I sat down in front of my computer yesterday to video chat with my meditation teacher JoAnna Hardy. She asked me how my practice was going and I told her that it was alright, I was sitting semi-regularly, but my meditations kept getting interrupted. She smiled and asked me what I would say to a student who told me their practice kept getting interrupted. Like a smart ass I said, “I would tell them to find a better time to sit.” Then I gave the answer she was looking for: I would tell them that there are no distractions, it is all just part of practice.
The Problem with my Cat
The problem with my cat Freddy is that she really feels like an interruption. Sometimes it is hard not to view her as my sixth hinderance because she is so good at “distracting” me. The other day I was meditating on the couch in our living room. Right behind the couch are a few shelves that are built into the wall. I sat there trying my hardest to concentrate on my meditation when I heard the cat moving around on the shelf above my head. I thought to myself, there are all of four things on that shelf: a book, a large singing bowl, a hat, and a small snow globe. Three of those things are not fragile and one is made of glass.
Then I heard the unmistakeable noise of the snow globe being pawed around. The next moment I heard the clear thunk as it hit the floor. At this point I was pretty annoyed. Not only had Freddy interrupted my meditation with her incessant playing, but she also just broke the snow globe I gave Matt from my last retreat at Spirit Rock. But I prevailed; I kept my eyes close and didn’t even look at what I was sure was a mess behind me.
I white knuckled it and tried not to notice the anxiety building in my chest. I was determined to get back to my meditation after all of these distractions. Freddy had different plans for me. After she got bored of the snow globe she jumped onto the couch and proceeded to walk back and forth over my legs with her claws out. After her seventh lap over my legs I lost it. I opened my eyes, made a loud “AGGHHHH” sound, lifted the cat off my lap, and put her on the ground. At that point all seemed lost and I watched the timer impatiently as it counted down the last 30 seconds of my meditation.
A New Narrative
So what if I take that story I just I told you and interpret it a different way? First of all, as I was writing it I was struck by something. I could not for the life of me tell you what type of meditation I was trying to do. But I can recall in such clear detail everything Freddy did. I remember it because I had present time awareness of it as it was happening. I paid attention to this “distraction” with some mindfulness even though I really really didn’t want to. Of course this means my meditation was not wasted, because it never is, it was just spent doing something different than what I wanted to do.
The problem with Freddy is not Freddy at all, it is my reaction to her. I could have made the decision at some point to soften around what was going on and just listen to the sounds she made or feel her claws and paws on my legs. But I didn’t. I sat there trying to force my attention on to something else because I saw her as a distraction rather than an opportunity for present time awareness.
The answer isn’t to change our circumstances when difficulties come up. The solution is to change our perspective. Soften and open to what is happening, even when you don’t like what is happening.
The Harder Hard Things
My cat Freddy is a pretty cute example of a difficulty (figuratively and literally. She is adorable). Obviously, there are harder “distractions” that arise during meditation. I could tell stories about times I opened my eyes to stop meditating because my mind was so nasty to me I had to get out of it. Recently, my meditations have had a heaviness to them that sometimes leads me to a sense of sadness or despair.
When Matthew and I lived in Petaluma we ran a meditation center and had a community of people to meditate with. I led seven or more sitting groups a week and sat every day myself. I felt connected and excited about the Dharma. Since we moved to Mexico, those external circumstances have changed. Sometimes when I sit it brings up a strong craving to get back what it feels like I left behind.
The craving arises as thoughts of missing our community. Self-doubt sometimes visits to tell me that my practice will never be the same again. Strong body sensations come up like a sadness from inside my belly. So sometimes I just sit there and cry.
This type of interruption feels so much harder to work with than Freddy but the solution is the same. I can allow my meditation to be about feeling. I can note the craving and thoughts. I can soften to everything and give it all the space it needs. If I sit there and resist the wave of sadness, I will only cause myself more pain. But Buddhism teaches me that I have a choice. Instead of resisting I can pay attention and hold the pain with Metta, which means friendliness or good-will. I choose to soften.
Learning to Soften
In Buddhism, suffering is spoken about as the first and second arrow. The first arrow is the initial pain of some difficulty. For example, the pain of a claw in my leg or the sadness in my belly. Then we take a second arrow and jab it into where the first arrow hit in order to try to dig out the first one. The second arrow is the suffering – craving, aversion, or doubt. For example, trying to push down the anxiety or craving for a more concentrated mind.
The first arrow is unavoidable. As we walk through life pain will hit us and we can’t always duck out of the way. The second arrow is a choice. We can choose not to add on the suffering of trying to ignore discomfort or hating the pain. Instead we can meet it with compassion and even gratitude.
One of my favorite ways to soften around discomfort is a method of creating space in your body. When you notice something difficult arise try to pay attention to where you feel it in your body. Then allow it to get as big as it needs to. You might imagine that the discomfort is spreading and filling your whole body or even the whole room depending on how big it feels. The point is to just give it space to be however it needs to be.
Another way you can work with suffering is with dedicated compassion meditation. You might notice a difficult thought and then imagine saying to yourself “I care about this suffering”. If you are interested in trying it here is a guided meditation from our YouTube channel.
Gratitude – as Promised in the title
For me, after compassion comes a perspective shift that leads me to gratitude. There is a way to actually appreciate the difficulties and “distractions” rather than just accepting them. I am grateful for the sadness because it teaches me how to sit with my feelings. I am grateful for self-doubt because it shows me that I need to work on being more kind to myself. And finally, I am grateful for Freddy because she reminded me that everything is part of meditation.