Today I received some unexpected gifts... some tangible, and some less so... but, tangible or otherwise, gifts are gifts, and I am thankful for them!
I got up early and headed out to the meditation retreat.. during the retreat, I found that during the sitting I was in quite a bit of pain.
There is something not quite right with my hip (I injured it years ago and it has never quite healed properly.. so I am forever re-injuring the bloody thing!).
Apparently, with whatever type of injury it happens to be, the angle that my leg happens to be in is very important, and I generally have to use cushions judiciously to make sure that I support my left leg so that I don't hit that spot that causes me so much pain...
Well, at the location that was hosting the event, (a local university), there were no support cushions! (I usually use a large flat cushion which is about three feet square, upon which I use a few other cushions to sit upon and to prop up 'loose bits' here and there...), and we hadn't thought to bring any, as the hosting organizations for these types of functions generally provide them.
Consequently, we were essentially sitting upon a hard floor without any type of support whatsoever. As you might expect, I was hurting within minutes (well.. seconds.. it pretty much sucked!), and it only got worse as the sitting wore on...
As I sat there, the pain began to distract me from my practice... at some point, I simply decided that there was nothing I had to do about it (and nothing much that I could do about it, truth be told..), and that it just hurt, and that was that... I let my mind focus on the pain whenever it seemed to need to, and then I simply returned to my practice...
Well... this had an unexpected result for me... after a while, I felt a curious sense of freedom from realizing that even though I was hurting, I didn't actually have to do anything about it! I had basically forged a contract with myself that I was going to continue the sitting, that I wasn't going to move, come hell or high-water, and that if I was uncomfortable, well... daunting as it may seem, that was just the way it was going to be, and be that as it may; I was going to sit, and sit for the duration; pain be damned!
So.. I sat. And, despite the pain, which under most circumstances would be a huge distraction, I sat well! And then the unexpected thing deepened... I began to notice that others were beginning to fidget and move around a little.. it was clear that they were also very uncomfortable, if not in pain, and some were moderately distressed by this. They all continued to sit and meditate, however, for the most part... save for one lay-person who began to fidget and squirm quite a bit.
For this retreat, one of the other monks and myself were sharing an identical responsibility for the event (we maintain order and see to the needs of the participants, help to ensure that things run smoothly, and enforce proper etiquette and discipline... there are rules since it is a formal event). The other monk at one point corrected the individual by instructing him to 'sit still!'.
(Note: The proper way to approach a situation where you are in physical pain, discomfort, illness, or any other problem that affects one's practice, is to approach one of the monks designated for the purpose, and that monk will accompany the individual outside of the meditation area or room, and attempt to resolve the problem... failing that, the individual will be installed in a separate meditation area set aside for those who cannot practice in such a fashion that they will not disturb others... this is all explained to any group prior to the start of the formal portion of the retreat or session).
Well, upon being told to sit still, this individual surged to his feet, said "Fuck This!!" in a fairly loud voice, quickly gathered his things, and left... his wife, mortified, followed after him a few seconds later...
I had noticed that something had been bothering this man for quite some time, but he, for some reason, resisted letting anyone know about it... in fact, he had been quite reluctant to follow any of the suggestions or instructions that we had been giving from the very start of the program... which is fairly odd, since most of the participants at these events generally follow instructions and are eager to take part in, and to experience whatever it is that we ask them to do. This fellow was plainly different in this respect.
I briefly wondered why he came to begin with... I could tell that he had no interest in doing this, whatsoever....
Although I don't honestly know what his reasons were, or why he came, or why he acted the way he did, I think I can make some fairly accurate conclusions based upon my observations of him, and based upon some of the things that I heard him say during the earlier part of the day. I concluded that his wife had to have convinced him to come, which is a fundamental mistake, since this is not a sort of thing that one should attempt to talk anybody into, since it is such a highly personal calling that drives those of us who have decided to make this practice a part of our lives that I cannot imagine anybody doing it who doesn't have such a vocation... it is difficult, physically painful, requires a great investment in time, discipline, effort, and concentration... and, simply wouldn't have any beneficial effect on someone who had no interest or desire to do it... so why had he come??
My first thought was that the wife had nagged him or bargained with him in order to get him to accompany her... but this didn't resonate after turning it over and giving it some thought. He wasn't the type to be swayed that way... he didn't seem to very much care what she wanted him to do, or, for that matter, what anybody might want him to do.. he was basically the type of person who did what he wanted to do - when he wanted to do it, and that was pretty much the way it went.. this much was fairly clear to anyone who came into contact with them. So, It had to be something else...
Then it occurred to me that he had very probably come in order to save face in front of his wife! It is my thought that he didn't want her to think or come to know that he didn't know anything about this practice, or that he had never done it, or that he wasn't good at it.. (can one be good at this??!)... or something along those lines.... I heard him talking to her as they were walking through the building to find the room where the retreat was being held, and he was telling her all about how these things went! He was, apparently, well read on the subject, but, this isn't a thing that you can truly come to understand without participating... sort of like swimming or something, I suppose... it wasn't a favor to her, that much was clear... this was entirely about him, and when he found that he was coming up against the brick wall that all practitioners come up against when they first confront their own mind without the distractions of day to day life, or when they confront the inescapable physical discomfort and sometimes outright pain, boredom, the necessity for intense self-control and self-discipline... and, to come right down to it, a group of other practitioners who seem to be tranquil, peaceful, calm, and utterly unaffected by all of the aches, pains, great doubts, and the whole host of other annoyances and vexations that seem to be plaguing only you!! (But it isn't only you! It affects everyone pretty much the same way..)
He had probably made some statements that he was having a hard time backing up, now that it came down to it (this can be an austere and daunting practice.. it isn't easy, but anyone can do it if they commit themselves to it...) He wanted to convince her that he was worthy of this... and when he felt that he was not - that he was the only one who was having a difficult time of it.. (which was very untrue... every single person was in agony to some degree or another... it is simply the way it is sometimes during these long sittings....), he became agitated, angry, and felt that he had to flee. So, he created his escape strategy by deliberately doing something that he knew would eventually be addressed by one of the monks who were present, and then, under the guise of being offended or insulted; he left!
The thing was, nothing insulting was said to him... others had been corrected in exactly the same manner, he wasn't the first.. its all part of the deal... he was quite aware that he could have simply approached one of us, and that we would have found a solution to whatever issue that he was confronted with... but he was running away from something else; and that was the inability to convince himself of his worth in that specific circumstance. It was entirely unnecessary; he was just as capable and just as able as any other person there... but he let his desires and his frustrations cloud his mind and get the better of him this one time.
So how is this a gift??
Well, it occurred to me that I had been attempting to do very much the same thing that he had been doing when he was trying to convince his wife that he was knowledgeable, experienced, capable... and, probably much like it was with him, I had been doing it quite unconsciously. I don't believe that I would have ever even noticed that I had been doing this had this not occurred, when it had, under the exact conditions, and when my mind was receptive to it. My situation was different in a few ways, but essentially the same. Where he was trying to convince himself and his wife of his worth or ability... I was trying to convince my teacher of my knowledge, experience, and, consequently, my worth. Perhaps I was trying to convince myself, as well... I don't really know. There was no valid reason for either him or me to have to do this... but, our minds work in inexplicable ways, and for whatever reason, we each felt that we did have to do this... and we were both fairly foolish in doing so...
His method of dealing with what he perceived to be an intenable situation after all of his pre-existing strategies had been tried, failed, discarded, and ultimately found to be useless under the circumstances, was to concoct an escape hatch. Much as people will do to end a relationship when it becomes sticky and complicated and they want out.. but do not have the moral courage to either face it head on, or, more likely, to face their own ineptitudes or shortcomings in the failure of the relationship.
It is very possible that I was heading down that same road of 'try/fail/try/fail, get frustrated, disengage, run-away', had I continued along that path without learning something about myself, something about the reality of the situation, and, perhaps, gaining some small degree of wisdom in the process.
The physical pain, however, had just at that moment taught me that I could manage to continue my practice without taking any action to try to avoid or escape the discomfort. I was free! Even though my body wasn't happy... my mind was completely at ease! This is quite out of keeping with the ingrained avoidance response that most of us have with regard to discomfort, awkwardness, pain, or anything that we find we do not like... Somehow, I had stumbled across a way to break out of a day-to-day habit based, I think, primarily in fear.. or, more likely, the practice did what it was designed to do and ground away these habits until only this response was left... I'm not really sure.
When I observed this man's discomfort, the degree of his internal turbulence, anguish, agitation, and, ultimately, need to address it in the fashion that he chose... I suddenly realized that had he simply accepted the situation as it was presented to him, and had he continued, regardless of the pain, regardless of the difficulty, regardless of the discomfort.. in other words, had he broken out of his day-to-day habit of avoiding those situations that are not familiar and comfortable.. that he very likely would have made a vitally important breakthrough in his practice, and, in his life!! -- You see; There are situations that you do not (can not!) defeat. You do not solve. You cannot escape from. They defeat you. -- and that is alright. You don't have to do anything about it.. you don't have to feel bad about it... you don't have to act or think at all... this is simply the way it is. As a matter of fact, it is almost ridiculous to attempt to win in these circumstances... and you are not one iota less of a person for it. THAT is the lesson. It is okay to lose sometimes. You can only do so much. Be content! Breath in. Breath out. Wake up. Be alive. Understand the truth of your existence. That's all!! Just BE!
When I applied this realization to my own circumstances; to my own weaknesses, if you would term them that... I understood instantly that my expectations or desires to appear experienced, knowledgeable, worldly, worthy.. good enough were only so much smoke and mirrors. Who did I need to convince?? And, maybe more importantly... why do I feel the need to convince anyone, including myself, of any such thing at all??
The answer is, of course, that I do NOT have to do this! I don't have to do anything!! This was an obstacle to my progress... and one that I never would have seen, or faced, or dealt with, until, perhaps, the situation had gone so far that it was too complicated to unravel and it became a crisis for me.. and then, who knows?? I very well may have fallen right on my face.
But, thankfully, this man who I do not know, quite unwittingly chose to give me a gift of wisdom by momentarily sacrificing his tranquility, and, to some degree, his sense of dignity, and in so doing he held up a very clear mirror right before my face and gave me a glimpse of the truth that lay within my own soul and psyche. And, much as I did with the physical pain, I realized that I didn't have to take any action, or do anything about it, other than to acknowlege what I had learned, and then simply move past it and leave it behind. It will come back... many, many times, I'm sure... in all sorts of different guises... but now I am forearmed because I am aware that this exists in my mind.. and I will acknowledge it, and leave it behind again!!
He wasn't a bad man, or stupid, or weak, or anything in the way of a label that will stick. He just made the choices that he made when he made them, and for some unknown reason, this resonated with something inside of me, and he unwittingly became a teacher of a very important lesson that I very much needed to learn. I am free now of this need, because I have caught it out and exposed it to the light! I understand a component of my psyche that may have caused me untold problems in the future, and which, I am sure, has caused me problems in the past... now, perhaps it will be easier to deal with; once you learn how the trick works, you aren't as easily fooled by it again..
Mind you, this is definitely not something that I am happy to learn about myself.. quite honestly, in my own private view of myself, I am quite above this sort of thing.. I'm "better than that"... but, truth will out as they say, and any spiritual path is, above all else, a quest for truth.. or it should be.
Naturally, we embark upon such a path in order to transform our consciousness.. to change and to improve and grow and become somehow 'wise'. If there wasn't a 'seamy underbelly' to our characters and spirits that needed addressing, the whole thing would be a waste of time, I suppose... but seeing ourselves in all of our unadulturated humanity... with all of the quirks, faults, weaknesses, and so forth under the harsh light of truth and honesty is an exceedingly difficult thing to do!!
I assume that nobody really wants to learn that they are needy, wanting, imperfect, dishonest, petty, gluttonous, or inferior in any way to the expectations that we hold for ourselves.
I don't find it particularly comforting... but the truth is the truth! And, thankfully, the type of loving compassion that we have been taught to foster in ourselves through our practice, a loving compassion that allows us to expose these truths and still love ourselves (and others!) just as we are is a very powerful tool...we learn to see the perfection rather than the faults. The faults are there... but so are the strengths. This doesn't mean that we are soppy and coddling, however... far from it! It is compassion... but it isn't a namby-pamby kind of compassion... where we make excuses for our shortcomings... but a realization that all of these characteristics are part of the whole package of what we are at this moment. It is only through this realization, and through work, and practice, and proper choices (and, perhaps copious amounts of mental restraint and self-discipline...) that we can hope to address these characteristics, and, perhaps bring some positive change about in the process...
The simple truth is that not a single one of us can live up to our own expectations... not if we are completely honest, anyway.
The trick is to change the expectations into something more attainable, and to change and improve those things that we are able to improve, and, in so doing, to perhaps find that perfect balance whereupon we become whole, healthy, spiritually advanced humans somewhere in the middle ground that exists between our expectations and our reality...
So... my first gift was a rude awakening.. but, an awakening nonetheless!!
On my way home, I stopped and checked the mail. We got a package that turned out to be the new wind chimes that my wife ordered to replace the ones that had been lost with the trees.
When I returned home, she and I went out into the garden to survey the damage, and to begin to come up with a plan to address the drastic changes wrought by having the trees removed...
As we were heading outside, I half-jokingly commented, "Now that we have nice clean shiny new wind chimes to replace the ones that were lost, we have created the perfect opportunity to find the old ones if they are anywhere on the property!"
My wife chuckled at this, and then promptly found the old ones under a pile of brush!
So now, we have two sets of wind chimes!! (Well.. three sets.. two wee ones, and one big deep sounding set!) What started out as a loss turned out to be a gain! The wind chimes that I had thought were lost had been an anniversary gift that we had given ourselves... they had quite a bit of sentimental value, and I was sad that I hadn't had the foresight to safeguard them.. but, now they are found and we have even more beautiful music to listen to in our garden! Yay!!
This was Gift #2!!
We heard a knocking sound at the door, and when I opened it, Jack (the outside cat) was staring up at me with a distinctly complaining look on his face, and a plaintive 'meow' into the bargain. I wasn't sure what he was on about, but when I looked around for a bit, I spied this wee fellow just gathering up the nerve to sneak back through the lattice and continue munching away on Jack's food; (yes, apparently Jack has learned that knocking at a door gets a response.. go figure..)
I called my wife, and she quickly grabbed the camera to capture some pics of our guest...
Jack is plainly not thrilled with the course of events, but, being an old hand at taking things as they come, he just went with the flow.. we have a rule here at Thistlebright; nobody hurts or threatens anybody else... and that goes for him as well... and he knows it..
The possum, just a baby by the looks of him, didn't seem to consider any of us a threat.. he just went on crunching away, gave us a last searching look, and waddled away, presumably to find someplace to curl up and get some sleep...
This, too, was a gift!
Between these three gifts.. and all of the other multitudes of gifts that each day brings to me, I find that I simply have too many gifts to keep track of...
So... to the powers that be, I would like to send out a humble 'Thank You' for my wonderful gifts... they are truly and deeply appreciated....