The Post – The Breath, Compassion, and Pacifiers

Over the years I’ve read about or studied different kinds of meditation. Some wanted you to focus on a word or sound repeated over and over, others on a lit candle. More recently the focus was on trying to keep a totally blank mind and completely halt all the “noise” and the 10000 things running through your brain every minute. Of course I failed at all of them…as do most people. You’re so focused on a goal, on doing it perfectly, that when you can’t measure up, you give up out of frustration or despair.

On the flip side, I suspect that if you are lucky enough to achieve what these methods want…or at least you think you achieved it, the danger is that then you might walk around feeling so proud of yourself, so much better than others because “you achieved it.” You can try “not to go there,” but it’s hard, and even if you manage not to be proud, there is also the danger of feeling “overly holy and falsely humble” about your accomplishment.

One of the things I like about Buddhism is it’s emphasis on “Middle path.” No extremes of perfection or failure. This extends to its approach to meditation practice – “acceptance” of, in fact, it’s emphasis on the fact that you’ll never be perfect and it’s not about a goal. It’s always about “letting go and coming back to the breath.” Whether the teacher is Thich Nhat Hanh, from the Zen tradition, or Jack Kornfield from the Theravadan tradition, the point is not to “eradicate” what’s going on in you, but on simply to notice it and let it go on. You don’t waste a lot of energy either trying to get rid of all the thoughts, or giving them more importance than they’re worth. You just notice what is happening, acknowledge it, let it go, and come back to the breath.

Even that though, is easier said than done and human beings have a way of making anything a goal or contest. I think the one part of those instructions that I find most useful is: “Come back to the breath.” The reality is, we will be distracted for the rest of our lives. There’s bills, fights with people, retirement planning, kids, whatever. SOMETHING is always creeping in. That’s being human. And as nice as it is to say “notice it, don’t judge it, just let it go” even that is impossible. Something sticks in our throat and it replays in our heads over and over. Our anger, hurt, pride, despair, fear, will get hooked and we have a hard time letting that go. Accept it. We all do it. We always will. Instead of beating yourself up about any of this you simply, come back to the breath.

At first glance that might seem like a useless approach. Someone more “austere” might say “Well what kind of mental discipline is that?” The point is, it’s not about “discipline.” It’s not about self-flagellation, beating yourself up, getting rid of anything, or trying to be perfect. It’s about being human, and it’s about compassion. Being gentle with yourself. It’s about accepting and loving who you are. Even with all the noise in the brain, you can chuckle at your foibles and still say I’m a good person. I’m full of love, even when I’m distracted.

So why bother learning to treat yourself with compassion in your meditation practice? Because it is the way you train yourself to be compassionate with yourself in life. Instead of expecting yourself to be perfect at jobs, parenting, being a spouse, friend, being a human being, you simply note ‘I did my best. Yup, messed that one up, it happens.’ You pick up the pieces. You make amends. You come back to whatever it was you were trying to do and start over. You “come back to it” again and again and again, with no hope of perfection, simply the willingness to “show up and try again.” So if you can accept with compassion, an imperfect meditation practice and come back to the breath, you can learn to do the same for yourself in life.

Is there a benefit to treating yourself with compassion in life?

Yes. Aside from giving yourself some inner peace and acceptance, it is the only way you can exercise that “heart muscle” and learn to give that same gift to others. If you are so hung up on perfection in yourself, will you learn to cut somebody else any slack? Will you even notice anybody is there struggling, too, if you’re so wrapped up in your own struggle to be perfect? And if you can’t accept yourself as less than perfect, will you be able to accept anybody else’s mis-steps? Come back to the breath. Come back to life. Settle yourself, with compassion.

I often noticed how babies settle down when you give them a pacifier. It’s like they need that to stop whatever is winding up in them, settle down, and come back to calm. I’ve joked that maybe adults need them, too. Something that makes you shut your mouth, take a break from the world, focus on something small, and return to calm.

Given that they don’t have adult pacifiers, perhaps coming back to the breath is the next best thing?

PS People often say animals are intuitive and sometimes animals have more compassion than people. If you think the benefits of coming back to the breath and being peaceful, are limited to humans, check out the CNN article:

Zen (dog) Master: A New Take on Prayer Position

This article has two other lessons about life:

1) Sense of humor – Even in religion, a smile is the most important thing for compassion and inner peace.

2) Beginner’s Mind – Keep an open mind to new possibilities. You might write off the dog’s practice, but how do you know that on some level, he isn’t “feeling” the warmth of the compassion in the practice?

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