Last time I left with the emotional stuff that comes up for me in meditation, specifically loneliness. This is not why I meditate, exactly, to get in touch with these emotions. In one way it is, because if I ignore them altogether, they fester and cause problems in other ways. But when I pay attention, my emotions aren’t as big as they seem. They shift, change, and go away. The title of this post comes from a quote by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana which I posted previously: “Practice [meditation] is an ongoing investigation of reality, a microscopic examination of the very process of perception. Its intention is to pick apart the screen of lies and delusions through which we normally view the world, and thus to reveal the face of ultimate reality.”
To illustrate, a buddhist cliché: In the photo above, an incredible park in south western Australia (Cape Le Grand National Park), the clouds are pretty daunting. But check out the clear blue sky in the middle left. That clear blue sky is behind the storm clouds, too. This is the mind. Clouds of emotion come over us, and if we identify with them, we are those emotions. We are a bad luck day at the beach. We can get stuck here pretty easily. But if we take the clouds as transient, and understand that the calm is there behind them (awareness), we just see and watch the clouds for what they are in that moment. Clouds. Which serve a purpose like everything else in the ecosystem.
Crying fits are quite common on retreats—especially, I’ve noticed, among older men. (Or maybe it’s more memorable coming from older, stoic men. Though it’s also possible they have more to grieve, if they shoved it away way back when, as society expects of them.) Out of nowhere, patches of long repressed emotions spring up to be faced. I’ve had my share of these over the years, and while I don’t always have a good cry, certainly sadness springs up. When I went upstate for the first retreat, I thought I might have to face hurt and pain from various happenings of late. I had stories around them and I was expecting it, maybe even preparing myself in some way.
Things played out differently. My mind was fairly calm, when it wasn’t agitated. First, it was agitated by a few annoying people around, who didn’t want to leave me alone on my solitary retreat. Worse, it was agitated by events that did not exist in real time. Stories about all sorts of things. One, for example, about a dear friend who was moving back to Europe a week after my retreats ended. She did this. She did that. Well, I would just to do this. And fine, that. Well, I see. Okay, then. You know what? I can just let this friendship go. She’s leaving. I don’t need her. I have plenty of friends.
Push, slam, shove away the pain of impending abandonment. That’s what I did in my mind, over and over again. I knew on some level what I was doing. We’d even discussed it on a different note earlier in the summer. I recall her saying that she and her father fought, always, just before she left home. What is tremendously painful and humbling is that I know what I am doing, and I still do it. And this is where meditation comes in.
When I came back home from upstate, I read some of my emails at the start of the second in-city retreat. Zka (her nickname), my about-to-move friend, had emailed announcing that she wouldn’t leave the week after my retreat, but almost the day after. As in, no more time with Zka.
“Well, I see. That’s just fine then. Seems we are done.” Her excuse for early departure was so long and over-explained that it could not be true. And I had a birthday party for another Z the night before she left. “See how little I need a Z? Hmmm? You got that?” I asked her in my head (albeit not quite that directly) over twenty-five times. So it seems we’d barely get to see each other at all. That’s. Just. Fine.
If you are at all aware of the inaccuracy of the stories you tell yourself, or you have ever been left by a dear friend and you have very stubborn defense mechanisms, you can imagine the things that were going though my mind. How I might reply to her email. How I might do this. How I might say that. How I didn’t need her anyway.
On one lunch break I stepped into an Indian gift shop on 23rd Street, looking for a beach blanket (Zka on the make-do-for-now blanket at left). Instead I saw a pretty silk scarf that said Zka all over it. The heart in me that burned through my defenses while sitting on my ass all week, going back to my breath every time I noticed I was elsewhere (plotting, conniving, defending against imagined insults), marched me over to the register to buy it. My hurt gave way and I temporarily forgot that I’d written her off. I smiled. I had a pretty scarf for Zka. I was happy.
And then I was mad again. I was beginning to fight with myself because I knew what I should do (clear my schedule and spend time with Zka) vs. what I wanted to do (not rearrange my schedule to suit her last minute change). This was a nice back and forth that went on for a few days.