a practice that has helped me remember.

While I understand why people sometimes dismiss meditation as navel-gazing and puzzle over how I can just ‘sit there’, neither of these expressions comes anywhere near capturing my experience of this practice. Meditation allows me to embrace a scared little boy who spent too much of his time fearing when he should have been delighting. Through that boy, I am able to connect with all the others out there like him - the geeks, the freaks, the losers and dweebs, the fags and dykes, the queers, the strange, the different, the fringe dwellers, the weak, and anyone else who has ever been targeted just because.

So maybe nothing seemed to happen as I sat through my practice this morning. In truth, however, a great deal took place. I was, for one thing, wearing pink both inside and out - flaming, fiery, brilliant pink. This announced my connection with a world that has been too long ignored. It is a world, sadly, much larger than most of us want to know about. But it is pounding at the door demanding attention. And with assistance from a great many directions, meditation among them, it is beginning to find its way into awareness.


Many movements and organizations other than ‘Pink Shirt Day’ are working to bring awareness to the problem of bullying. ‘Stand Up To Bullying Day’ is Friday March 30, 2012, while Wednesday April 11, 2012 marks ‘Day of Pink'. Lady Gaga recently announced her Born This Way Foundation and Glee featured a tag for the Trevor Project in a recent episode. Speaking of these last two, here’s the kids offering their version of Gaga’s ode to self-acceptance, Born This Way.



Anonymous said...

Ahhhh Neil. So good to get a dose of you again.

Of all the things folks ask me, "what's the point of meditation?" seems to leave me without words. Ha!

I think you have a wonderful for bringing the Dharma in to direct and relative terms. I have a nak for floating off into philosophy, and your relating of personal experience does help my feet touch the earth again.

My son is experiencing a bit of this is school presently. Not the physical, but the psychological sadness of being cast aside as a " dork." It reminds me of rimes when I experienced this, a great loneliness. I appreciate, greatly, the offering of your past as it has reminded me of mine... A place in me I would easily like to forget and would possibly keep me from dealing with my sons' experience.
Oh, this is Dennis by the way.. from Dathun
Take care Neil

Neil McKinlay said...

Thanks much for the note, Dennis.

Your feedback is deeply appreciated. My heart aches for your son. I do know that place - I think many of us do. The good news is he has a father who understands the necessity of not forgetting.

Best as always,