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Friday, October 3, 2014

Let It Be. And Then Some.

I learned Zen from Joko Beck in the early 90s. I had sat meditation with other teachers, but Joko made practice accessible. No wacky koans, nobody getting smacked with a stick. With Joko's practice, I understood how to do it. And why.

Kyosaku: the stick of enlightenment stings a bit.

The bones of her technique were thought-labeling.

An emotion, she described, is simply a bodily sensation tied to a thought. When we sit on the cushion, when we practice during daily life, we label our thoughts and experience the bodily sensations that accompany them. We rest in the moment, whether it be pleasurable, painful, angry, or happy.

We let it be.

This was life changing. Instead of running from uncomfortable experiences like embarrassment or shame or fear, I allowed the moment to unfold, remained present with the sensations and identified my thoughts. It wasn't easy, but for me there were no alternatives. Life, at that time, was not working.

I've always been resistant to the practice of positive thinking, of using meditation to feel good. It struck me as self-centered. The point of our life shouldn't be to feel good, but to serve life--allowing the moment to be what it is, to be present with the yuckiness, if that's what's there, instead of steering  toward something we like...those yummy feelings.

Rick Hanson's book The Enlightened Brain approaches practice from a unique perspective, tying spiritual practice to neuroscience. The physical structure of the brain, the way it's wired, affects how we think and feel. It colors our perceptions, forms our life. And our brain is neuroplastic. It can change, reshape.

Our mind can change our brain which can change our mind.

Hanson's guide to meditative practice.

We must be aware of thoughts and bodily sensations, to let down our defenses and allow the present moment to unfold. This is still the first step and, for most of us, very difficult.

I often find myself, in times of stress, ruminating on my misfortune, wallowing in self-centered thoughts. When I feel mistreated or wronged, whether justified or not, I spend a lot of time clinging to thoughts of anger and revenge.

Of being right.

But the active process of letting go of these attachments, to stop clinging to thoughts and feelings of vindication or self-centered sorrow, is as equally difficult as the first step. I like my little stories of power and revenge and victory.

Because they're all about me.

Let it in refers to filling the void, the emptiness that is left behind after letting go with something more productive. That's the key word, productive.

When I'm in a good space, I tend to have more space for all of life--the good, the bad, the ugly. I have more ability to use all the crayons.

This, in a way, is how I see "positive thinking" as a beneficial practice.

If I am practicing with a particular situation, let's say a difficult person, I can BE present with that experience. I can let GO of my reactions, but thirdly, I can fill that void with thoughts and feelings of compassion, of love. This, Hanson says, is the neuroplasticity of the brain at work.

Neurons that fire together, wire together. 

Practice is simple. And, for most of us, the hardest thing we'll ever do. But, honestly, what else are you going to do?


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