Sunday, 15 January 2012

While the Iron's Hot

It is not uncommon to watch eyes widen during introductory workshops. We have meditated for the first or second time, and something has happened. Someone has felt, seen, sensed in a new way. “That was the most profound moment of my life,” one participant confessed. She had briefly touched the fire of life and was understandably moved.

Toward the end of that gathering I provided some suggestions for continuing. I talked about home practice. I mentioned the Dharma Ocean website, Reggie’s books and CDs. I encouraged everyone to take part in the classes and workshops I offer. “It’s a great way to stay plugged in,” I said, looking at the woman whose eyes had widened earlier. “And it’s important to stay plugged in. We don’t often experience this directly without some sort of ongoing practice.”


Then I handed out feedback sheets and a short practice overview. “See you soon,” I waved as folks headed out the door. “I’ll think about it,” some replied. “I’ll look at my schedule,” the wide-eyed woman offered. I haven’t seen her since.

We typically live inside a bubble. ‘Cocoon’ is the word Chogyam Trungpa used to describe this. We typically live inside a cocoon. This is a shield we erect in an effort to protect ourselves from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and memories and insights. It is a means of dulling experience “so that nothing sharp or painful can touch us.” Only trouble is, this dulling keeps out the fresh as well as the sharp, the brilliant as well as the painful. It, in other words, keeps out a sizable portion of our lives.

When whomever wrote of “living lives of quiet desperation”, this is likely what was being pointed toward - lives lived entirely within the known and familiar, the safe and tolerable; lives in which piercing highs and difficult lows have been edited out. There is, of course, an element of comfort to this. There is a sense of security, predictability. Often, however, there is also a feeling of absence. What is absent here is the dynamic, uncertain, vibrant, terrifying, electric feeling of being fully alive. “I have everything I’ve ever wanted,” a student once told me. “But still feel like some important thing is missing.”

The good news is that this ‘missing’ piece really isn’t missing at all. We have simply walled ourselves off from what we long for in our efforts to stay safe. Life, in truth, is always banging away at whatever we erect to protect ourselves; we simply don’t hear or acknowledge the knocking. And on those rare occasions when we do hear, we misinterpret the message. We perceive threat where, in fact, there is really invitation.

Reggie once said, “We need to practice devotion to the disruptions in our lives.” What was he talking about? He was suggesting that those moments in which our plans and expectations are upended are, in fact, moments in which life has cracked the thick, tangled shell of our cocoon and come streaming in like a sudden burst of spring sunlight. For this reason, such instants are to be cherished, attended to, respected.

From this perspective, the flat tire I found on my bicycle yesterday was nothing less than life shouldering her way into my awareness and saying, “Hello!” So too the fact that my internet access has been down all day. I had things I wanted to do today: emails to answer, a project to research, but life had other ideas. “Hello!” she announced cheerfully. “Instead of losing yourself in what you hoped would happen, how about paying attention to this?” ‘This’, in the current instance, being frustration, annoyance, uncertainty - plus a bit of excitement about the uncharted day I suddenly find myself sailing through.

This kind of disruption happens with increasing frequency when we meditate. Once we slow down - and meditation does slow us down - the cracks in our fa├žade are that much easier to find and penetrate. The light of life gets in through these cracks, revealing the everyday in wonderful new ways. Hence those eyes. Hence the profundity. This is one of the tremendous gifts of the practice, though it is a gift that does not linger long. Often the crack opens - whoosh! - and we see for an instant. Then - whoosh again! - the crack closes like thick velvet curtains on an old Broadway stage.

Let’s go back to the internet situation mentioned above. For several minutes after realizing I was temporarily ‘cut off’ from the day I expected, a sense of openness and possibility was experienced. What was I going to do? What did I want to do? The unknown was not just irritating, it was also exhilarating. “Fresh” as Rinpoche observes.

Then plans flooded in. There were ideas about how I was going to ‘salvage’ this day, hopes I still might achieve this and this and this. The sense of contracting possibility that accompanied this process was tangible. I could feel it in the body, in a sudden and dramatic loss of openness and potentiality. But I kept on doing what I was doing: constructing an apparently knowable and certain world where, only moments before, there had been something far more vibrant and interesting.

“Am I supposed to never plan, then?” This question was raised by a student some years back. It’s a good inquiry, one that points toward a valuable observation. It is true, as she sensed, each of us does have things we must accomplish in our days: work, groceries, phone calls, meetings - the list goes on. And it is helpful to sketch these out for ourselves. ‘I’ll return those calls at lunch, pick up food on the way home,’ and so on.

What is striking to me, though, is how reluctant we can be about suspending this sort of mental activity. Sure I had some things needing attention today, but did I really have to begin hoisting a new agenda on my day only minutes after the old one collapsed? Wouldn’t it have been a bit more interesting to hang out with the frustration, annoyance, uncertainty, and excitement for a while? What might have happened had I done this? Had I been curious enough to explore a day - let’s say just an hour - suddenly, unexpectedly stripped bare of plans and expectations. Had I, to conjure Reggie again, practiced devotion to this disruption.

We are all so quick to re-establish normal after life cracks us open. Think of how often we say things along the lines of, “When I get myself together” or “As soon as I have (fill in the blank here), then I’ll (ditto).” This is one reason I am not surprised to see so few of those wide-eyed people again. Something remarkable shines at us for a moment and, then, as we glance at our schedule and see all the hockey practices and work meetings and family gatherings, clouds begin to form. Our vision hazes over and darkens. Soon we can’t recall what we had glimpsed and life goes on...

There’s something this dynamic has added to the comments offered toward the end of most classes and workshops now. “Strike while the iron’s hot,” I say while overviewing ways in which people might continue the journey. I am talking about meditation when I utter these words, of course. Right now, however, I realize I am really talking about life - about anything that finds its way through one of those cracks that occasionally opens in our protective shields. Meditate. Dance. Paint. Rage. Weep. Call the friend you haven’t spoken to in years. Take the day that is presenting in unexpected ways. Fulfill that promise or write that blog post - and do this before you take a look at your calendar.

Just strike while the iron’s hot, while the opening’s there. For if experience is in any way reliable, that blast of inspiration, unless seized in this moment, will soon vanish. Like exhaled breath on a cold winter morning, it will rise and disperse and never be seen again.

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NEIL MCKINLAY - MEDITATION | COACHING | INTUITION - WWW.NEILMCKINLAY.COM

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