Look at this picture! Don't you wish you could be as peaceful and perfect as this? Wouldn't your life be set if you could sit in the forest all day doing nothing? Permanently transcended from all pain, all suffering, all sadness. Ah, what a life!
THIS IS SUCH A DANGEROUS LIE!!! Perfection isn't what you think it is! Perfection is also imperfection. Peace is also disruption. They can't exist without the other. How would you know perfection if you found it without experiencing imperfection? How could you know imperfection without knowing there is something better? How can you appreciate and recognize peace without understanding violence?
We tend to look at images like this and automatically misinterpret. Don't worry, it's normal! And I think it is the result of taking things at face-value. That's what a photo is, right? A snapshot of the surface-level, the visible. Of one instant. One perspective. One thing. It's very hard to capture depth and complexity in one frame and that's what elevates a good photograph to the level of art!
It may appear to you that I feel rather serene here despite my legs being twisted into the form of a Bavarian pretzel. I was actually wondering how long I could hold my legs like that. How much longer until my husband, Nick, got the photo?
My mind sounded something like this, "Do I look peaceful? Am I concentrating too hard? Be one with nature. Breathe. Ow my leg! Am I vain for taking a picture? This is gonna be such a cool picture." To the normal viewer, this image seems to portray peace. But to an experienced meditator or yogi, they will understand, through their own experience with the lotus posture and with meditation, the pain, discomfort, and restlessness that is not in view, but is inevitably present in passing waves. You see, there is so much we don't get if we stay focused on the exterior- the surface.
Our human brains tend to have trouble conceptualizing the duality of things. We know it would be hard and space-occupying in our brains to think of things multidimensionally, so we avoid capital "T" Truth and stick with what is easiest- the superficial truth.
We also think "understanding" and "knowledge" are really important. We believe that pinning down what something is will give us control. This leads to a rat race of suffering because we end up building our lives on so many convenient mistruths and live with a false sense of control. Mistaken definitions like, "Meditation is peace." Well, yes, but give me more....it's also a tumultuous struggle. It's both! By now you are probably thinking, "Oh! Right. Right. It starts out as chaos and then becomes more peaceful once you really master it." WRONG. Slightly wrong. In an important way. It doesn't go from tumultuous to calm in one linear process. It's not cyclical either. Therefore there is no straight-line, fail-safe path to peace.
"Meditation" actually has two meanings. There is a state of meditation which is moreso the temporary product or end result of the practice of meditation and then there is the meditative process. In other words meditation can be understood as both a noun and a verb.
Oh! Duality again. True meditation is an expansion of awareness in which thoughts and sensations that lay just under the surface bubble up. They are to be watched and observed with compassion and if the strength of lovingkindness can be mustered- investigated and worked with. That is the meaning of the verb "meditate".
However, most people conceive of meditation as inactivity- just sitting and being- the noun version. And then we feel like failures when we try meditating because we sit down expecting to greet a tangible noun-thing named "meditation" and we close our eyes, and BAM! We are confronted not with a thing that lands in our lap, but with many things- thoughts- the endless activity of the mind. Thought after thought after thought that we then, try to smother them with a threatening smile and find, frustratingly, they only grow louder and more numerous as a result. And so we give up. We say "meditation just doesn't work for me".
Or-we continue meditating but we "play" the role of meditator because well, how dare we admit adversity and "failure"! (another subject for another blog post). We play the role without understanding, without ever experiencing, what meditation- the verb- is!
In life, we can't predict the order of things, but we crave order. We can't plan the optimal to-do list in order to avoid unwanted outcomes, but we really really wish we could. We don't always know the cause and effect and we certainly can't know it all the time. Wouldn't it be easier for our brains to package things neatly away into ideas and opinions and concepts if we could? That would be so nice. If we could understand everything. If we could be in total control.
So that's what our mind does- it grasps at control. It feigns its mastery over all things. It thinks it rules all. It folds things into neat little boxes where it thinks they should go- one box labeled "concepts", one labeled "ideas", one labeled "opinions", and so on. But, it doesn't really know!
And if the mind doesn't stay open to recategorization, to changes in power, it suffers and we experience disease: pain, suffering, depression, anxiety, and the like.
In our society we label things as good and bad. Helpful and unhelpful. Again, our structure- craving logical left brain causes this circus.
We happen to label pain as "bad". Similarly, we deem distortional thoughts as "crazy"! We don't want to be those things! Oh no! (Even though they are natural and happen to everyone.) So, when we feel pain, we run. Usually to the doctor to get pills. But, pain is a natural process. Pain is a messenger to help our bodies HEAL. It's there to alert us to injury or potential injury. It's actually the first in line in the healing process!
But, we fail to see the dual nature of pain. It's easier to label pain as "negative" because it lays so close in proximity to injury- we get confused. Our minds are mistaken and think the pain itself is the cause of the injury. Oops! We miscategorized. That sends our minds the signal that pain is what should be avoided. It should be avoided entirely, at all costs. That mandate to avoid, that over-simplification of pain of any variety as purely "bad" causes an over-response of our nervous system at the first sight of pain and this, funnily enough, keeps us in pain rather than helping us avoid it. This means, even when pain does it's job in helping us avoid actual injury, the pain alarm gets rung and our body marches out to fight it- guns a'blazing- causing actual injury and inflammation to the tissues. This could have been avoided if we changed our relationship with pain. We culturally misjudge pain- so we now have a growing population of people with chronic pain. We avoid it. We mistake muscle soreness for pain. This keeps us from doing what we need to to get strong. We cushion our feet with shoes and our foot muscles get weak. There are countless other examples of how we crave comfort and I'm sure you could think of quite a few ways too.
In yoga, we don't give certain poses a chance because they feel difficult and we mistake "sensation" for pain. We reinforce this pain story by never ever proving ourselves wrong. The problem is, actual pain and discomfort is inevitable. Everyone gets a cut or an injury from time to time. Some women undergo childbirth. We all have physical struggles. If we avoid physical struggle, we deprive our bodies the chance to evolve and our minds the chance to cope.
If our minds never have the chance to practice dealing with physical discomfort in a manageable setting like yoga- they will never be prepared for actual struggle in real life.
And they will undergo injury too.
If we never push the envelope, we never truly heal.
Imagine someone who breaks their leg and so despite their bone healing, they never move that leg again. Out of fear. Their muscles atrophy and they never complete their healing process.
We avoid mental discomfort the same way. If we find our minds housing strange thoughts or if we have a panic attack, we either go to a psychiatrist, or we shove them down deep and pretend they aren't there. It's hard to talk about mental health in our society! But everyone has it. And it's ever-changing.
Unless our psychologist helps us to, we don't examine what life events and mental discourse caused the negative thoughts and so, they are always there. In meditation practice, we might close our eyes, hear the thoughts, and judge ourselves for harboring them rather than confronting them and where they came from. So, we create more self-loathing and more negative thoughts. If we only welcomed the discovery of these thoughts!!! The awareness of these thoughts sends us the signal that, again, something needs healing. And if we blame ourselves for needing healed in the first place, we end up creating more harm too.
As a culture we are scared to explore the depths of meaning the purpose of suffering, the purpose of pain, the purpose of complicated cognitions. We stay on the surface because it appears easier. But, it ends up being more difficult in the long run. We can't avoid pain and suffering. We can't avoid negative thought or cognitive distortions. These things are a natural part of life. They help us see that there is something there that needs to be examined and healed! As much as they absolutely suck, they are absolutely amazing and helpful! They are both.
It's as so many eastern philosophies have said- all things are both good and bad, dark and light. Everything is also impermanent and ever-changing.
So, when we latch on to one idea or one side or one perception, and cling to it for dear life, our minds get stuck there- we get stuck. We find ourselves living in a constant state of dis-ease. We have positioned ourselves out of the flow of life. We have refused to take in its multiple dimensions and colors and we have placed ourselves as an obstacle that the flow of life slowly chips away at.
Life goes like this: you find peace, you fall out of peace, you find peace, you fall out again, you get lost, you get stuck, you get stuck, you get stuck, you break free from the bondage of the mind, you find peace again, and this goes on and on with all sorts of twists and turns until peace is found in the knowledge that when you are stuck, you will become unstuck because everything changes. Nothing is permanent. When shit happens, there is a lesson. Learn that lesson or you will become an obstacle to your own health and evolution.