Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Meditation: Clearing the Murk

If you've been reading my blog, you know the last couple of years have brought some dramatic changes my way. During this time, I have been searching for the answer to the question "what do I do next?"

So far, I haven't found that answer, and every time I search, my brain feels as murky as an algae-choked lake. The fact that I haven't yet found the clarity I seek has led to frustration, because I am eager to get on with the next phase of my life.

I had tried meditation many times in the past, but hadn't been able to stick with it. That changed in January when I discovered the Winter Feast For The Soul. During the Winter Feast, participants are asked to commit to 40 minutes of meditation for 40 days, which for 2010 began on January 15th.

The Winter Feast provides daily online guided meditations that I found invaluable. I chose the Insight Meditation series offered by Philip Jones. Each day included a 10-15 minute talk about Insight Meditation, followed by a 20-minute period of silent meditation. Though the 40-day Winter Feast has concluded, Philip Jones' series is still available on Talkshoe.com (where it will remain for one year). Philip also continues to offer a weekly talk and meditation at the same location.

It was the impetus I needed. I made the commitment, hoping I would be able to stick with it this time. I'm proud to say that with the exception of one very long and busy day (when I was a judge at my daughter's Odyssey of the Mind tournament), I have meditated every day since.

Often in my life, I focused my energies on challenging and improving the external problems we face in the world. Conversely, most meditation practices are based on the philosophy that the most effective way to change the world is to begin by changing within. This makes perfect sense to me - how often have we heard the phrase, "You can't change others - you can only change yourself."?

Another thing I've learned from my own journey of personal growth is to celebrate the improvements while acknowledging that I still have a long way to go. Meditation is helping me continue on this path.

I didn't know what to expect once I started meditating regularly, but I hoped for increased inner peace, happiness, and a better sense of clarity and direction. I know better than to expect results within some random, predetermined amount of time. I am learning to accept my rate or progress - both my triumphs and stumbles - without judgement.

I am learning to be more mindful, not only when I meditate, but also during my daily life. The changes are subtle and gradual. On the positive side, I find myself enjoying brief moments when I am more aware and accepting of the present moment, which can be liberating and joyful.

I also discovered that the practice of meditation - as with any similar discipline - is littered with speed bumps, hurtles and even roadblocks!

Lately, quite a bit of anger, resentment and discontent have bubbled up to my field of awareness. Some of these feelings originate from situations I thought I had already confronted and released - apparently not!

I caught myself replaying scenarios in my head - everything from old disappointments, resentments and failed relationships, to my recent financial downfall. All of these old stories renewed my agitation - not exactly the lake of clarity, tranquility and happiness I sought!

I think these feelings are re-emerging because the daily practice of meditation is helping me become more aware of the parade of thoughts that march through my head at any given moment. Previously, it was all background noise. I didn't pay much attention to the thoughts as they went by, and I seldom remembered them. But I know that this subterfuge of negativity (or "unskillful thoughts", as they are described in Insight Meditation), had to be affecting my "conscious" behavior.

Lately, I catch myself in negative thought - and behavior - all too often. At a dinner party last Saturday night, I became aware that my conversation consisted primarly of griping about the status quo and telling harrowing stories that I hoped would impress fellow party-goers. I caught myself doing it, but to my dismay, I couldn't stop.

It's not pleasant to face, but I am becoming acutely aware that I am still far more narcissistic than I care to be. I don't listen to others as much as I would like, and I rarely rise above my internal stream of negative chatter long enough to allow for a give-and-take of more positive ideas that might bring more peace and joy into our lives.

Needless to say, I initially found all these revelations about myself very discouraging. But then, I remembered something from when I first learned to play the fiddle.

When I began to play Appalachian fiddle, I quickly discovered that listening to as much fiddle music as I could get my hands on was just as important to my development as actually playing the fiddle. I not only needed to train my hands and fingers to move the bow and note the strings precisely; I also needed to train my ear to hear the fine details within the music.

On a few occasions, my ear progressed more quickly than did my technique. When this leapfrogging occurred, I was suddenly able to hear glaring mistakes in my playing that I couldn't detect previously. At first, I perceived that my playing was getting worse, and became very discouraged. Then I realized that it wasn't that my playing had worsened, but rather that my hearing had improved.

That led to an important insight: "Hey, now I can hear some of the mistakes that I previously didn't even know I was making. If I can hear them, I can fix them!"

I think that's the stage I'm at with my meditation, which gives me hope. If I'm more attuned to the stream of negative - or "unskillful" - thoughts in my head, I'm in a much better position to attend to them - and eventually, release them.

If I can release the toxic sludge of fear, frustration and insecurity from my stream of thoughts, I can make room for more skillful thoughts that embrace insight, creativity, peace, acceptance, connection and happiness.

I'm not "there" yet. Fortunately, meditation is also teaching me that I won't get "there" until I replace the question "What do I do next?" with "What do I do now?"

Right now, in this moment, I choose to examine the ugly obstacles currently in my way, because they provide the insights I need to see today.

With each passing day, the lake gets a little less murky.

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