Recently, I spent some time in silent retreat and, as is often the case for me, came away with a phrase that encapsulates the theme life seemed to be teaching me there.
“Always a choice; never in control,” are the words ringing in mind.
Perhaps vignettes of a couple of the moments that sparked the slogan will bring its meaning across more fully. Take, for example, what I recall as the first time the phrase arose in my mind:
I was standing quietly in line waiting to wash-up my dishes after breakfast when I began noticing feelings of impatience. It was sensed in my legs first, like an urge to jump up off the floor. I realized that I wanted the people in front of me to move faster so I could get my dishes done sooner, even though I had no special place to go, nothing else I needed to do. As I stood there, aware of the unpleasantness of the experiences of impatience, I also noticed that I didn’t have control over the speed or actions of the other people. At the same time, it was clear that I did have the choice to drop the impatience, now that it had been recognized. So, I settled into simply standing there, aware of my breathing and the environment around me, until my turn came. Then I gave attention fully to washing my breakfast dishes. All the while, I continued noticing the signs of impatience. First, it was diluted into that larger field of awareness. Slowly, it dissipated and then entirely disappeared. A sweet sense of relief spread through my systems, like the soapy water and dishes being cleaned.
Here’s another example, this one a bit closer to the bone.
Often, sitting in the meditation hall is an experience I deeply enjoy. Peacefulness and ease of heart, mind and body arise. It doesn’t always happen that way though. One day, sitting quietly, practicing mindfulness of breathing, I heard a mean old voice in my head, telling me, “you’re no good at this and never will be.” It was kind of shocking, actually, and it really hurt! I guess I thought after all these years I might have gotten past it, but there it was again, unbidden and unwanted. As those silent words and the accompanying painful feelings appeared, it was sparklingly clear to me that I am not actually in control of my own thoughts! I can’t really banish them, will them away, or even effectively deny them for long. It was also powerfully apparent that, when attention is stable in the present, I have a choice in how I respond to such arisings. How important those responses are! Instead of adding fuel to that old self-diminishment habit, it was possible to relax, not take it personally, and give care to that voice inside. “Sweetheart,” I replied to my own mind, “It’s okay. You are okay.” Compassion poured like a soothing tonic into my heart.
Who knows what may come up in any moment, from the world or from within. We really aren’t in control here. And, in practice we really do have choices. I would love to hear what surprises life is sending you lately, and how your choices, your responses, are shaping your days.
This blog post was originally posted at UMass Medical School CFM Home