Friday, February 8: One of my New Year’s resolutions is to focus time on my own spiritual journey:
Begin a meditation practice, starting with at least 10 minutes a day. Read books about Buddhism, pilgrimage, spirituality, along with my other reading. Read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Start reading books about the Camino de Santiago and prepare to do some kind of pilgrimage in 2014. Attend some services at Washington National Cathedral.
In my remaining time in Oman, since Friday is like a Sunday in America, I will write a posts about my spiritual journey on Fridays. Once I return to America, I will try to continue the practice on Sundays. That’s my goal anyway.
So far my attempts to meditate got a late, and sporadic, start. I didn’t carve out time for myself in January except for 5 days. I can blame it on the boys & Mike being here from January 1-11; I can also make the excuse that I went to Nepal from the 17th-25th. I have meditated 5 out of the 8 days of February; the days that I didn’t I was so ill I could barely get out of bed. However, none of these are good excuses. I think if I’m going to do a meditation practice, I need to do it EVERY DAY, no matter what is going on in my life. By writing this post once a week, I hope to keep my spiritual journey in the forefront of my mind, to make it a priority.
I start my practice each day by reading a bit from a book I picked up in Nepal, the land of spiritual searching. The book is called Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, by Matthieu Ricard. There are spiritual exercises I can do in the book, or I can just meditate.
One of the first exercises of this week was Distinguishing happiness from pleasure. The goal is to bring to mind a past experience of physical pleasure, with all its intensity. Think about whether it gave a fleeting or a lasting sense of inner fulfillment. Then it asks you to remember an occasion of inner joy and happiness.
I sat silently and thought about this for my meditation. I thought about the physical pleasures of eating sardines and caper leaves in Santorini, feeling a breeze across my skin as I took a walk in Lake Langano in Ethiopia, getting my feet rubbed by Mike when we used to sit on the couch together watching T.V. I thought of physically intimate moments I have shared. Kissing. Holding hands. I thought of massages I got in Ethiopia and in Nepal. I thought of lying in bed under a warm blanket in the winter, of feeling my muscles ache after a long hike. And yes, I do remember in each of these instances, my pleasure subsided after a time. Eating and eating sardines and caper leaves would probably leave me with an upset stomach, feeling a breeze might make me feel chilled after a while. Eventually I would want to move from my position on the couch, despite the lovely foot rub, as it never feels good to stay in one place for a long time. I love massages, but after a while I get impatient and want to get up and move.
Yes, these are all fleeting pleasures. But what gives me lasting inner joy and happiness? This summer when my daughter Sarah was going through a heartbreak, it felt good to be there for her. Taking a long walk in nature and noticing details, being present in the moment: these things give me lasting pleasure. Having lunch with Alex, just the two of us, before I came back to Oman. Spending time talking to Adam about philosophy and spiritual journeys while he was visiting me in Oman. Having a heart to heart talk with my friend Mario. Spending time with my best friends from high school. All of these things give me lasting pleasure. They stay with me long after the actual happening. They bring me contentment and happiness.
Today, I read in Happiness the following, about the four truths of suffering. Ricard says in brief, we must: 1) Recognize suffering, 2) eliminate its source, 3) end it 4) by practicing the path.
Buddhist thought says that we can eliminate the source of suffering by practice. That’s what meditation is about. Like anything in life, one must practice to establish new thought patterns. That is what I hope to do.
Ricard clarifies the difference between unhappiness and ephemeral discomforts. Unhappiness is a “profound sense of dissatisfaction that endures even in favorable external conditions,” while ephemeral discomforts depend on external circumstances. He likens this to the waves and depths of the ocean: “A storm may be raging at the surface, but the depths remain calm.” I like this analogy.
In my meditations over the last week, I have tried to do what Ricard suggests, to realize my “potential for flourishing” by developing it into a skill. He says to “begin by becoming more familiar with your own mind.” He advises to “watch your mind, the coming and going of thoughts.” He says not to fuel those thoughts but to let them come and go, as if you’re watching a peaceful river flowing by.
In my meditations, I find it interesting that my thoughts seem to focus on how I’m not good enough. In meditations this week, thoughts surfaced about how I need to do more, more of this, more of that, how I need to get better at writing, at photography, at being a mother, at teaching, at making friends. Angry and bitter thoughts came up about how I applied for over 50 jobs with the State Department in 2008 and couldn’t get a job. In today’s meditation, I found myself wondering how I will get everything done on my list. That led me to thoughts that I should treat my meditation practice the same way I do with my personal life and my work at the university. I have a personal policy that once I leave the university, I leave it behind. I don’t take work with me, nor do I open my work emails. Then I started thinking how I should do the same thing regarding meditation. Make it a priority; don’t bring my life into my meditation time. Next my mind jumped to the birds chirping outside and how I should focus on the NOW of that birdsong. Then I thought about a mantra I learned a long time ago: Maranatha. Apparently it is an invitation to God to come into your life. I said that mantra to get my mind back to center.
Do you see the nature of my wild mind, jumping from here to there without any rhyme or reason?
At first in my meditations, I found myself getting anxious as I hung on to these thoughts and let my mind fuel them. Then, I gently reminded myself to let the thoughts go. I tried to observe these thoughts as if watching the landscape out of my car window as I drive past. I thought to myself, “That’s interesting. I wonder why I have so many of these negative thoughts.” But I didn’t try to analyze. I just watched them wander by.
In a chapter called “The Alchemy of Suffering” in Happiness, Ricard talks about what he calls “Wounded Beings.” Sadly I recognized myself: “An ‘insecurely avoidant’ person will rather keep others at bay than risk further suffering. Such a person will avoid becoming too intimate with others….” The description goes on, and none of it is pretty. I see myself in this description and take this thought into my meditation for today. What comes to mind are some oleander seed pods I found in a wadi on Jebel Akhdar yesterday. I found them fascinating, maybe because I see myself in them. They are pictured throughout this post, in their many varieties. I see myself like them with their hard outer shells. The bad thing is that oleander is a poisonous plant. Are all those downy seeds bursting out of the shell my own poisonous thoughts?
I prefer to see that the hard shells have burst open, and out of them is flowing fluff and softness and seeds, in abundancy. I prefer to see those seeds as the soul within me that could come out of my shell, if I were to nourish it. Opening to love. Peace. Happiness. Maybe, just maybe, this will be possible. With practice.