The other day I went to a day retreat that included four to five hours of meditation. A couple of things caught me by surprise. First, apparently I can barely walk! I have memories of dancing so lightly from rock to rock down creek beds that made it seem like level ground. Ok, I was much younger then, but I’ve usually had a reasonable sense of balance. Yet, when doing walking meditation – which is new to me – I couldn’t seem to stabilize. I would step down at various paces and wobble. Friends have reassured me that it’s just something new to my body and that it will adapt. Really? After almost 55 years of walking, this is new? Ok if you say so, I’ll remain hopeful.
As the day went on, physical aches and pains came and seemed unwilling to release. So much so, that by the last sit, the sharp stabbing pains in my back were intense. This was a bit puzzling to me since I can sit on the exact same cushion at home for one to two hours without a problem. Plus, during the retreat we alternated between sitting and walking, so the stages were under an hour each until the last one. When I settled in for the final hour, I decided to take a different meditative approach.
That is when the second insight came. Well, maybe more like a silly cartoon. I have heard an Ajahn (monastic teacher) say that he could tell which new monks would make it for the long term based on whether they could laugh at themselves. I am blessed – or cursed – with the ability to keep myself amused by attempting to maintain a sense of humor and not taking myself too seriously… or at least trying to. Internally, I am usually the butt of my own jokes.
For me, reflection and insight seem to come naturally. It’s just something that I have embodied from a very young age. It’s probably the most significant reason that I was able to keep growing and practice on my own for most of my adult life. What I struggle with is cultivating deep abiding stillness. Reflection requires a different type of energetic attention than stillness. In some ways, it’s “doing” which I am more comfortable with internally. But, that can also lead to grasping if it’s not balanced with stillness.
When I started the retreat that day, I decided to focus on cultivating stillness. However, by the last sit I realized that the sharp stabbing pains were going to make an hour seem like a long time. So, I decided to do what comes more easily, reflect. For me the time goes quickly when I do, so I admit to an ulterior motive that wasn’t very wholesome or skillful. Yet, it was appropriate given what my body was manifesting.
I asked myself: What is underneath the pain? In other words, why is my body responding in this manner? I thought that I had been doing fine otherwise, so it’s just the physical that I was struggling with. Ha, way to go trickster, if that was true, then I wouldn’t be having any issues with the pain! It would simply be, and I would be observing it without creating any suffering. So much for that rationale.
I focus on the actual pain. Again, I ask what the root of it is. Immediately, my mind starts bouncing around with distractions. Including a No Doubt song: “In my head, it’s only in my head.” Well, that is certainly true. Interesting, I realize that my mind is creating a defensive response to my inquisition. Gee, I imagine there must be something really unattractive at the root of all this. I can be pessimistic when it comes to my suffering in that I assume that the cause is always something negative and unpleasant.
Ok, brace yourself, prepare to dive, here we go…. Then it hits me. What?! It’s not pain, it’s JOY!!! I wanted to laugh out loud (not considered polite etiquette when meditating with others including three monks!). So, I chuckled on the inside. What a knucklehead. Leave it to me to have swept joy and happiness under the rug for so long that it was actually causing tension, and painful tension at that.
I’ve written before about how much my life has changed in a positive manner over the last year. My body’s reaction is a firm validation that it is time to let go and surrender to the joy and well-being that I am so fortunate to be experiencing at this juncture in my life. Joy and happiness cannot be cultivated by sweeping them under the rug any more than stress can be alleviated by denial and delusion. Awareness of joy is as crucial to happiness as facing pain is to freedom from suffering and stress.
May we all bring joy out of the closet and to the forefront of our lives!
© Sallie Odenthal 2013