Last night marked the commencement of the Interdependence Project’s Hardcore Dharma summer session. We settled our balances, met our neighbor and talked about our intentions. Ethan Nichtern, founder of the ID Project and general man about town, introduced the class with some Buddhist fire and brimstone, saying “it’s totally cool if you don’t want to do this but you might consider that it may be beneficial for you to commit yourself fully to the practice if you want to no pressure.”
Okay okay he was a bit more fire and brimstone than that, basically saying, if you want to get somewhere with your meditation you have to do it. You have to show up and sit down and follow the GD instructions. (He didn’t say GD). He said, “in order to get gold, you have to give gold.” He also talked about something I think is the most difficult thing for the American mindset to realize – that essentially if you want to increase your discipline, probably the best thing to do is be merciful with yourself. We love the idea of discipline, but we all think we can just skip the mercy. I personally think that’s because we all think we’re superheroes, but that is for another post.
Mercy, mercy. I know gentleness is the real key to finding fluidity and energy in life – not treating your mind or your self as your enemy – staying clear about what you need – not punishing yourself. But it can be such a challenge. Take the example of a yoga class. I know there are times when I walk into that class and I know I’m exhausted. I know my shoulder is a little tweaked. I know that the kindest thing for me to do for myself is to take every other Vinyasa or less (for those non-yogis Vinyasa is the linking set of movements between different poses, usually involving going from downward dog into chattaranga into upward-facing dog and back into downward dog). But let’s say the teacher that day is feeling super energized about discipline and they start the class with a “sometimes we get lazy with our practice” speech. Which happens. All of a sudden all of the trust I have, all of the merciful intentions I put forth toward my tired body are pushed aside by taking the teacher’s words – instead of recognizing that I would not be lazy, I would be merciful to take it easy, and that’s what I’ve decided, and I know myself – I find myself taking not only every vinyasa, but also going for every advanced variation. Then the next time comes around for me to take a yoga class and I feel this incredible aversion and resentment.
How we are merciful to ourselves can be so different. In a way, mindfulness is dependent on mercy, and mercy is dependent on mindfulness, because how we are most merciful to ourselves depends on our situation. At my dumb corporate day job which I am very grateful for, for example, the best way for me to be merciful to myself is to do my work. The creative in me wants to spend all day writing my plays and short stories a la George Saunders. Sometimes, when work levels are low, that is good. Sometimes the stress of avoiding work splits my mind in an unmerciful way and I spend the majority of the time clicking on your Facebook profile. Yes, Yours. Bummer about those braces. Recently I’ve realized that the best way to be merciful to myself while sitting on the cushion is to let go of interpretation. Daniel Ingram, who’s book we’re reading, and who I wrote a crush post about last week, talks about letting go of interpretation in his book “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.” When I read this, and really started watching how I kept interpreting every moment of both my Shamatha and Vipasana (insight) practices, I realized I was torturing myself by constantly trying to make my meditation make sense. As if you can make sense of 30 minutes sitting with half-closed eyes on a red cushion and paying attention to your breath. That’s not saying that I don’t have reasons for meditating, but I don’t have to bother myself with minute to minute “how am I doing? Am I doing this right? Am I having realization? Is my mind clearer?” As we discussed in class Shamatha means “peaceful abiding.” Those frenetic questions are far from peaceful – and they put a pressure on the practice that makes me loathe to return to the cushion. However, when I drop the interpretation – when I really simply follow the instructions like an earnest, first time meditator, not expecting for anything to happen – well, it just seems to work out better.
Speaking of working out better, this summer Hardcore Dharma is going to be all about practice – the experiential and anatomical logistics of mediation. We’ll be working with Shamatha, Vipasana, Tonglen and Metta practice. We have post-meditation instructions to notice when we are multi-tasking and, if we can, cut down to one thing. Already I’ve had to make some concessions: in the subway I rode the subway rather than read a book while riding (I’m not sure how long that will last), at work I haven’t turned on NPR or a Buddhism podcast or music, listening instead to the whir of the fluorescent lights and the nervous chatter of my office that is undergoing structural reorganization while I do my work. I’ve been staying with each work assignment until it is finished. At lunch I looked at my broccoli and brown rice and tried, best as I could, to taste it. I’m considering relegating checking my email to twice a day. Putting down even these small distractions I can really feel how tense I am, how buzzy my brain is, how jumpy my thoughts. I’ve also noticed that when I take away the distractions, I’m so much kinder, compassionate and open with my fellow work mates. Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that I need to maintain my to-do list, because I feel like the only way a busy New Yorker can be a non-multi-taking mindfulness practitioner is by getting organized.
I’m jazzed about this post-meditation mindfulness practice. I hope that all of us taking the class in person and all of us listening at home, as well as anyone reading will support each other in cutting down on mindless multi-tasking. We should keep checking in over the summer, so that we continue to stay on point. How do you plan on cutting down multi-tasking? How do you plan on handling the cutting down of multi-tasking considering your busy schedule? Do you thing you could ever get to a place at which you were singly-focused for the majority of the day? Would you crash and burn? Turn into a vegetable? Is single-tasking a pipe dream? Share.
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