Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wax on Wax off

The other night I attended a talk with Lodro Rinzler, who was in DC on a tour for his new book, The Buddha Walks into a Bar. I was selling books while he signed copies and a woman came up to him and told him what a hard time she was having with her health and her family. She asked, "does it get easier?" He looked at her in a way that I knew he was listening with an open heart. "Yes, I think it does," he said.

I often think of meditation practice as a "two steps forward, one step back" situation. If we set our minds to it, we can develop a fulfilling practice with great discipline. This discipline can extend out to the rest of our lives so that we gain real insights and feel we are on the right track. Then something happens: we get hooked by our emotions, we lose our tempers, someone offends us, our sense of openness closes down and we want to tear our heart out and stomp on it…. or as I like to say, "the fit hits the shan."

This has been a tough week for me at work. I came back from a stressful business trip where I was dealing with a mine field of complaints and sensitivities. I survived the trip without a hitch, so I was feeling confident. I must have been feeling too confident, because I later made a minor mistakes, which I beat myself up about. Several days later, I still wonder if my screw up really made any difference. What I know with certainty is that aggression towards myself won't help in these situations. 

Before I started meditating, I took life on with the attitude of Daniel San in The Karate Kid. Life sometimes kicked sand in my face. I was sick of feeling like I was getting my ass kicked. My strategy was to be smarter than other people, to have enough tricks in my tool kit, so that when the Cobra Kai had me cornered with a broken leg, I still had a crane kick that would save my ass. For a long time I thought of meditation like the latest thing that was going to make me smarter and stronger. Now I realize it is way bigger than that. 

One thing I've learned is that my biggest challenges are internal. Achieving happiness is not about outsmarting everyone else. When Mister Miyagi made Daniel San practice "wax on wax off" until he couldn't move his arms, the gift to Daniel San was the confidence and discipline to sort out his own internal challenges.    

When Lodro told that woman that things do get easier, I understood that he was talking about life on the path of meditation. 

Every once in a while, when I get chewed out at work or when I get in an argument with my partner, I want to rip my heart out to stop the bleeding. Life continues to come at me and I continue to get hooked by my emotions, but I am increasingly able to handle it with a sense of ease and humor. Sometimes my challenges still feel immense, but I'm increasingly able to approach these challenges with less aggression toward myself and other people.

Next time the going gets tough and I find myself lost in aggressive storylines, I hope I'll remember a few tips from my teachers, my very own versions of Mister Miyagi:

1. Feel the Feeling, Drop the Storyline
This is the phrase from Pema Chodron that sometimes pops into my mind as I'm really suffering over something and telling crazy stories to myself. This week, as I was practicing meditation, but getting lost in my own stories, I remembered her advice. My awareness perked up and I was reminded that telling stories was not the reason I was sitting on a cushion. I came back to the breath and then I realized that there was this very closed feeling, this claustrophobic feeling that seemed centered in my chest, near my heart. I moved my attention to this feeling and let it sink in. Sakyong Mipham talks about embodying the practice. Focusing on where a feeling appears in your body is a great way to be present. 

2. Be gentle to yourself
Once I've become aware of the thoughts that have hijacked my effort to be mindful, I can be grateful for this awareness. It is a feeling like, "ah, yes, there is also this present moment that I can return to." I can breathe in the moment and then extend a hand of kindness to myself. At Lodro's talk this week, he told a story about a cowboy meditator from Texas who had modified the instruction to label your thoughts as thinking. He changed the phrase to also remind him of the need to be gentle to oneself. Instead of saying, "thinking" like a hammer to smash down thoughts, he started saying, "thinking, good buddy." This story was met with roaring laughter, but it is a brilliant example of how we can personalize our meditation practice and extend the hand of loving kindness to our cowboy/cowgirl heart.

3. Approach life with an open heart
Another nugget I picker up from Lodro's talk is the reminder that Bodhichitta means "awakened heart." The principle of awakened heart can be a great reminder when the going gets tough and in many ways this is what meditation is all about. Life will come at us and sometimes life will feel like a fight with the Cobra Kai. We should strive to approach the world with the knowledge that a heart that is beating warmly in our chest. It is the most sensitive muscle in our bodies, and it can actually gives us clues about the right and wrong way to approach things. If you can learn to open it, the heart is an incredible resource that can enrich our lives, help us communicate, and widen our circle of compassion so that we have less to fear. If this sounds totally abstract, keep meditating; It will start to make sense in a very real and powerful way.

By remembering these helpful pieces of advice, I hope to keep gaining skill in the way I approach the conflicts and challenges that come my way. These pointers also remind me that the reason we relate to Daniel San in the Karate Kid, is not that he knew how to kick ass. Its that he had a big heart.  


  1. I've read a few of your posts now, and this one really resonates with me. Especially this sort of thing, "I'm really suffering over something and telling crazy stories to myself." I do this all the time, and looking for ways to get past it. Thanks for doing this blog!!

  2. I'm glad you found it helpful!

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