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Saturday, March 31, 2012

An apology to the small woman with the big question

I go to talks by different teachers whenever I can. It's all one dhamma, and it's not all that complicated -- suffering and liberation from suffering, but everyone presents it differently and adds the intelligence of their own experience.

I was at a talk last week where the teacher was wise, intelligent, and funny (although perhaps not as funny as he thought he was.*) Good talk.

But I was bothered by his response to a question. It happens sometimes that I think the teacher misses the real question. This was one of those times. The woman, a petite woman with big glasses and a great lime-green sweater, said a lot of words about her background her experience, her difficulty with settling her mind. When she did get away from her busy thoughts, what she found scared her: ugly images, threatening feelings. Maybe she shouldn't meditate?

The teacher gave her guidelines for establishing a meditation practice. Just 10 minutes a day. Just stay with your breath. And when you lose it come back. He didn't address the ugly feelings that lay under the thoughts. And that, I think, was her real question.

Now, as a teacher, you have to give an answer to an individual question that may be of benefit to more people than just the questioner. You have to respond to one individual's quandry in a way that may answer other's questions.

But as a student, I've been in the position of hiding my real question. Of putting forth a lot of background and buzzwords to prove that I'm not new at this, that I'm a serious student. Of voicing my question at the end of a string of sentences because I'm afraid that my true question shows that I'm stupid or inferior or unworthy.

I was sitting behind this woman, but in a staff position that prevented me from touching her on the shoulder and saying "talk to me after." I could feel the skepticism, the frustration oozing out of her at his answer. I saw her later at the reception, giving off sharp, angry, frustrated energy.

I should have sat down and talked to her then. But I didn't. I was tired. The room was really hot, and I wasn't wide awake. I couldn't think of a way to approach her except to say, "Gee, you seem angry." And I didn't have the capacity to deal with her energy at that moment. (More than just sleepy, I'd gotten back the day before from a long and draining trip.)

Here is what I want her to know:

Don't give up on meditation. There may be ugly stuff under all those thoughts. You may, as you said, be using busyness to hide from that stuff. That doesn't mean that you are ugly. That doesn't mean you put that stuff there.

If you stick with it, underneath the ugliness, there is goodness. In you. Brilliant, clear wisdom and kindness and strength. What do you think knows that stuff is ugly? It is the part of you that is under that.

Do go gently into that dark night. Sit with kindness and compassion. Don't stare into the face of ugliness. Start by saying, "I see you," as the Buddha did with Mara, and then look away. Or back away, if just knowing that it's there is too much. Eventually, you can sit with kindness and gentleness and strength while the ugliness is there, in your peripheral vision. And someday, maybe, you can look at it with compassion, shine your basic goodness on it and watch it burn away, like fog in sun.

Do what the teacher said and sit. It builds your strength and your capacity to go deeper. Work with a meditation instructor. If you have to, work with several until you find one who resonates with your deepest self.

Back off when you need to; go back when you can. Your very question shows that the beauty is in you. Let that -- and your awareness of that -- be your refuge.

May you be safe (you can be, even from the monsters in your mind)
May you be happy (you can be, even with the monsters in your mind)
May you be healthy (having monsters is not a sign of psychosis)
May you know ease (it is possible, in this very moment, under these very conditions. I completely believe that.)

*Nancy's rules of teaching: Don't speculate on what your students will say about you when they leave. "You're going to go home and tell your friends that teacher was so XXX." You're assuming you know your students' experience and that yours is somehow more XXX than theirs. It's Northhampton. There are different standards for XXX there.)