kathe kollwitz

a moveable monastery

The contemplative life benefits from periodic self-reflection

We meditate for many different reasons. Often, our original motivations morph as we move forward on this path. It’s juicy to reflect why we keep this up; and to be really honest with ourselves.

Dorothy Figen offers us one answer —

Why meditate? There are many reasons. But those that stand out most strongly are learning to think clearly, and to dispel ignorance, illusion, greed, hatred and craving.”

The contemplative life benefits from periodic, intensive self-reflection. Meditation allows you to take a clean step back to see how you are behaving, what you obsess over, and what trips you up.

Institutionalized, fortnightly self-reflection

While training as a young monastic in South Asia, we would gather on new moon and full moon nights to recite the rules of the order, to openly declare our transgressions and, frankly, bear testament to each other’s humanity. To re-align ourselves with the sacred intention to “dispel ignorance, illusion, greed and craving.”

I was initially terrified to participate in these fortnightly recitations. But slowly I came to see what I was doing not as a struggle to attain some perfect monastic ideal, but as a way to affirm this deep human wish to dispel our collective ignorance.

And to aim glimmers of awareness into those dark places of wounding, of pain, of confusion.

I came to see great power in those fortnightly confessional and renewal ceremonies. This “forced” self-observation began to make some sense. We can do this ourselves.

Set up your own intensive self-reflection schedule

Try setting aside one or two days a month for intensive self-reflection. The practice can be as simple as printing out these six questions and posting them on your refrigerator. Get a cheap journal at the drug store and write down your answers, and work with the questions throughout your day.

Have I been kind?

Have I been generous?

Have I been even-tempered?

Honest?

Patient?

Empathetic?

Of course, there are all manner of exercises for self-reflection; you can make up your own practice. The main thing, though, is to find questions that resonate and prompt deeper self-examination.

Mindful of our self-deceptions

Monastics since the time of the Buddha have been keenly aware of the human proclivity to be less than entirely upfront with ourselves.

The contemporary German scholar-monk Bhikkhu Analayo observes:

The habit of employing self-deception to maintain one’s self esteem has often become so ingrained that the first step is to acknowledge hidden emotions, motives and tendencies in the mind without immediately suppressing them.”

 That’s why it is so important to let mindfulness into those dark places.

a moveable monastery takes shape

We can start by bringing awareness to those ordinary moments when we resist being mindful—when we feel tired, and in the midst of everyday grumpiness.

Our ordinary instabilities and irritabilities; our ordinary struggles are the practice.

Noelle Oxenhandler observes:

What is mindfulness, if not the practice of bringing the mind to those places where it goes missing? Again and again, we wake ourselves up at the point where drowsiness, distractions, and daydreams arise.”

Wherever the mind takes us, we simply come back to the present. We pull out of the morass of mental images and settle into a very simple and bare experience of the here-and-now.

Our everyday struggles form the transparent walls of our movable monastery.

Jack Kornfield speaks eloquently about becoming your own monastery as we learn to bring our work on the cushion into the world:

When we take the one seat on our meditation cushion we become our own monastery. We create the compassionate space that allows for the arising of all things: sorrows, loneliness, shame, desire, regret, frustration, happiness.”

After years of practice, while our lives may not change all that much on the outside, they have changed fundamentally on the inside.

Choosing accommodation over contention

Sylvia Boorstein expresses this change over time as the heart becoming gradually more accommodating:

Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. Meditation changes the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is. It teaches the heart to be more accommodating, not by beating it into submission, but by making it clear that accommodation is a gratifying choice.”

Our monastery, Ajahn Sumedo says, teaches you to open to the way things are. I think he means your own movable monastery, too, your own everyday struggles.

Conditions are always good enough!

Like a stern coach, Ajahn Sumedo calls us on our exit strategies:

“We can always imagine more perfect conditions, how it should be ideally, how everyone else should behave. But it’s not our task to create an ideal. It’s our task to see how it is, and to learn from the world as it is. For the awakening of the heart, conditions are always good enough.”

Let’s be patient with ourselves and each other as we walk the path that dispels all sorrows and affirms our deepest joys and connections.

 

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