“Slums of Bel Air” – this is how I often joke about my parent’s house in Los Angeles, near UCLA where they work. They live in a modest townhouse on the cusp of Mulholland Drive; the fact that they fall into a Bel Air zip code is an as misleading description of economic status as telling a cat that they are related to tigers. They are middle-class folks, comfortably enjoying retirement, which really means that they keep working because they hate not working. My step-dad at 87 still researching and writing books and my mom went back part time to work in the library.
California is on fire; there have been so many fires lately that I hardly pay attention to the news, then I hear “near Getty museum and UCLA, ” and my ears perk up. I glance at my email and see a short message from my mother “be prepared to evacuate.” All of it is so surreal that my first reaction is to blow it off. “It is not going to be a problem; it is the heart of L.A.” Then it slowly sinks in. But there is nothing to do, nothing that I can do, so I push on with the day. The website needs updates, prepare a lecture for teacher training this weekend, answer customer emails, manage teacher’s request for schedule changes, and so on. My days as a business owner and teacher are packed with nonstop work from the moment I wake up until 8 or 9 pm, six days a week. I usually complain, how can a small business take up this much time!? But it can, and now I am super grateful, it takes my mind off of senseless worry.
As I pick up my lecture material, I laugh out loud. Seriously! Is this some nasty joke or a test for a meditation teacher. This weekend’s lessons focus on Practical Day to Day Mindfulness and Awareness Techniques, Meditation, and Pranayama. Faaantastic! Why can’t it be a weekend on sun salutations and inversions, oh yeah, because that would have been too easy? Got to hold the attention to 20 eager student’s for 15 hours this weekend while I demonstrate the art of mindfulness. Now, when the world is spinning, and my emotional status fluctuates between anger, humor, steady breath back to anger to worry and then to deep sorrow then again to the moment with ease and gratitude.
But this is mindfulness; this is what I teach. Too often the popular conception around yoga, yogis, and meditation is that the practice is about becoming stress-free and perfectly calm. That is not the goal; the goal is awareness of the human condition and the recognition and management of dukkha.
Dukkha is the Pali word for suffering, but the English word suffering does not do it justice. Dukkha is sorrow and heaviness of the cognisant mind that permeates existence. Dukkha is everything from anger to minor irritation to jealousy. It is a veil of perception that dominates basic human existence. The very fact that I am aware of dukkha is why I fluctuate back into gratitude and steady breath…and then back to dukkha; this is meditation practice. We are human, perfection is not possible, but the practice gets easier.
I tell my students all the time, “You meditate not because you have time and your mind is ready because you had a stress free day. You meditate because you have no time and you are a bundle of stress. You brush your teeth because gunk builds up over a day, well imagine the gunk your mind creates over a day! Gotta clean the mind! As Anthony De Mello liked to say; Whatever you are aware of you are in control of, what you do not see is in control of you.
So I sit down to meditate. I meditate every time before writing or lecture preparation; I have to, I juggle too many tasks if I don’t center myself I am too attention deficit, thinking about everything instead of thinking about the one task in hand.
I don’t take a long time; I settle in for 5 minutes of “open monitoring” and 2 minutes of deep breathing. And this is how it goes, in my head…:
-You got to be f-ing kidding me; my step-dad survived the horrors of WWII. They have stories to tell about rebuilding after WWII, hiding during the 1956 uprising, fighting for a better life in the regime. They immigrated in their 50s to start again in a new country. They finally pay off their lovely home in the, you know, slum of Bel Air, and now in their old age this? God has a really bad sense of humor!
-OK, Dora drop it, this is not helping, label the thoughts, this is rumination on anger, let it go, it is not helping.
-I am so surprised how well they take it, my mom just packed up, calm as always, step-dad continued to work, they are fine. I would be a mess. What? I am a mess.
-OK, deep breath. They talk of changing wind direction. But how is that good? That means that some other family will be in my shoe! But some part of me does hope that the Santa Annas blow away from MY home. Ugh attachment, self-centeredness, the human condition. Let’s just hope the firefighters are able to put it out.
-Oh, thank god, a healthy thought! Focus on gratitude for the amazing work of firefighters. Breathe, I am so grateful that we have so many strong and brave women and men helping to fight this inferno. Breathe! This is good; I am sensing that my parasympathetic nervous system is taking over. Whatever is the task at hand we do it better when we are not panicking. Gratitude, connecting to gratitude and re-connecting to gratitude is the key in meditation. Find gratitude; I am truly humbled and grateful for firefighters…
-I am able to breathe again.
-Then a thought pops in again; too many disasters, this year suuuck! Mother nature is pissed. I do understand mother nature; she has the right to be pissed. Human population increased from 2 billion to 8 billion in less than 100 years. That is unprecedented growth, and I am sorry no amount of Priuses and food composting is going to offset the fact that there are just too many of us. Of course, nobody is talking about this; it is too taboo. But we live in places that nature did not intend for human habitation, case in point the whole southwest. Just read Cadilac Desert by Marc Reisner. Ugh, I am back in rumination.
-On the flip side, my parents do love L.A., they love it. Oh, it is all soo complicated.
-There is nothing that I can do. OK let’s just breathe for 2 minutes.
And so it goes, this is meditation ladies and gentleman. It is simply sitting and building skillful recognition of thoughts and tolerance of uncomfortable emotions. If you mask what you feel all the time with breath, that is not healthy meditation. That is a problem waiting to happen. Remember; whatever you are aware of you are in control of, what you do not see is in control of you! In meditation, you want to build awareness of what is, become very honest about your feelings and thoughts before you settle into your focused breath meditation to allow the thoughts to quiet.
These are the pillars of awareness meditation:
- Sit and watch thought no matter how uncomfortable.
- just take a moment to watch them and identify the emotions along with your thoughts.
- Identify unskillful thoughts. There are thought that create dukkha. You can use the following tools to help release tension:
- Replacement of your thoughts – this is at first artificial and feels funny. But from my above-quoted dialogue, you can see how I used the search for gratitude to replace angry rumination.
- Reflecting on Results – are your thought helpful? You see how I circled back to my thoughts telling myself “Dora this is not helpful” That is a tool! Knowing what is helpful and what is not is half the battle. Otherwise, you will “bleed out energy” emotionally speaking.
- Redirecting – this is when you want to use breath meditation. You recognize the unskilful thoughts and redirect your mind to the breath, thus breaking the vicious cycle of stress.
- Reconstructing – try to figure out why and how a certain emotion or thought has risen in your mind. Too often we entertain ideas without close examination. Understanding and questioning are important skills to learn. Be careful not to trap yourself in a long rumination when reconstructing thoughts, but often it is this step that will unveil underlying fear and anger that you hid behind some other opinion. – I wish more of us would do this before election time…
Once 5 minutes are up, shift to simply breathing meditation in order to calm the mind, and momentary shift thought away from thinking to watching the breath. When you finished meditation, focus on the NOW! Step into action. Action engaged in the present moment is the goal! Not endless meditation, but life, action, presence, joy in the present moment.
For me, right now it means wrapping up this blog because it is 7 am, and I have to focus on running my business. I called my mom, they are still OK, but there are many days of fire ahead. For now, I will focus on my work with the added knowledge from my meditation today. Because of meditation, I am aware that I do carry an underlying anxiety and anger toward the world. I will pause and breathe and be attentive to make sure I don’t spill my anger misdirected to an innocent bystander. I will recognize these emotions and channel them the best I can. Like writing this blog about meditation.
Meditation is not about making life pretty, and perfect; it is about learning to love our human nature and building responsibility for the tendencies of our human nature. – Becoming aware and responsible is the goal of meditation!