Wk4, Day6: Learning Soji

by Denise Bike 0 Comments
Wk4, Day6: Learning Soji

You can imagine that I slept like a baby last night, after passing the exam I’ve been studying for since May. The majority of each week, for the last 20 weeks, has been spent preparing for this (thankfully) one-time feat. (Not to mention the 8+ years of specialized training in my profession prior to that.) I woke up this morning wondering what to do with myself. So, I fed Amelia, fed myself, and sat in meditation for an hour. As I’ve done each day for the past five weeks.

Yesterday I read an article about soji, a silent work period. Per this article, soji is a short period of practice that takes place in Zen temples in which everyone spends 20 minutes performing their assigned cleaning task. When the ending bell rings, they move on to the next part of their day. The task is left where they’ve finished it. Perhaps completed, perhaps not.

This idea was intriguing, given my current situation. Much of my time mapped out the past several months, spent preparing for a high-stakes task that had to be completed by a certain date. That was yesterday. Today, now there is unplanned time and no clear goal to work toward.

Also, spending so much of each day studying left little time for other things. I’ve inadvertently built up a four-month backlog of cleaning and errands. How to wrap the mind around where to begin? Soji.

I set the timer for 20 minutes and began with the dishes. I started slowly, noticing the temperature and pressure of the water pouring onto the plate. I remembered the drought in California and turned it off until I was ready to rinse the sinkful of washed dishes. I caught myself having turned the activity into a chore—attacking the build-up on bowl with mindless zeal. And I took breath and returned to gently attending to the task at hand. The bell rang, and I left the remaining dishes in the sink.

What a shift it was to pick up an activity, be present with it, then just put it down!

The next 20 minutes, I turned my attention to the shelves piled with books transplanted from my old office at the end of last spring’s semester. Sorting with mindful awareness changed this long-avoided activity remarkably. Some books were easily and quickly classified – keep, donate. Others presented more of a challenge. So I sat with the book, recalling its contents, what I’ve learned from it, expressing gratitude for the time we’ve spent together. Then I let it go.

The piles completed, 6 minutes remained on the timer. So I sat.

What can the practice of soji teach you?

Wk4, Day5: Winning the Open

by Denise Bike 2 Comments

Earlier today, I passed the licensure exam that I’ve been studying for since May. As I was reflecting on yesterday, I do not have events in my life that call for bringing all of my resources to bear for a single, high-stakes task like the exam required of me today. Having made it through this gauntlet, I am far more empathetic toward those whose lives and professions regularly require it.

More on that tomorrow. Celebration awaits.

Wk4, Day4: My U.S. Open

by Denise Bike 0 Comments
Wk4, Day4: My U.S. Open

I had the chance to watch some of the U.S. Open tennis matches in the past two weeks. It’s inspiring to be aware of all the drills, practice, and conditioning that these athletes dedicate themselves to each day in preparation for these short events. All the days of routine rehearsal, and then two quick weeks in which they must bring their knowledge, skill, and steady minds to bear in a quick burst of competition.

There is nothing in my regular life that compares. The things that I do, for work and for fun, are non-competitive, low-risk, and relative in effort. If I show up and do my best and things did not go as well as I would have liked—in a lecture for class, for example—I can correct it the next time. If I lose focus for an entire hour of sitting meditation, I can just watch it happen, note the impact, and show up for the next hour that night or the next morning.

But within this pattern of regularity, routine, moderate cost-ongoing benefit, there is tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m taking the licensure exam. I have been studying for it full-time since May; 200-300 hours total studying time are recommended. I wake up, meditate, feed the cat, feed myself, meditate, exercise while listening to audio tapes of the testing content, shower, read notes, take breaks, read more notes, etc. The test in one day is my U.S. Open.

Part of me is wound tight about that.

By now, however, I know the content back and forth. As I listen to the recordings, I am speaking along with the teacher. I’ve scored in the high 90s on all of the practice exams (up from 50s in the winter and 70s in May), and I’ve shown up, day after day, and put in the work to learn this material. I am well-trained. Add to that the increase in meditation time to two hours per day beginning a month ago now. All signs point to success. There’s really little more that I can do at this point.

I’m curious, though. I don’t have any high-stakes, one-shot major events as part of my regular life. I wonder what all of this daily, committed practice will do when it comes to being called to bring my knowledge, skill, and steady mind suddenly to bear?

I will keep you posted. In the mean time, I’ll keep practicing—meditation and studying.

Wk4, Day3: Mudita for Republicans

by Denise Bike 2 Comments

I am a bleeding heart liberal. One could say that I am particularly attached to the values espoused and proposals made by Bernie Sanders. I watched the Republican debate last night.

As it began, they lined up taking pictures. Immediately I noted the sourness of my thoughts, the defendedness in response to my assumptions of what was about to be said. The ill will I felt toward the front runner. I noticed the pull to remain in this space, to deepen these attitudes as I shifted my awareness to the fact that these thoughts were just choices the mind was making in support of my attachment to the values I prefer.

I invited myself to shift my relationship to these fellow humans. Just for these few hours. What would happen if I welcomed an attitude of mudita, for example, as I watched the Republican debate?

Mudita was quite a stretch at first. And it made me laugh—the effort I was expending to welcome in a sense of “sympathetic joy” for a group of people I had pre-emptively decided were the other, them, the enemy even. I chose to focus on one person at a time as a way of shifting from imaginary conflict to a sense of alignment with these fellow people.

Beginning with Carly Fiorina, I imagined how proud and happy she might be feeling to have done so well at the previous debate that she earned a place on the main stage. It softened me immediately. My sense of connection with her deepened further in recognition of what it can be like for a woman to shine in a group of men. Mudita, sympathetic joy, was on the horizon and it shifting this experience palpably.

Then, because Donald Trump was receiving a lot of the initial attention, I turned my focus to him. I quickly noticed how negative my thoughts became as I relished in the obvious vagueness of his responses in contrast to his peers’. Then I remembered that I was practicing mudita.

Donald Trump appears to enjoy receiving attention, so I brought to mind the joy he might be feeling standing in the center of the dais, having so many of the questions relate back to him. A sense of joy arose in me in response, as I realized that he was getting something that he seems to very much like receiving.

I continued this process for around two hours. It was remarkable to spend this time in imaginary alignment with a group of fellow humans that I normally cultivate disgruntlement and tension toward. The difference in the experience was striking. I gained the opportunity to begin considering that, like me, these fellow humans hold their beliefs strongly and wish to act on them in service to the world. In that broad sense, we are not so different after all.

Wk4, Day2: Sitting with Others

by Denise Bike 0 Comments
Wk4, Day2: Sitting with Others

Last night I went to a meeting of the Insight Meditation Community in my home town! I’ve been a member of the DC community for the past bit of time because I did not know there was a local community umbrella’d under IMCW. Ten minutes from my house!

It was interesting meditating with such a large group of people after weeks meditating on my own. Very different, unexpectedly so.

My mind had a lot to say about this person breathing too loudly, that person adjusting in his seat, this person sharing too much personal information, that person walking too quickly in the outside meditation, this person walking too slowly. Of course my breathing, shifting, sharing, and walking were jussssst right.

In response to all this internal chatter, I was becoming quite agitated. Several times I wanted to leave, thinking that there was little use to sitting here when I was clearly not present. My mind had decided that if there was so much inner and outer disruption, there could not also be stillness.

I continued to decline each of the ego’s new offers to make a noise passively expressing my impatience with others. To turn down the demand that there was no other option but to leave. Instead, I kept inviting myself back to the breath. Noting the inner and outer cacophony. Then returning, again, to the breath.

What is it like, I invited myself to wonder, to sit and observe these thoughts I’m having in this large group of people just as I sit and observe the thoughts that arise when I’m sitting alone?

And then there it was. That still place began to show itself in small bursts. As one judgment appeared after another, below it was the calm I’d been cultivating an awareness of in this daily practice. As an inner noise was matched by yet another outer sound (the nerve of that chair creaking!), the stillness was also undeniably present. The practice was showing me the gestalt concept of figure and ground. (Michael Flickstein makes some lovely observations about these concepts in Swallowing the River Ganges.) Though any number of figures might capture my attention, the quiet ground remained and could be observed and experienced at any time. The stillness does not go away just because there is movement. The movement arises from and falls back into the stillness.

I felt so grateful to have this time to practice with others. To choose my response to what arises uniquely in large groups as yet more fodder for inquiry and deepened awareness. I am curious about what next week will be like when I go back for a second time.

Ten minutes from my house!