If you were to sit yourself in a room with other people and decide not to speak and intend to simply observe your thoughts or the sensations of your body, two things would reliably happen:
1) Your mind would go loud and wild with distraction: “I forgot to turn off the lights back at home, probably something is going to light on fire while I’m here!”, “this pain in my knee is SO bad – I’m probably doing irreparable damage to it, sitting here like this! I should move.”, “how long have we been sitting here?! Surely an hour’s up!?”, “I wonder what I’ll eat for dinner? Maybe…”, “oh yeah, focus on your breath…”, “and what did she mean when she said that…”, “what am I doing with my life?”, “Ugh, I’m really bad at this. Okay, notice the breath…”. And on and on, for a good long while.
2) Your mind would start, at some point, to create drama with the other silent people around you. Even without any conversation, without any typical social interaction, you would create stories about who others are, how they feel about you, and you would create judgments about who they are and how you feel about them.
The reason I know you would do these things is because you have a mind. And, this is exactly what untrained minds do. They fret, they fantasize, they regurgitate. From nothing at all, they create drama and catastrophe, arguments and love affairs. They dance and flip and wail and spin.
Sitting and observing all of this is humbling for everyone who tries it. And for those who stick with it, it can also become very informative. As the fury of the mind’s machinations slows a bit, as our capacity to observe becomes stronger and more precise, we can begin to notice how all this activity actually impacts us. In this process, other people and our interactions with them (in actual life or in the imagination) become our great teachers.
Many useful things have come my way because of meditation. One of the life-changing realizations I had on the cushion involved someone I really disliked. At a residential retreat I attended some months ago, a women showed up quite ill, even though we’d all been clearly instructed not to attend if sick. For the first several days, she was coughing constantly, sniffling incessantly, neglecting to use tissue or to wash her hands before group meals. I made lots of assumptions about her character based on these things, and as time went on I felt more and more disgusted by her presence. The small interactions between us (passing in the hall, opening doors, plating food at lunch) contained friction and did not flow smoothly.
Seven days of meditation passed, and I had moved into a very clear space of observation of myself, free of all the surface noise and chatter of the mind. From this place, I heard the woman (who sat near me throughout the retreat) cough, sniffle, snort and wipe her sleeve. Instantly, a disparaging thought flashed through my mind. And right long with it, a sharp pain seared through my upper back and chest – a discomfort that had been familiar to my body a week ago but had been removed through the work we’d been doing on the cushion. Hmmm. I got curious – did I feel pain in my own body every time I had hateful thoughts toward another? Is there a clear relationship between extending anger toward others and pain inflicted upon myself? As I observed over the following hours and days of the retreat, I found that the answer to both questions was decidedly yes.
Seeing this connection helped me to dive deeper into my own reactions and their origins and to begin working with them. I got to get really cozy with my desires for control, with my fear, with my catastrophe-creating mind. But this understanding also gave me a powerful motivation to shift my understanding and my narrative about this particular woman. When I started doing that, those nominal daily interactions smoothed out, and I stopped adding pain to my experience of noticing. Different thoughts started coming into my mind when I saw or heard her, thoughts of compassion for illness and deep gratitude for health. And very different feelings came into my body along with those new thoughts: feelings of expansion, warmth, peace and joy. And I also noticed that my earlier worries about catching the flu from this woman simply hadn’t borne out in reality.
There is a certain “high”, a “hit”, that we can get from thinking and saying nasty things to or about one another. A sense of power, of rightness, of righteousness perhaps, a feeling of strength and a fire in the body, a strong energy that mimics vitality. There are so many opportunities to get that hit, or to take it, in our daily lives. Driving comes to mind. The short, fast, and inflammatory nature of social media certainly invites it. If we track our sensations, however, we’ll find that the barb we press into the heart of another is tearing at ours, too.
Practice like this changes people, and I think it can change the way that we relate to one another on a much larger scale than individual interactions. But it starts at the level of personal awareness. For that to happen, we must ground ourselves in our bodies and bring attention to how our words and actions land – within ourselves and upon each other.
I believe it’s worth the effort, and that our world is starving for more conscious interaction. To every one of you practicing and working deeply with yourselves among others: thank you. Your efforts make the journey much more enjoyable.
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts