Something interesting happened to me this past week – a mindfulness experience went completely wrong. And a renewed interest in Zen Buddhism felt like it had crashed and burned.
I mean, seriously. I went from reluctance to enthusiasm, to full-out collapse over minor bumps along the proverbial road of my life in the space of about a week. It’s happened to me before, but the intensity with which it happened this time really took me by surprise. It also freaked me out, because no way did I expect to be as whacked as I was over the little details I lost it over.
It requires further investigation. Here’s how it broke down (literally):
For several days, a little over a week ago, I was listening to some online audio talks by a famous Buddhist teacher who has a best-selling book out, and what they were saying was making sense to me. At first I had been wary about them, because their tone was so mellow and they talked very slowly, like their listeners were simple-minded idiots. But eventually I got over that, and I found that I actually liked what they were saying. It made sense to me, especially when it came to being mindful and present in the world.
As a result of listening to them, I became more attentive to my surroundings and more mindful of my daily life. I was getting in the habit of slowing down, watching my breath, being present with each moment. It felt pretty good.
But after a few days of that, I started to get more and more agitated and volatile, argumentative and manic… culminating in a full-blown melt-down on Thursday. I had a few potentially minor misunderstandings with my spouse which blew up into HUGE deals, involving some really nasty exchanges, including (bizarrely enough) some serious-sounding threats of divorce.
Wow. I’m still recovering from it we both are, actually. They’ve taken off for the balance of the day to take a break from me – which they really need. It was not a small thing, that conflagration, which grew nauseatingly rapidly out of minor incidents.
How, pray tell, could such a thing happen? Isn’t Zen supposed to chill me out and help me find more peace? Isn’t it supposed to make me more patient and accepting and conscious, not less?
Well, yeah, supposedly. And at the start it did. But then this subtle change started to happen, and I started to pay closer attention to that… I started to notice things “coming up,” so I acknowledged them and moved on. Or so I thought. It was the weirdest thing. Here, I was doing the very thing that was supposed to bring me greater peace, greater involvement in my life, along with more rapport with my surroundings… and all the while I was getting more and more agitated, more and more uptight, more and more fatigued, to the point of tearing my spouse a new one while standing out in public, yelling into my cell phone, no less.
Anyway, since last Thursday,I have been wondering a whole lot about why the hell Zen-based mindfulness turned me into a crazy person. Mindfulness supposedly makes the following possible:
communicating more effectively
bringing compassion to the world
Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t want that? I certainly do. But it was the exact opposite of what happened to me last week. Hm. Maybe I was doing something wrong…
“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
- Jon Kabat-Zinn
I’ve had a number of people tell me how I should do this mindfulness thing I should focus on what I’m doing with single-mindedness… I should spend time paying attention to what’s going through my head, without reacting to it… just watching the thoughts come and go… not judging, but allowing… accepting what happens there… and letting them go, rather than following them, latching onto them, dwelling on them, etc. Just be aware of what’s going on with me at any given point in time, pay attention to my breath, to my body, any tension that might be building, any discomfort or constriction, etc. And “breathe into it” as it comes into my mind, and then departs.
Sounds good, right? Well, it was. At the start. Then something else started to happen. I kept doing it. I kept paying attention to what was going on inside my head. Not judging, just allowing, letting things be what they were… and to tell the truth, the experience was anything but mellowing.
Clearly, the person(s) who encouraged me to do this have no idea what all goes on inside my head in any 5-minute timeframe. Seriously. It’s like standing beside an 8-lane expressway between an airport and a marina during morning rush hour, as everyone is cooking down the road at 85… 90… 95 mph. All manner of vehicles fly by cars, trucks, pickups towing boats, buses, coaches, 18-wheelers of many kinds… and let’s not forget the air traffic planes of all sizes and shapes and kinds, helicopters and ultralights… all the while, with the marina in the background, yachts and sailboats and tugboats and skiffs bobbing around, with air horns going off at any and all times.
Truly, this is what it’s like inside my head, oh so frequently. So, recognizing all the thoughts, all the feelings, all the reactions even if I’m just noticing them with detached interest takes up WAY too much time and energy. And it can be exhausting, which is what I believe happened to me last week. I just got worn out and tired from simply noticing everything. It plumb tuckered me out. And when I get fatigued, it adds to my mental confusion and agitation, and my anger threshold drops like a rock. And things like my meltdown on Thursday happen.
I can’t say that I got “hooked” by any of my thoughts or emotions, but I didn’t have to. The weariness from noticing the sheer volume of buzzy-ness did a job on me. I tried to not let it get to me, but obviously that did not work. It did get to me. Zen. Mindfulness. Presence. The very things that shouldn’t.
Which leads me to believe that like so many other things –TBI can really mess with “normal” reactions and add another consideration to any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice. I know that mindfulness is supposed to help people with brain injury , and I have communicated with TBI people who have been helped by it a great deal. That being said, I think that since TBI is very individual, it can cause changes to “standard” reactions to popularly available practices especially ones that involve (re) training the brain, like these sorts of mindfulness practices. The recommendations of neurologically “intact” people to those of us who have been rewired a few times, may not be completely helpful.
Muho Noelke, the abbot of Antaiji, explains the pitfalls of consciously seeking mindfulness.“We … have to forget things like “I should be mindful of this or that”. If you are mindful, you are already creating a separation (“I – am – mindful – of – ….”). Don’t be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk (Dogen Zenji says: “When we open our mouths, it is filled with Dharma”). Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep.”
And there we have it. That, my friends, is what applies especially to me. In trying to be “mindful” I was actually getting more and more disconnected from my life, turning it into a distancing exercise, pulling away from the experience, so that I could “safely” examine it from a distance. That’s no good. Not if I’m going to keep myself engaged in my own life and continue to grow and change in healthy ways, I need to Just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk. Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep.
That degree of engagement, more than any other practice, is what brings me into the present moment. Not standing back and being intellectually “aware” of it like it’s some specimen on a slab for me to be curious about. This is my LIFE. It’s not a specimen, not an exemplar, not some “thing” to be catalogued, examined and puzzled over. Hell, just living can be puzzle enough. And taking my eye off the ball, so I can contemplate the stitching on the hide, the trajectory of the throw, and the arc of the pitcher’s arm, can get me clunked in the noggin, sure enough.
And this brings me back, once again, to my main topic ignoring the avalanche of thoughts and feelings and impressions that race through me like water through a fire hose. I swear, people who have the time to even notice everything that’s coming through their minds must not have much going on at all. Either there’s not much happening inside them, or there’s not a hell of a lot happening outside them. Are they even fully alive? Not to judge, but … I wonder. Or if they are, do they even realize they are? That’s for them only to decide. It’s a mystery to me.
As for me, with my emotional volatility, the intense sensitivities I’ve got going on, not to mention the constant roiling ocean of biochemical (hyper)responsiveness that goes on with me… stopping to contemplate all the things that fly through my head is like standing on the edge of an ice field, watching an avalanche fly by. If I take my concentration off the ice where I’m standing, I can go down real quick and in fact get swept into the liquid mountain of cement-like powder that’s roaring down into the valley below.
Emotional lability, remember that? Physical sensitivities, remember those? Quick anger lest we forget…? Hair-trigger reactions that are way out of proportion to the situation all of the above is a constant presence in my life. They all come up with startling frequency, and they go just as quickly. And in the midst of this constant ebb and flow – unless the situation is escalating pretty badly with serious consequences on the horizon – the worst thing I can do is spend a lot of time paying attention to the little inklings of them. Paying any sort of attention just feeds them. And if they’re these transient easy-come-easy-go kinds of thoughts/emotions/whatnot, we don’t want that. When they are rumbling around and kicking up their heels, they are usually best simply ignored and left to run their course, like tsunami waves breaking up over a coral reef.
To me, my regular life is the coral reef, which interrupts the power of these waves which can be so destructive. And when I am fully involved in what is going on around me, what is happening in my life at that point in time, and I am responding to it in that very moment – for better or for worse – and then I pay attention to the outcome and modify my behavior accordingly, things have a way of coming together. Maybe not right away, but eventually. With practice.
In fact, when I disregard the constant babble going on in my head, I find I can better turn my attention to taking action and getting involved in my life to the best of my ability. Of course, it’s helpful to not let the things that are happening in the back of my mind run the show to keep “the crazies” from taking the reins and let the horses stampede. And it is helpful to recognize when I’m being foolish or ridiculous or out of order. But devoting my life to moment-by-moment attention to what’s going on with me… that’s NOT the way I want to live.