I often tell my yoga students that the practice of yoga is a practice of remembering; remembering that we are already perfect as we are; that we have infinite capacity within us; that we have the ability to create the energy we need at any moment; that we can always return to the breath when things get rough and life feels overwhelming.
My husband will often suggest to me that I follow my own advice. He is completely right. I listen to the words I share with my students and think, “Man, I really need to do that, too.” The challenge with most practices that stretch our mind, body, and spirit is that they are just that: challenging. It’s easy to speak a truth and more difficult to embody it. It is even more difficult to embody a practice so deeply that it becomes second nature.
I have had several meditation teachers say that creating a new behavior pattern or habit requires practicing that behavior every day for 30-40 days. It only takes one day of skipping the practice to shake the whole foundation. I have been sitting to meditate for well over a year now, and I have come to the point where I feel that something is missing if I am not able to sit for any reason (travel, etc.). I have begun to feel a sense of deep relief, an exhalation of sorts, when I begin a sit, but this relief was not experienced when I first began to sit. For a long time, I checked the time ever few minutes, hoping the 20 minutes was almost up. I am still at a place where my mind wanders far more than I would like it to, but I am also in a space of accepting that my mind wanders and not placing judgment when I notice. This feels like progress.
The stage I have reached in my meditation practice of not placing judgment on my wandering mind may seem simple and novice. In many ways, it is. I am not a seasoned practitioner. I still feel like I don’t really know what I am doing most of the time. I still worry that I am doing it wrong, though the many articles and books I have read, as well as classes I have followed, tell me that meditation is a lifelong learning process. Yates (2015), informed his readers, “Remember, the only bad meditation session is the one you didn’t do!”
Noticing a behavior and abstaining from judgment in meditation is one step. I am nowhere near attaining this behavior in my life “off of the cushion,” as it were. My mind snaps judgment photographs pretty much everywhere I look. My most detailed judgment collection is one I have been compiling for decades now, and it consists of my own actions, thoughts, and shortcomings.
I can remember many incidences where I behaved in ways that have caused inner and external strife, and I have but to call a memory to mind to re-experience and remember the horrible emotions involved. How does this practice serve me? It is a kind of torture, a return to judgment prison.
In other words, this practice does not serve me well. In addition, I have learned that we humans create many stories around every situation in our life, from our own behaviors to those of friends, family, and even strangers. We are such well-trained storytellers that we get drawn into our stories to the point where we believe them to be real instead of what they are: creations of our own imaginative minds.
I have personally lived through months, even years, of embracing a story that I had created about how another person felt about me, only to find that what I thought to be real and true was completely false.
A person I thought didn’t like me actually thought that I didn’t like them. We spent years avoiding each other, missing the opportunity to perhaps connect as friends. Most of the time, I create a story about my own inadequacies when I sense disapproval from another person. From the number of times I have managed to communicate with that person and learned that their behaviors had absolutely nothing to do with me and everything to do with their own physical and emotional struggles, I have realized that the world actually does not revolve around me. Most of the responses I witness from other people have more to do with the stories they are creating than how they “feel” about me.
Knowing all that I know from years of reading, practicing, and communicating, how is it that I continue to forget the most meaningful lessons I have learned?
I have come to believe that one reason for this forgetting is that deeply engrained behaviors are difficult to overcome. Forgetting is deeply engrained in my being. To put it another way, the behavior patterns I have learned from society, friends, and family have been woven tightly into my being. In fight or flight situations, I reach for this information first because it has become an instinctual reflex of sorts.
The woman on the tram was mean to me because I unwittingly almost took what she believed to be her seat because she had been eyeing it for perhaps a minute longer than I had? Her behavior must mean that she is a horrible, mean, vengeful person.
If I were to have paused for a moment in that situation (instead of getting all huffy) and imagined my Self in her shoes, I might have recognized a similar proprietary propensity for the coveted seat as well.
I jokingly refer to my husband as my live-in guru, but he really is just that. He is a kind of sattvic mirror, reflecting back to me what I already know with mostly gentle reminders.
What if you had thanked her to helping you practice or even just given her a hug? He has asked me when I got home and told him what happening.
Huh, I had responded. I had gone straight to the anger and judgment. The thought of empathy or gratitude had not even occurred to me, despite all of the yoga, meditation, and ethics I had been studying and practicing.
How could I have forgotten?
Easy. These were new lessons that I had not completely incorporated into my daily practice. Furthermore, it’s one thing to create a new behavior pattern like sitting to meditate every day. It’s another entirely different beast to try to override or replace old behaviors with new ones.
Pema Chödrön talks about the innate human tendency to experience something the Buddhists refer to as Shenpa, an action that triggers a desire within us to respond in kind, explaining our response through entitlement. It’s ok to respond to violence with violence because we have been wronged and thus, our behaviors are justified.
From experience, we know that responding in kind will never improve a situation that begins with any kind of negative energy. However, taking the time to pause and “choose something different” is incredibly difficult.
It takes some serious willpower for me to stave off the voice crying out for vengeance and retaliation in exchange for either responding with kindness or not responding at all.
If I don’t respond, doesn’t that mean they win? I remember asking my husband during one of our meditation sits. I had been thinking about the people who had taken me to small claims court in Alaska. After paying me Earnest Money to keep my house off the market for two years, they quit their job, broke their lease (they had been renting while attempting to procure a loan to buy), and left me with $10k worth of damage to my house and property. They had then proceeded to take me to court, demanding a return of the EM.
Even after the ruling was in my favor, they continued to harass with me with threatening emails. I had an exceedingly difficult time refraining from responding.
Hence, the question I put forth to my husband.
Engaging with them only draws you into their reality, and their reality is a nightmare. Don’t enter into their nightmare. Let them go.
I did respond to several messages before the meditation chat, and it was very difficult to finally follow my husband’s advice and let it go. When I am reminded of these two people, I try to practice gratitude that I do not have to live in the nightmare they have created for themselves. I can choose something different. If I am going to create a story, which as a human I am wont to do, I might as well create one that revolves around seeing the beauty and Love in the world around me. At least, I prefer try to make this my practice, however challenging it may be at times.
When I response in kind to people’s anger, resentment, irritation, etc., I feel this energy in my own being. It’s like a hideous weight that takes up residence in my body, mind, and heart. It just feels yucky, and it is difficult to shake.
It’s so easy to forget this discomfort, however, when I find myself in the heat of a Shenpa moment.
According to an article by Carl Richards (2018), which I recently read in The New York Times, “resisting a behavior I want to change is not only ineffective but harmful” (para. 8).
The answer? “Pull a little bait and switch on your own brain. It goes like this: When the urge comes to do the counterproductive thing, don’t resist. Instead, replace” (para. 9).
In other words, when I feel a desire to retaliate in kind or to place judgment on my Self or someone else, I need to engage in a different behavior.
Richards (2018) claims, “Peel an orange, go outside, do a push up, sing a song. Whatever works for you. It doesn’t matter what you do instead of resisting the behavior, just so long as you do something else” (para. 12).
The first step is to train my Self to train my Self to notice when I am being triggered, as well as the learned response welling up within me, preparing to attack. Then, I need to learn to pause just long enough to reach in and pluck the learned, negative response out of my being and replace it with something positive that will not inflict further harmful energy onto the world.
Peace of cake! Well, I don’t really like cake. I love pie, but I have a deeply engrained habit of feeling overwhelming guilt every time I eat any kind of dessert, like I can actually see my stomach expanding (as if it should even matter!). This is a pattern that has proved very difficult to overcome, but one behavior change at a time.
The nuts and bolts of what I am trying to say is that a I can choose the kind of person I want to me. I am not a piece of Ikea furniture, which comes with instructions, an Allen wrench, and all of the required pieces (although to be honest, even some of those pieces don’t fit together as perfectly as one would imagine they should). I have the capacity within me to create my own behavior patterns instead of blindly reverting (aka, succumbing) to the ones that have been modeled to me by other people in my life, the Media, etc. for the first several decades of my life. A person can be made and remade, even at the age of 36 (which as a child I thought was quite ancient, but then I also thought 8th graders were very grownup when I was in 5th grade).
Each day is a new opportunity.
I will leave you with a clip from an episode of The Good Place, where Eleanor explains why she continues to try to be a better person. Her description of the little voice is commensurate with my feelings of discomfort and my own inner critic when I respond with anger to events that shake up my equanimity.
Yates, John Culadasa. (2015). The mind illuminated: A complete meditation guide integrating Buddhist wisdom and brain science.
Richards, Carl. (2018). Resistance is futile: To change habits, try replacement instead. The New York Times.