Practice Makes Presence
Radical acceptance isn't complacency or resignation. It is consciously noticing and acknowledging the emotional weather of the moment, without judgment. Those two words "without judgement" are the hardest part. Our conditioning tells us to suppress, to resist, to run, and to hide from our emotional weather. Radical acceptance is sitting in the rain until the time comes to dance in it. To dance first is to form an active and repressive denial of reality. Sitting with feelings and then recognizing and releasing judging thoughts is the first step to willingly living life, just as it, just as we are, and exactly where we are. The next obstacle is to avoid using acceptance and willingness as a new method to control feelings. This is resistance with a new mask in disguise. The willingness that follows acceptance is sitting in the emotional rainy weather, welcoming the thoughts and sensations without owning or rejecting them, and then deciding that this is the time to dance in the moment of life, even if the rains have come for a brief visit.
I discovered mindfulness meditation in early 2016 and fully developed a daily practice this year. As meaningful as it is, it ought to come with a warning "Do Not Try This If You Are Not Ready to Work and Become Someone New." Sitting is the easy part, but staying seated and gradually opening space to become aware of the thoughts, feelings, and memories that come and pass is the hard part. This book helped me to develop new tools to offer kindness, care, and space for my experience in the moment.
As I have committed to my mediation practice over the past months, the most accessible analogy for the experience is to describe the practice as if you were developing an extra gear mentally and physically. Driving a stick shift is becoming a lost art, but in the late 90s I had as small Nissan pickup truck that allowed me to learn and enjoy this type of driving experience. Manual transmission have more "pep" when accelerating and that comes in handy getting in and out of tight or congested spaces. I used to wish that there was a gear between second and third on my truck, since I felt second was overworking while driving in residential areas and third made the truck drag. This type of extra gear would have made coasting without speeding require much less shifting. This is the feeling that began to emerge in the weeks and months after I committed to my practice. In moments of true anxiety, fear, and shame, following the prompts back to my breath became that coasting gear.
The book comes with practical examples of the meditations, sets of exercises, and encouragement through some of the common challenges. The author is psychotherapist and a Buddhist and his connection between both of these perspectives adds a great deal to the practice. With these tools, your reliance on external reassurances of safety slowly withdrawal and it's you and your acceptance and awareness that becomes the refuge. To borrow a thought, with mindfulness we can become "the ones we are waiting for."
Who is this book for?
I started to meditate after reading Tara Brach's book Radial Acceptance. I later was introduced by a therapist to Jon Kabat Zinn and now I am off with different styles to try daily. Meditating has become a true refuge for me but it hasn't been easy. Below are the stages I described to a friend who is starting her own mediation practice. These stage cover the first 18 months of my practice.
1. Wow this 10 minute guided meditation lasts forever
2. Yes! I made it to the end, but I lose focus so I must be doing it wrong
3. What if the kids see me do this and think I'm weird?
4. Alright, the breathing really settles me quickly and now I know to not worry about focus just come back to breath
5. Hey this guy made me mad at work and I started to breath like when I meditate and the anger passed
6. Ugh! I have the same negative feelings each time
7. Oh I see, don't judge what's there just give it space
8. The long body scan didn't make my fear go away!!!
9. Wisdom is knowing what feelings are present without being lost in them.
10. You can walk and meditate?! Cool!
11. I can imagine the good feelings from meditating at the beach and it's now my calm place I turn too when I'm afraid.
12. Mediating with others is different and powerful even though its in silence
13. People want to know what's up and want to try meditating!
14. Yesterday's was so much better than today's, ugh!
16. And so on...
I could drain this pen with my list of things that ought to be. Making a list like this makes me feel like the course of things in the universe is up to me. It’s not. I like to pretend otherwise, and when I do, that is when the trouble begins.
Tomorrow, my mother will lose her eye. That isn’t how it ought to be. She has had trouble with the eye for a few years. When she called to tell me the news she was strong and spoke clearly only breaking down to admit how broken hearted she is about it all. The doctors have done all they can and there is nothing left for them to do. I could only answer her with “I love you” and a reminder that we are not our bodies.
At moments over the last few days, I close one eye to gauge how she will see, and maybe understand how she will feel. I also tell myself fifty/fifty is a good proposition and maybe it won’t be so bad. I know that is up to her and I also know she’s made the best with lesser odds to get this far.
My recent experience has taught me that to move forward I have to renounce the way things ought to be and accept reality just as it is. Any clinging to my demands of fairness is like a swimmer violently thrashing to push back the incoming tide. The tide is coming anyway, and it will rise, fall, and pass on. This renunciation only takes a pause and the willingness to practice mindful acceptance.
This pause is between hiding and reactivity, between denial and being overwhelmed. This sounds to me like the idea of meekness in the Beatitudes or the “middle way” in Buddhism. This pause makes space between the mind, the body, and the circumstances we face. Today that space needs to be filled fearless presence. Mothers are more than just flesh and blood, you don’t need eyes to see that, you just need love and courage to sit with our circumstance.
*Illustrating this point, I wrote this in a public space where the AC repairman came in, talking on his phone, and walked by me while never acknowledging the guy in the corner who was crying while typing this. Who needs perfect sight to see what is important?
You. Right there, right where you are, with all of who you are. You are the first. This is not a medal stand or coronation but unveiling. By daring to stare into the weather long enough and remain present you have seen the crowds break apart. What was once weather is now passing away, and the bright light of the sky beckons. It belongs to you.
This bright and peaceful sky has always been and will always be yours. But now, with sunlight finding its way to you, warming your soul, the bright light now shows the shadows of those around you. Some are looking desperately at the weather believing they only have the choice to fight it or to run from it. Still others wander aimless, unaware that there is anything overhead because their necks are strained from being turned down in grief.
As you see the light, others will begin to see you and notice the difference. In the beginning it may make others afraid, or jealous, or resentful. These are the usual hallmarks of darkness. We remember them too, and also how we found the light.
We came to the light shared from another who journeyed ahead with an open heart and let us borrow from their illumination until we realized we had been glowing all along. And now, it's our turn to look around and offer to those who seek something greater, deeper, and more fulfilling than the delusion of stormy weather. They are waiting for some new, someone who looks as bright as you. Each one that finds you will always know that you were first.
I was eight or nine when I first remember my parents watching the John Ankerberg TV series. He was a well known christian televangelist that would hold a talk show that would invite experts on the Bible to defend the accuracy of christian faith. Watching this show had a powerful effect on me and now, I recognize that it was the public attention these experts received that hooked me into wanting to enter christian ministry. In every church I have attended the pastor was a pseudo-celebrity and I wanted that kind of attention. Over the years, it became evident that the kind of attention these families gained was actually a serious burden. Each church I have attended in the last twenty years has suffered a leadership scandal, usually of an illicit sexual nature. One pastor I knew coldly preached his morning sermons then met his girlfriend that Sunday afternoon and never returned to the church or his wife and kids. His choice was devastating to his family, sad for the church, and was met by strong condemnation from those who knew him. I kept wondering, what about the position of pastor made this type of desperate escape so necessary?
I graduated from Bible college and briefly attended seminary while I worked with youth at a local church. I enjoyed the connection with teens and young adults and I have continued to work with them professionally for last twenty years in various organizations. What I didn't enjoy was the hierarchical leadership structure that usually gave one person (usually a man) vast power over the organization, its mission, as well as regular access to the most fragile and hurting members of the community. By design, church ought to function in a community as a beacon of hope. Unfortunately, I began to see that the so called spiritual elite were still saddled with the same human traits of selfishness and impulsiveness as everyone else. It is hard to see hope in that.
I do not intend this post to serve as a pro/con statement about church attendance. I do accept, however, that my experience resembles the suffering called "special person" by Tara Brach. In her book True Refuge she describes the attitude of special person as someone with strong desires to be in charge, to be looked up to, to be revered. When It becomes a near obsession, it creates separation from others and eventually a form of emotional emptiness. Much of this attitude led to my initial desire to enter ministry and still fuels a lot of my professional goals. To be clear, I am not saying aspiring to or even holding leadership or authority positions are wrong, per se, or that this special person suffering is only found in church communities. It just happens to be were it first awakened in me. Regardless of the cause, I think we could be better served by examining the motivations we have for wanting (or needing) that kind of attention.
I once heard a retired CEO answer the question "what was the biggest adjustment to your retirement?" His answer was "accepting that my phone had stopped ringing." This leader acknowledged that we can unconsciously build a career that makes the approval of others the mirror in which we see ourselves. When that mirror leaves, loneliness is what enters. The special person suffering comes from the separation and need for protection that it creates. If we are what other people say we are; then what people think and say of us must be guarded. Handing over control of your self understanding is a recipe for misery.
One challenging mediation I have been doing for a couple of weeks is called "I am." It lasts fifteen minutes and involves you mentally repeating "I am" while not filling in the blank that follows the phrase. As thoughts come and go, my role is to gently return to the mantra without resisting any intrusive thoughts. Its goal is to help you connect to your fundamental state of being. In a cosmic sense, its like filing out a bio and listing occupation as "here" or "being." This grounded look at existence takes a lot of work. I can't help but think it would matter a great deal to those suffering from the endless and dependent feedback loop of special person. After all, the most special people I have known have three things in common: comfort with self, a relative awareness of their deepest needs, and a developed sense of inner refuge that grounds them.
This week's practice is to meet the desire for validation with a repetition of "I am". Finding our deeply (often ignored) sense of being is the connection to truly living in the present. This sense of being is independent of our circumstances and I welcome it as foundation to my inner refuge.