This week at Insight LA, we talked about doubt. I was all ready for a big breakthrough on what I consider my #1 hindrance, restlessness/remorse, but our teacher Beth Sternlieb had other ideas.
They say doubt is the hardest hindrance to see, because we believe our own thoughts &, by extension, our own doubts. Having always considered myself a fairly confident gal, always having a plan & usually looking forward, I hadn’t given the concept much thought. So there I sit in class, diligently taking notes like a good English major and thinking rather academically about the subject, when she says this:
So what makes me so special?
She’s talking about the Buddha’s enlightenment, & how Mara came at him with guns blazing in the final moments of that marathon meditation, desperately trying to throw the Buddha off his seat. His final blow was just that: what makes you so special? What makes you think you deserve this knowledge, this awareness? Who do you think you are?
The Buddha touched one hand to the earth & said, “The earth has seen my goodness & knows my intention.” Calling the earth - not the gods, not his adversary - to witness his great journey, he made it objective & unequivocal. It is. I am.
Perhaps you, like me, have asked yourself this question once or twice. Maybe you too were raised in a home where things were good enough, & you were never thought to be any exception. Perhaps you question the choices you’ve made in the past & doubt your future will ever match up with your dreams. You may have stumbled somewhere along the line & thought you’d never find your way back to your true nature.
Friends, that’s the doubt talking. It isn’t true & it’s not real, at least, not unless we give in to it.
Like everything in life, we have to meet our doubts with mindfulness, give them our attention & stay there. Don’t be swayed, don’t be rocked. Aim & sustain that attention, allow yourself to witness the battle of your warring dual perspectives (“Yes, I can!” “No, you can’t!”) until, without the fuel of your participation, they quiet down & you can see what is true.
You are special. Everything is possible. Just ask the earth.
When I think of attention, it’s usually that of other people. I need to call his attention to something, she’s not paying attention to me, the pup is standing at attention, etc. It’s oh so easy to question (ahem: resent) what others are prioritizing, especially when it’s, um… not me.
What am I paying attention to?
I have a feeling that’s the whole deal, right there. What am I paying attention to? Am I spending my time & awareness on matters of substance, like achieving goals & having meaningful conversations? Or am I watching trashy TV & getting a little too involved with the scandalous lives of fictional characters?
Last night at Insight LA, where I attended the 4th in a six-class series on the hindrances, we discussed sloth & torpor. Now, I’m a fairly energetic person, so I’ve never thought sloth & torpor were my key issues - I’ve got my arms full with the other 4 hindrances thankyouverymuch. But in conversation around the antidote to sloth/torpor - attention - my shortcomings in this area became clear.
I might have plenty of energy (as I expect to investigate closely next week when we explore restlessness/remorse in class), but I lack focus. I don’t have an attention deficit disorder, but I do feel pulled in so many different directions - not least of all by my own devices - that it’s hard to affix my attention to any one idea, goal or dream for too long. Much less to the present moment. So concentration, the final step along the Noble Eightfold Path, often seems like something I’ll have to save for my next lifetime.
But then - hope! Beth Sternlieb, the teacher of this course & someone I am quickly coming to admire for her candor as well as her depth & breadth of knowledge, reminded us of the two things we must do with our attention:
That is, select an object for your attention & keep paying attention to it. Your breath, perhaps, or the sensations of your body, or the sounds of the world around you pulsating with energy.
Last night I paid attention to a slow drip in the rain gutter outside, & watched my mind turn it from a mystery to a thundering annoyance to a rhythm that guided my breathing slower & deeper. Between drops, my mind would wander off - as it always, always does - but the next one would bring my attention back to now.
Turns out those little drops of water were more interesting & important than all the stories I have in my head about what I should be doing (or should have done), what I’m going to do & what someone else should be doing for me.
Because they were real.
I sat next to a stranger today & looked her in the eye for 10 minutes. I saw her joy, her pain, her strength & her fear, & I know she saw mine. We smiled together, I cried a little. I saw that we are the same. We are all the same.
It was the most surprising & profound 10 minutes of my life.
In Buddhist Geeks’ latest podcast, Trudy Goodman from Insight LA speaks about the complementary relationship of meditation (both Zen & Vipassana) & therapy.
Like Goodman, I started with therapy. After about a year, I could see that I was suffering from the friction between anxieties I couldn’t yet begin to process & a deep-seated need for control in my life. My very wise psychologist, Dr. A, suggested I look into meditation – with Insight LA specifically, in fact – to help me get out of my head & be more present, more aware of myself & others. As usual, she was right on the money.
Anyone who says “ignorance is bliss” has never met Dr. A. Or Trudy Goodman, for that matter:
And the trick for us as practitioners – whether we are practitioners of psychology or meditation – is to really see and unite these experiences so that we can be present with the ordinary moments of our life, and more and more hold an understanding of those moments as being deeply significant, expressions of the truth of that moment.
Not Truth with a capital “T” that some reified, always true… but the truth of that moment because it’s life. It’s life in the form of you, me, this moment of experience. And then, when we really can truly know that, so many things are possible for us. We don’t have to be afraid of experience or afraid of our own minds.
By the way, I really can’t recommend the Buddhist Geeks podcast (avail on iTunes) highly enough. It’s clear that Vince Horn puts a great deal of thought into presenting a wide range of practices & perspectives – recent interview subjects include activist Bernie Glassman, Integral Zen teacher Diane “Musho” Hamilton & neuropsychiatrist Rick Hanson. The podcasts, as well as the articles on Buddhist Geeks site, are both challenging & illuminating.