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Wk11, Day5: Lasting Change

Two weeks ago, Srdja Popovic, the author of Blueprint for Revolution, spoke at a local college. The subtitle of the book is How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. (His specialty, having been a pivotal member of the change process in Serbia, is the use of humor in protests, which you will find throughout this wonderful book. In his talk, he described how one group got around rules forbidding citizens from protesting by building Lego(TM) people holding up mini protest signs.) Srdja has become a scholar of successful non-violent change movements—those that result in lasting, structural differences.

In the talk, he informed us that only 4% of violent change movements (i.e., wars) result in lasting democracy. More astoundingly: 41% of non-violent change movements do. Further, the average armed conflict lasts 5 years, while the average non-violent movement lasts 2.5.

As meaningful as these underpublicized statistics are on a global scale, they have local significance as well. Specifically in mindfulness practice. Drawing parallels, these stats make me wonder about the effectiveness of war-like efforts to change oneself. The longer duration of such efforts and the ultimately grim success rate. By contrast, applying skillful means with kindness and compassion and considering its efficiency and longer-term potential for deep, meaningful change

Wk11, Day4: Gina Sharpe

One of my favorite resources is dharmaseed.org, which has hundreds of free dharma talks by many of our favorite teachers. This past week, nearly every night I’ve been listening to a different talk by Gina Sharpe.

I first sat with her 9 months after discovering meditation. It was the spring of 2009. Shortly after beginning a doctoral program in Missouri the previous fall, I’d located the campus agency doing mindfulness work and got myself involved with them. The women there provided an island of sanity for the four years I was there.

It was the employee wellness program, and most of the staff practiced actively in the local sangha. The psychologist I worked with directly organized a non-residential weekend retreat with a woman named Gina Sharpe for March, and she encouraged me to go.

During retreats, the leaders commonly make time to meet with the participants individually or in groups. If a retreat is rather large, as this one was, several community leaders will meet with some of the people or groups as well, to lighten the main teacher’s load. When this happens, the leader usually meets only the more experienced groups of participants. Gina, however, graciously scheduled one of her meetings with our group of novices. There were four of us. I sat observing as Gina spoke with each person in kind, asking about experience with meditation and checking in about how the retreat was going.

I’d become a high strung student in the doctoral program: far from home and thrust into an academic environment in which students appeared open and connected–we were training to become psychologists, after all–but were actually behaving in ways I’d not seen since my time in the corporate world. (Out of eye- and ear-shot of the faculty, of course.) As an example, three years in I was speaking to a mentor about a wonderful opportunity in mindfulness-based CBT at a local hospital. A classmate overheard and texted her friend to quickly call them before I did, which she did by 5 minutes leading the interviewers to initially question my timing until we’d pieced together what actually happened. Another example: a fourth year ordering a first year to go get her printouts two flights up and the first year, cowed, doing it. And another: a student whose friends covered up her taking notes home from the agency for weeks as she lied to her supervisors about it multiple times.

Contrary to the confounding reality I was living, my expectations of doc-level training had been that we would delve deeply, transparently, earnestly together into the art and science of our craft: explore the soul, the psyche, the true inner workings of human beings. Yes, although I was older than most of my classmates, I was clearly more naive. I was also feeling more and more disconnected each day from my long-held dream even as it was becoming a reality.

Thankfully I’d found the wellness women. And there I was in March, 2009, sitting in front of Gina Sharpe, a real meditation teacher whose inner space was palpable. I sat before her so full of self-doubt and frustration, tears streaming down my face. A negative bit of self talk would arise, and I’d literally watch it dissipate as I sat in Gina’s presence. I softly cried, feeling a sense of home in this process; understanding for the first time what meditation could offer at a deep spiritual level. The work she’d done, the space she’d cleared was truly an offering to those of us she was teaching. I experienced it.

The past several nights as I listen to her talks on dharmaseed.org, I once again feel the soft spaciousness she’s cultivated infusing in me. Providing the ground as I, the figure, move about through my day.

Wk11, Day 3: Fixing the Flow

For two years I’ve been using the downstairs toilet. The upstairs toilet was broken by the tenant who rented my house while I lived in Muncie, Indiana, for a year of internship. I’ve also attenuated shower length and length of time washing dishes, brushing teeth, washing face due to frequent drain backups, also following the departure of that tenant. Two years.

It’s funny how easily and unconsciously we can acclimate to warping ourselves to fit the circumstances we’re in.

I had no idea how much of my time, attention, and energy were wrapped up in the necessary daily distortions required to navigate the plumbing in my home. Last night, with an unfortunately rotted batch of sour kraut, the disposal (really I) forced too much down the drain and my home became a stinking mess. It was time to bite the bullet and spend some money I don’t have to return my home to a more livable condition. After a morning of his hard work upstairs in the bathroom and downstairs in the basement, my money flowed out the door in the plumber’s pockets around noon. And I begin to acclimate to having plumbing that works. A new sense of ease has entered my home today.

Wk11, Day2: Two Things

I was trying to decide between two things to share that arose from practice today. Then I realized that I didn’t have to choose.

  1. I got a surprising amount of things done today. This semester, Tuesdays and Thursdays are my non-teaching days, and I don’t have anything scheduled on them until 7pm both nights. Since September, they’ve by default turned into mad-dash-to-do-all-errands days. Not pleasant, not present, at all. Today, presence found me throughout the day. My pace was languid, I found myself enjoying (spontaneously) even the most tedious tasks (e.g., being on hold with the utility company), and by dinner time I’d completed Thursday’s list as well. And I was fully refreshed. In weeks 10 and 11 of this experiment, presence is finding me more and more often and inviting me in. And I accept, graciously.
  2. Tonight was the local meditation class, right up the road. I use this time to sit with the internal responses that arise for me when in large groups of people. It’s a rare opportunity to be in a group and to just get to sit and be present to what arises. Thinking of the younger parts of me that experienced being bullied in grade school, for example, I held the phrase, “I open my heart to this being, may she be healed  around belonging, connection, and mattering.” I feel grateful to be able to heal these wounds that otherwise might get in the way of being with others. I find it lovely the way that groups come together and hold space with one another to do such work.

So, that’s it. The two things that happened today.

Wk11, Day1: Examining Contradictions

Wk11, Day1: Examining Contradictions

I have been putting together a new business and marketing my services to various agencies and other professionals the past few weeks. Reading articles on the topic, many of them suggest defining myself as a means of articulating a business identity. The materials I’ve been drafting include descriptions of how I think about the people I serve and the work I do, of how I feel about it, and what I actually do.

Thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Sounds familiar.

Basically my spiritual pursuit is leading to extracting my identity from such impermanent objects while this business endeavor has me codifying it. What to do?

Sharon Salzberg recently wrote a piece with a somewhat parallel theme, called The Irony of Attachment. In it, she examines the apparent competing tensions of attachment and connection. On the one hand, the Noble Truths caution against the suffering that can arise with attachment and offer the spiritual invitation to release them. On the other hand, with deepened and committed practice, arises the undeniable realization of connection with all beings, which can find form in a deepening of our relationships with others.

At first glance, it may seem that the two qualities are in opposition with one another. Sharon posits that they provide ground for finding the middle space as we walk our practice in daily life. An expansiveness arises with committed practice, and there becomes room for more and more to be a part of our awareness. The trick is to maintain a balance of awareness of what is present and not needing presence to be a certain way so it matches our preferences.

Applied to my business conundrum, it is accurate that I have a perspective on my work and the people I serve and that this work has an emotional valence that deepens its meaning as I do it. It can also be true that these thoughts, emotions, and behaviors may shift and expand over time. I can be aware of and responsive to these shifts without needing them to be different than they are. I can also fall into attachment and aversion, because I know that the practice will show these for what they are and provide the skillful means to regain ground.