Friday, August 10, 2007

Chop wood. Carry water.

I know I haven't been posting any Buddhist / therapy / mind / spirit stuff lately. I had a chat with a friend today, though, that was pretty cathartic, and with only a little reformatting (and some vocabulary cleaning - hi, Grandma!) it seemed like a pretty decent post.

Friend: I have a random question for you, and you don't have to answer it right away. I'd genuinely like your thoughts on it, though, because I'm in the throes of some what-am-I-doing sort of mental anguish. (Anguish is a strong word....)

How do you winnow away all the distractions to determine what it is you truly want to be doing with your life?

Nice light fare for the afternoon. :)

Me: How odd, this is what I've been thinking about a lot lately too. Anguish is a strong word, but ennui and existential despair kind of merit it sometimes. My strategy so far has been to focus more intently on my meditation practice and my yoga.

I'm in a pretty rough patch of it right now. It's the first time I've really tried to meditate more diligently on a very frequent basis. I'm experiencing a lot of insight, but a lot of it is, as you describe, a winnowing-away. It's challenging, because I have begun realizing how much of what I do is just motivated by habit, and insecurity and is fundamentally distant, inauthentic, and insincere.

I'm finding myself enjoying socializing less, especially with friends with whom I've realized I am often sarcastic or "cordial", i.e. pleasant but not terribly intimate. And then the difficult part these days is not resenting those people, or feeling irritated when I interact with them.

This extends to my job. I am beginning to realize that I often do not enjoy my job. At the same time, I am questioning whether the problem is the job itself or my approach to it. There are strong parallels with dating: I wondered often, when dating Erik, whether I should break up with him and search for a "more compatible person" or whether the lacking thing was my perspective... whether I should stop thinking about the personal compatibility as the thing to maximize, and instead think of myself as fortunate to have a relationship in which to work diligently.

I found this the other day, while searching for the zen saying it begins with: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

I really like it. I'm trying, slowly, to apply that to my life. I have realized that I become depressed -- despair is a better word -- when I procrastinate, when I don't work hard.

I read an article in Outside magazine once about a female professional climber on whose refrigerator hung a little sign that just said something like, "LIFE IS HARD WORK. THE SOONER WE REALIZE THIS, THE BETTER." When I first read the article I took that to mean that we should make our peace with the necessity of working hard, and not procrastinate, because there's no avoiding it.

Recently I came to a new understanding of that: That even if it could be avoided, I wouldn't want to. While working hard is unpleasant in an immediate way, just like eating brown rice when there's ice cream right next to it, if I don't work hard, I become totally miserable, I feel like I'm wasting my life. I'm sure I'll have another random insight in a week that will refine this significantly, but right now, my impression is that it's not worth me worrying after the "meaning of life" And that the meaning of life is just to point myself in the right direction and work really hard, every moment of every day. And that if I do that, I won't lapse into ennui because I'll be working too hard, and being too mindful.

I suppose that's not a direct response to your question. That said, in terms of "winnowing away distractions," I have to admit, the instruction there is... meditate. It always bothered me when my teachers would say things like that. "Stop thinking about what to do and just do it. Just meditate, and it will bring contentment and peace, you don't even have to understand how, certainly not right now."

I like to analyze and so that kind of instruction frustrated me.

But I must admit, the more I meditate, the more insight I find, the more peace I experience, and the more beauty I see. The weird part is, my actual meditation sessions are just like lightning storms in my head. I get brief moments of clarity, but no bliss, no realizations during the meditation.

It is a practice without epiphany, I mean.

There's no "peak experiences" with my meditation. The clouds never abruptly clear. I never have a breathtaking view of open sky. It's just that gradually, steadily, I become more mindful, I see things more clearly. I remember reading once that epiphanies cannot be trusted because they are so personal; they cannot be shared. I resisted that then, because epiphanies seem so exciting. But I realize more and more that they are just like orgasms, or ice cream. Pleasant sensory experiences. Just like working really hard every moment of every day, or eating tofu and brown rice when I could be eating ice cream, I think the real win with meditation just comes from that slow, gradual, completely underwhelming, non-peak, non-epiphany kind of experience.

My Mom, oddly enough, practiced Transcendental Meditation -- as did my Dad -- and she commented the other day that when she practices (she does rarely, but still apparently does from time to time) her mind is as wild and crazed as mine. Her take on it is that it's a catharsis, that the meditation helps because it is an outlet, so that you work some of that out, which is a useful way to think about it, I think, because it makes sense, then, that the benefits would come not during the practice but in the rest of life.


1 Comments: said...

I was looking up "chop----") online, and your writing showed up.

Thank you for the public witnessing,
re: (to parahrase)

That life is bristly and that you can never get comfortable. (maybe a little bit)

I am engaging myself in study re: my similar "work" conundrum, and have a slightly different vantage from which to inspect it.

Thanks again, don't worry, and trust your own conclusions, as nobody really, knows any more than you. (I found that out, fellow travelers all)

Stephen Bryant Shelley

September 9, 2007 2:27 PM  

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