I feel that I should be above it all, but mostly I’m not.
I struggle with my emotions.
Meditation helps a lot, but sometimes I am just plain sad or overcome by all that is untenable in the world, borrowing a line from Brother Steindl-Rast. I feel that I should be above it all, but mostly I’m not.
Reading lines from ancient Zen lore, ones that say meditation is about discovering “the happiness not based on conditions,” doesn’t help much. I just get more depressed!
Some folks find happiness in the smallest acts: watching a sunset, or getting their errands done before it’s time to make dinner. Others I know struggle to find happiness in even the most ideal circumstances.
thriving on unhappiness?
Some folks even seem to thrive, in an odd sort of way, in their own unhappiness. I am sure you know people who find reasons to be miserable, dwelling on the past or creating problems when clearly there aren’t any.
I am sure you know of at least one person in your life who struggles to put things behind them, or who seems to relish in playing the victim.
Or for whom dissatisfaction seems to be second nature.
In these cases, as well as in my own, emotions emerge from sensory inputs that last but a fraction of a second. They seem to well up out of nowhere. But we grab on to them as defining a part of who we are in this world.
And we propagate them, creating a story-line explaining or justifying our feelings to ourselves. I notice this in my own meditation practice. It’s at the crux as how I experience meditation as a life-saving activity.
yeah, I’m depressed
I struggle with depression at times. Not feeling a little blue every now and then. I mean full-on clinical depression. And that’s how I mean meditation saves my life.
What exactly does meditation do for me that other interventions cannot?
It enables me to experience a sometimes strange yet simultaneously very familiar happiness in the midst of feeling unhappy.
a real happiness
Not the happiness of the victim or the secondary gain of the neurotically unhappy. A real happiness, which, well, is not based on conditions at all, I’ll admit.
Let’s call this a peaceful, uneasy feeling.
Or perhaps, being happy with feeling unhappy.
I know, I know; this doesn’t make sense. But little does when you get deep with this stuff.
we can’t stitch moments together and call it happiness
I’ve discovered the hard way that real, deep happiness is not a series of fleeting states we try to stitch together into a happy life.
Hedonic adaptation dampens even the best of them.
Meditation has shown me this happiness is with me when my boss publicly shames me at work, when my kid is sick, when the rent check bounces, and when my partner gets on my case for leaving the freezer door open for the fifth time this month.
We talk a lot in these mindfulness circles about accepting your emotions rather than pushing them away. In this practice, you feel what you feel, and you let go of the urge to make everything okay. You’re not pretending that everything will be alright.
Because, maybe, it won’t, and that’s the bottom line sometimes.
This is at the heart and soul of our mindfulness practice: seeing what is, being with it, and not trying to change it into something else.
right now, it’s like this
The US-born Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho, who trained for decades in Thailand and is now 84 years old, has a very simple saying that sums up the whole point of meditation:
“Right now, it’s like this.”
Let’s say I am having a challenging night at work. Maybe I started my night shift a little sleep deprived and not really wanting to be there. Then a patient who always seems to know which of my buttons to push finds just that right button. I take a breath and remember “Right now, it’s like this.”
I’m not saying it’s okay, or that I’m suddenly cool with what’s happening. No, it really sucks, and I feel I don’t have the energy to deal with him.
The phrase re-directs me to feel what this feels like, and realize I can be with it without freaking out.
I like what the phrase doesn’t say. Sure, dealing with this patient right now is a drag, but the phrase discourages me from creating another story-line, like–he needs to calm down, this always happens when I’m on, I should just quit this ridiculous job.
No, the phrase simply points out it’s like this, end of story.
The phrase works well also because it has the central Buddhist notion of impermanence built right in. Sure, this job is nuts (I work in a psych hospital), but it pays the bills; but more importantly it isn’t always this crazy of a place to work.
I realize that most nights I actually enjoy this job!
One of my favorite meditation teachers, Cheri Huber, reminds us that
“It’s not so much what happens as it is how we are with ourselves regardless of what happens –that makes the difference in our lives.”
How are we with ourselves throughout our day? It helps to check in and see.
Emotions well up, yes; we can’t stop this from happening. But meditation reveals how we keep the emotion going through our thoughts. And meditation gives us that blessed pause between stimulus and response that Viktor Frankl famously described:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This is the blessing of our simple mindfulness practice.