Secular Meditation: I Am Who I Am


“Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”

wood_choppingThis is a moderately famous Zen koan. And it’s a phrase that keeps popping into my head as I pursue the secular meditation/ mindfulness practice that I keep gassing on about. Like many Zen koans, it seems to mean somewhat different things to different people (if you Google the phrase “chop wood, carry water,” you’ll find hundreds of people explaining what it “really” means). There’s the obvious meaning: after you get enlightenment (whatever the hell that means), the everyday tasks of your life aren’t going to go away, you still have to do work and manage your life. There’s the somewhat less obvious meaning: after you get enlightenment (whatever the hell that means), the pains and stresses of your life aren’t going to go away, chopping wood will still be hard work and carrying water will still make your back hurt. There’s the still less obvious but more commonly- understood meaning: our lives are largely made up of mundane tasks, and these tasks aren’t just junk we have to slog through to get to our real lives, they are our real lives, so it makes sense to embrace them and fully experience them rather than racing through them distractedly as if they didn’t matter.

All of which is true. But here’s what this koan has been meaning to me, and why it keeps popping into my head when I meditate:

I am who I am.

I will always be who I am. I am not going to get away from myself.

Here’s what I mean. There’s this weird paradox I keep running into. Meditation and mindfulness are having a dramatically transformative effect on my mind and my mood, my emotions and my approach to life. At the same time, they’re not really changing who I am at all. I am still fundamentally the same person that I was before I started, with the same affections and ambitions and anxieties, the same irritations and guilts and self-doubts. And I have to accept that if this practice is going to work.

When I meditate, I sometimes get frustrated with the constant hamster wheel in my head, chattering and nattering and worrying and distracting me from my focus. In theory, my meditation practice is supposed to involve focusing my attention on something specific (such as my breath, or scanning my body from foot to head); noticing when my attention has drifted from this focus; observing my distracting thoughts or feelings without judgment; and gently returning my focus to my breath or my body or whatever. In practice, my meditation often goes something like this:

Foot“Focus on my right heel. My right heel. Jesus, I can’t believe that idiot commenter on AlterNet. Did I remember to pitch my AlterNet editor with that story idea… hm, I’m noticing that my attention is drifting. I’m gently returning the focus to my right heel. Right heel. Sole of my right foot. Sole of my… I haven’t returned that email from Charlie, I really need to do that. I wonder if Charlie would be interested in a workshop or a discussion group on mindfulness and sexuality? Who else would be interested in that? If I do that, should I do it as an in-person group in San Francisco, or an online group, or… no, this ISN’T what I’m focusing on right now. Crap. Observe that my attention has drifted onto this thought, LET THE THOUGHT GO already, return my focus to the sole of my right foot. Sole of the foot. Ankle. Notice that my ankle is a bit sore and tight… probably from the gym yesterday. Am I going to have time to go to the gym tomorrow? Maybe if I get caught up on my email and the messages in my Facebook inbox. You know, I haven’t done the Atheist Meme of the Day on Facebook in a while, I know people really liked that, but it was such a time-suck… GODDAMN IT, YOU STUPID FUCKING BRAIN, WILL YOU SHUT THE HELL UP AND LET ME FOCUS ON MY RIGHT ANKLE FOR TEN FUCKING SECONDS?!?!?”

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what my meditation teacher meant by “observe without judgment, and gently return.”

In fact, getting frustrated and angry with myself for having thoughts and feelings and plans and ideas and anxieties and so on arise in my mind when I meditate… it’s totally counter-productive. When I get irritated with my distracting thoughts or feelings, and angrily shove them on the back burner, and jerk my attention back to my breath or my left knee or whatever… I lose the flow of the practice. When I can observe my distracting thoughts or feelings, and sit with them for a moment, and let them be what they are, and then gently return my focus to my breath or my left knee or whatever… the practice is much more effective. (Not to mention more pleasant.) And the thoughts and feelings and so on don’t jar me out of the practice. They become part of it.

So when I meditate, and the hamster wheel is being unusually loud and active and frustrating, one of the things I do to stay in the practice is to remind myself: I am who I am.

hamster wheelThis practice is not making the hamster wheel in my head go away. And I don’t think it’s going to. I think I’m always going to be a person whose mind is perpetually spinning at a zillion miles an hour, a person who has dozens of thoughts on her mind at once, a person who’s constantly thinking of the future and trying to shape it, a person who lives in the future far more than she lives in the present, a person with plans and worries and hopes almost constantly on her mind. And I’m basically okay with that. It’s frustrating and annoying at times… but it’s also a big part of why I am where I am today, and why I’m able to live this life and do this work that I find so fulfilling. This practice isn’t going to make the hamster wheel go away… and I wouldn’t want it to.

What the practice is doing — gradually, to a small degree, to a very slightly greater degree every day — is changing my relationship with the hamster wheel.

What the practice is doing — gradually, to a slightly greater degree every day — is enabling me to have my thoughts and feelings and plans and anxieties… instead of them having me.

This has become one of the chief ways that I frame this practice, and one of my chief goals with it. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of being goal-oriented about a practice that’s fundamentally about self-acceptance and being in the moment. But… well, again, that’s sort of the point. I am who I am. And who I am, among many other things, is an intensely goal-oriented person. And I’m basically okay with that. Again: big part of why I am where I am today, and why I’m able to live this life and do this work that I love. And — returning to the point — one of the chief goals I have with this practice is to have my thoughts and feelings and plans and anxieties… instead of them having me.

I want to have ambition — I don’t want my ambition to control me. I want to have anger — I don’t want my anger to overwhelm me. I want to have plans — I don’t want my plans to spin me, to drown me, to constantly poke me and prod me and nag me and swamp my entire field of consciousness. I want to respond to the things that happen in life — I don’t want to react to them. I want to have lots of ideas and hopes and analyses and strategies and imaginings and desires and feelings. I don’t want them to have me.

I am who I am. I will always be who I am. Who I am is changing, of course, and I don’t know for sure how I will and won’t change. But some things about me have been pretty much constant throughout my life, and I don’t expect them to change. The hamster wheel in my head will always be chopping wood and carrying water. But as I continue to work on mindfulness, I’m finding that — gradually, to a small degree, to a very slightly greater degree every day — I’m better able to notice when my attention has drifted, and to observe it without judgment, and to return my attention to the task at hand. I’m better able to notice when I’m having strong emotions, and to observe them without judgment, and to make decisions that are informed by those emotions without being a total reflexive reaction to them. I’m better able to look at a long to-do list, and pick the next most important do-able thing on the list, and do it, without being overwhelmed and paralyzed by how much I have to do.

bucket on water faucetThe hamster wheel in my head will always be chopping wood and carrying water. But as I continue to work on mindfulness, it seems that I’m becoming better able to consciously choose which wood to chop, and which water to carry.

Other pieces in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time
Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness
Secular Meditation: How Down Time is Changing
Secular Meditation: “This is my job”

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting reflections, Greta. It reminds me very much of the thoughts of a meditation teacher I once had — and I may mangle this badly as language fails me when I try to articulate such things — but the gist of it is that the noisy hamster wheel isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of who we are, even though it sure seems like it is. He called it the Top Dog, that voice within us that doesn’t ever want to shut up and give us a moment of peace. He even warned us that when we started, the more we tried not to react to it the harder and dirtier it would fight to get our attention back, like a bratty toddler. (Wow, so now there are three different species in different metaphors for the same thing? See above re: language failing me…)

    That brings me to the interesting thing: in this view, the essence of who you are is the Greta that can observe that voice without reacting reflexively. “You” learn to respect the hamster/dog/toddler, acknowledge it, validate it, honor it, withhold judgment on it, and…”you” just do not react to it reflexively. But whether you react reflexively to it or not — and you are describing this process of learning not to — the hamster/dog/toddler is very much in the business of reacting reflexively. I seems to me that is precisely what it is: the part of “you” that constantly reacts reflexively: to sensory stimulation, to memories, to your own thoughts. It always has something to say and/or feel about every. single. thing. Meanwhile the other part of “you,” the person with the ambitions, values, attractions and affections, is learning not to be ruled by it. These parts of your mind are coming together into a more egalitarian relationship with each other, where one once ruled.

    Anyway, I found it helped in meditation to think of “me” and aspects of my mind in those terms. Those non-judgment and non-reaction skills led me to be kinder, more patient and less judgmental with myself — which was a huge deal for me at the time — and also with others.

    ^Jeezus, what a convoluted mess! This “you,” that other “you,” lolwut? It reminds me of the 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 explanation for some monotheistic-yet-triune god we’ve heard so much about. But it makes perfect sense to me…and frankly that’s a little scary! :o

  2. Greta Christina says

    irisvanderpluym @ #1: Actually, it makes a lot of sense, (How scary is that?) The one thing I would say is that I don’t actually think that the calmer, conscious, “decider” me is the essence of who I am, and that the reactive, constantly-chattering hamster-wheel isn’t. All of it is me; all of it is essence of who I am. The more I read about neuropsychology, the more I understand that identity and selfhood is a weird, complicated stew, much of which is something of an illusion (or at least a concoction of the brain as a useful tool).

    What I do think, though, is that the calmer, conscious, “decider” me is generally better at making decisions than the reactive, constantly-chattering hamster-wheel. The hamster wheel has useful things to say sometimes, and it’s sometimes good in a crisis (although sometimes in a crisis it really sucks)… but it’s not the part of me that I want running the show. Whatever “I” means in this case. ACK! Identity is hard!

  3. says

    The one thing I would say is that I don’t actually think that the calmer, conscious, “decider” me is the essence of who I am, and that the reactive, constantly-chattering hamster-wheel isn’t. All of it is me; all of it is essence of who I am.

    I agree, and didn’t mean to imply otherwise. It’s so difficult for me to find the right words for these kinds of ideas (at least it is in English) without borrowing the language of ancient mysticism or modern woo. When I wrote:

    the essence of who you are is the Greta that can observe that voice without reacting reflexively.

    I could have been more clear, but at the cost of more clunk:

    the essential you is the integrated you that can observe that-voice-that-is-the-reactive-you without reacting reflexively.

    Oh yeah, that really sings well. Pffft.

    My comment was already a ginormous text wall, so I thought better of going into the “self” illusion. In brief, I think the integrated self is a necessary illusion if we wish to shape our own futures, or perhaps just to maintain the illusion that we are doing so.

    Thanks for writing about this. I enjoy thinking about it and appreciate the discussion.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The simplest answer is that I did it badly until I got better at it. Except “badly” isn’t the right word: meditation is meditation, and I was taught that if I’m doing it, I’m doing it right. Instead, let’s say “less effectively.” It was harder at first to sit still; I was more judgmental and anxious about doing it right; my awareness drifted from my intended focus much more often and for longer stretches. When I was first learning how to meditate… well, here’s how I described it in an earlier post, Secular Meditation: I Am Who I Am: […]

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