“Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”
All of which is true. But here’s what this koan has been meaning to me, and why it keeps popping into my head when I meditate:
I am who I am.
I will always be who I am. I am not going to get away from myself.
Here’s what I mean. There’s this weird paradox I keep running into. Meditation and mindfulness are having a dramatically transformative effect on my mind and my mood, my emotions and my approach to life. At the same time, they’re not really changing who I am at all. I am still fundamentally the same person that I was before I started, with the same affections and ambitions and anxieties, the same irritations and guilts and self-doubts. And I have to accept that if this practice is going to work.
When I meditate, I sometimes get frustrated with the constant hamster wheel in my head, chattering and nattering and worrying and distracting me from my focus. In theory, my meditation practice is supposed to involve focusing my attention on something specific (such as my breath, or scanning my body from foot to head); noticing when my attention has drifted from this focus; observing my distracting thoughts or feelings without judgment; and gently returning my focus to my breath or my body or whatever. In practice, my meditation often goes something like this:
Somehow, I don’t think that’s what my meditation teacher meant by “observe without judgment, and gently return.”
In fact, getting frustrated and angry with myself for having thoughts and feelings and plans and ideas and anxieties and so on arise in my mind when I meditate… it’s totally counter-productive. When I get irritated with my distracting thoughts or feelings, and angrily shove them on the back burner, and jerk my attention back to my breath or my left knee or whatever… I lose the flow of the practice. When I can observe my distracting thoughts or feelings, and sit with them for a moment, and let them be what they are, and then gently return my focus to my breath or my left knee or whatever… the practice is much more effective. (Not to mention more pleasant.) And the thoughts and feelings and so on don’t jar me out of the practice. They become part of it.
So when I meditate, and the hamster wheel is being unusually loud and active and frustrating, one of the things I do to stay in the practice is to remind myself: I am who I am.
What the practice is doing — gradually, to a small degree, to a very slightly greater degree every day — is changing my relationship with the hamster wheel.
What the practice is doing — gradually, to a slightly greater degree every day — is enabling me to have my thoughts and feelings and plans and anxieties… instead of them having me.
This has become one of the chief ways that I frame this practice, and one of my chief goals with it. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of being goal-oriented about a practice that’s fundamentally about self-acceptance and being in the moment. But… well, again, that’s sort of the point. I am who I am. And who I am, among many other things, is an intensely goal-oriented person. And I’m basically okay with that. Again: big part of why I am where I am today, and why I’m able to live this life and do this work that I love. And — returning to the point — one of the chief goals I have with this practice is to have my thoughts and feelings and plans and anxieties… instead of them having me.
I want to have ambition — I don’t want my ambition to control me. I want to have anger — I don’t want my anger to overwhelm me. I want to have plans — I don’t want my plans to spin me, to drown me, to constantly poke me and prod me and nag me and swamp my entire field of consciousness. I want to respond to the things that happen in life — I don’t want to react to them. I want to have lots of ideas and hopes and analyses and strategies and imaginings and desires and feelings. I don’t want them to have me.
I am who I am. I will always be who I am. Who I am is changing, of course, and I don’t know for sure how I will and won’t change. But some things about me have been pretty much constant throughout my life, and I don’t expect them to change. The hamster wheel in my head will always be chopping wood and carrying water. But as I continue to work on mindfulness, I’m finding that — gradually, to a small degree, to a very slightly greater degree every day — I’m better able to notice when my attention has drifted, and to observe it without judgment, and to return my attention to the task at hand. I’m better able to notice when I’m having strong emotions, and to observe them without judgment, and to make decisions that are informed by those emotions without being a total reflexive reaction to them. I’m better able to look at a long to-do list, and pick the next most important do-able thing on the list, and do it, without being overwhelmed and paralyzed by how much I have to do.
Other pieces in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time
Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness
Secular Meditation: How Down Time is Changing
Secular Meditation: “This is my job”