After a month of mindfulness lessons, something clicked on the very last day. Usually class starts off with a bit of sharing–how’s practice going for everyone–and we all kind of mumble a bit about how we’re getting along as mindful beings. A few weeks ago I learned that mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean to be aware and in the present moment while you’re washing dishes (which is what I was doing, saying “I’m washing dishes, I’m washing dishes, I’m washing this cup now and now I’m rinsing this plate.”) but it also means to allow yourself what it feels like to be washing those dishes. What does the soap feel like on your skin? Mindfulness, I learned, is more an awareness, a sensation. So we start class by talking about how it feels to be mindful. It seems really simple, but it isn’t because really when you’re trying to explain being mindful you are taking everything a step further; you are being mindful of mindfulness. It’s a hard enough process as it is without having to put all that into words.
After that our teacher asks us a question which sounds like a riddle:
“What is compassion?”
People started tossing one-word definitions around. Words like kindness, generosity, caring. When the teacher looked at me and raised her eyebrows I said, “Yeah. All those things. And love?” Really, I needed more time–and a pen and paper to work that one out, but for brevity’s sake I opted to reiterate what had already been concluded.
Then she came at us with another riddle:
“What is the relationship between kindness and compassion?”
We hemmed and hawed about this one, too. My guess was, “Kindness is something you give and compassion is something you feel?” The correct answer is that kindness has to do with one’s own volition where compassion is something you have inside you, it is not voluntary.
That was hard but not as hard as the last question she asked us:
“What is the relationship between pain and suffering?”
No one got this one, not even by a mile. Our guesses were that pain is something physical and that suffering is emotional. Or that pain is transitory and that suffering is a prolonged state, a more general human condition.
The correct answer went something like this: pain is a fact of life. We are born and therefore we experience it to some extreme–be it physically or emotionally. Where suffering is a choice. You have the power to decide how much you are going to suffer over your pain.
This is when things got really really quiet. The room was already quiet, but I could literally hear everyone’s thought-process slow to a dead halt. My jaw kind of dropped while I immediately questioned this bold statement, silently to myself. Not only was I hearing my own voice in my head but I was hearing myself having this conversation with everyone I know. My mother’s voice was coming through, saying something about how that’s just purely insensitive and unrealistic to expect people to have control over how much they suffer. I heard my sister’s voices, I heard myself taking a poll on Facebook, I heard would-be nay-sayers coming at me in cacophony from every direction. Then I said it.
“There are a lot of people out there who would say that’s a bunch of bull.”
Teacher just kinda smiled at me. Another woman in the group forced me to respond to myself when she asked, “Why?”
“Because,” I started hesitantly, “I guess people are really quite content to be tangled up in their own drama. This would ruin it for people–telling them they actually have a choice. There are a lot of people in the world who are quite happy to be miserable.”
It occurred to me that because I was saying all this, I really did buy it. Suffering was a choice. It was a belief I’d had my whole life actually, ever since I was old enough to understand what suffering was. But I’d never admitted this. Nor had I ever articulated it to myself in that way. Maybe because something felt unfair about accepting it. It felt like the opposite of compassion, to believe that people have a choice when it comes to suffering. Maybe because not everybody realizes that suffering is a conscious decision.
We had a bit of a discussion about how it’s okay to feel our emotions fully, but that we don’t have to let them take control of our lives. We can experience sadness and grief but we have to listen to that little voice inside us that says, Despite all this it’s going to be okay. And we get on with it. We don’t have to identify ourselves with the way we feel. It can just be that we feel that way and that’s it. We recognize that it will pass.
It was time to meditate for half an hour. For our last session, she asked us to forget technique and to just allow ourselves to fall into the present moment. As I did this I felt like an egg being cracked open and plopping into a bowl–the bowl being the present moment. After a few minutes she asked us to “Acknowledge how the present reality is manifesting itself around you” and what I was forced to acknowledge, once my thoughts quieted was that absolutely nothing was happening. We were a bunch of women, sitting in a room one evening trying to think about nothing. It seems pretty dull, said like that, but really, it was amazingly powerful. We were invoking a silent overwhelming peace. It was comforting and whole and even healing. If a thought passed through my head, I acknowledged it, accepted it and let it keep going. It was like watching clouds float and morph and dissipate. How futile it would be to try and will a cloud to stay in one place, without ever changing. “Recognize that whatever sensation you feel will pass–whether it’s joy or anxiety, sadness or happiness–it will pass.”
It was a real lesson in disengaging myself from how I feel. That’s not to say I wasn’t fully feeling it–it was just to say that I practicing letting go. I wasn’t holding onto it anymore–not regret, not sadness, not love, not happiness. I was just letting it appear and then letting it go. I wasn’t going to suffer over it. And so, as I sat there, eyes closed, in this new amazing place I’d found–apparently called the present moment–where everything is constantly happening and not happening, a place of receiving and letting go, a place of such complete fullness it feels quietly, humbly divine. The best thing about this place is it’s available to everyone, anytime, anywhere.
When the allotted thirty minutes were up, we slowly opened our eyes. Everyone stated having experienced a deepness that hadn’t yet experienced before. One woman literally looked younger and I told her that. She said she loved me then laughed, saying that lately people have complimented her on how good she looks. But it’s no joke, there’s something exceptional about having the ability to remove oneself so far from thought that you actually end up closer to yourself than you ever imagined possible.
When I got home that night I felt new. I felt right, despite all of the things that aren’t right in my life momentarily. I felt that inner something or other that was saying, Everything is okay. It was easy to drift off to sleep because I’d finally found a way to shut off my thoughts, to settle into the full nothingness of the moment and let myself be both here and carried away without going anywhere, except into a deep, heavy sleep.