I am on a week-long meditation retreat with Jaimal, and Mitsu, several more lovely people, and teacher Steven Tainer (of Berkeley Buddhist Monastery and other places) in Morro Bay, California.
One of the issues I’ve been looking into is related to my moods, or modes of being.
I am strongly affected by light levels and the weather, and have a “sad” mood/mode that roughly corresponds to fall/winter, and a “happy” mood/mode that roughly corresponds to spring/summer. I tend to this interpret this by saying that in the summer, I’m “normal,” and in the winter I’m depressed and anxious.
The symptoms of depression and anxiety are well-known, and for those of you who have never had to deal with a serious bout of depression, I can assure you that it is worse than most things you can imagine. I went through a particularly rough patch this past winter, and literally felt so paralyzed by my negative emotions and thought patterns that I thought I couldn’t accomplish anything (this accomplishment-focus is in itself another mistake/habit). I am normally an “overachiever,” so this feeling unable to achieve is really torturous for me and makes me feel all-the-more useless and worthless when I’m in this state.
One of the most obvious symptoms of anxiety, as it manifests itself for me, is this little “voice” (for lack of a better term, “storyline” might be more appropriate) in my head giving me a running narration of what a huge disaster my life is. Practically all I see are disasters of the past, disasters of the present, and especially disasters to come. The “voice” also tends to tell me everything I’m doing wrong, what a failure I am as a human being, etc. Obviously, this voice is a total pain, a complete distortion of reality, and a hindrance to my living my life in a way that serves myself and others. And, because it is also making me miserable, my desire to silence it is very great! So I tend to be pretty good about my meditation practice in the winter, because practice is very helpful for uncovering storylines like this and seeing them for what they really are, which is necessary to letting go of them.
I went on my first retreat with Steven last November, when I was right in the midst of this. I would have to sit there for hours at a time with nothing to deal with but this voice, which was very hard, and I spent a lot of time crying about how I felt like I had lost my entire connection with the Original Nature (aka God, THIS, Tao, etc) and was totally doomed (which is impossible), but that retreat definitely helped get me through the next few months. And I also had a few other insights that stuck with me, in particular the realization that trying to be still while meditating was a mistake/problem.
And somehow, spring finally showed up again, and a lot of “good” things happened in my life, and the anxious voice went away.
Enter the “happy” phase. Obviously, being happy is pretty great. It’s hard to see that there could be any problem whatsoever with being happy. We tend to think the happier we are, the better, end of story. And I’m definitely not knocking happiness. Thanks to combination of factors, including Portland and a new romantic relationship, I’ve been happier in recent months than I’ve been in several years.
But then my friends started pointing out mistakes I was making. Big mistakes, cases where I was greatly overestimating my own understanding of particular situations, and also cases where I was acting insensitive and self-involved in ways I never usually do, not even in the depths of depression (granted, I’m self-involved in different ways then). All of these things stem from over-confidence, which is not a problem I ever experience in my “sad” mode, so it really took me some time (and some persistent warnings) to realize what I was doing to any extent.
It’s a lot harder to see the need for regular practice when I’m happy. I mean, gosh, when I’m all chipper and excited, I tend to want to be out doing things and talking to people, not sitting on a cushion alone in my room. I’m also less likely to be able to separate what I want from what I need.
But it was very clear, from the very first practice session of this retreat, that the little voice doesn’t usually just shut up when I’m happy at all. It just tells me things I want to hear, instead of things I don’t want to hear. This is a lot less bothersome in everyday life than the anxiety version, which tells me what a wreck I’ve made of everything, but, in a meditation context, listening to your ego telling itself how fantastic it is is really horrifying.
The personal greatness story is no less annoying than the personal failure story. And it’s also quite obviously a distortion of reality, no less a distortion than the idea that I’m a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person. Both that and the idea that I am somehow very, very “special” and “gifted” are based on many, many false assumptions, the most obvious of them being that I am who I think I am.
This story does not help me. Not at all. It leads to many mistakes. But beating myself up for experiencing the voice doesn’t silence it either, it just digs me deeper into the self-consciousness rut. There is no way of exerting effort to try to make it stop that does the trick. So what now?
A few brief notes from Steven’s talks:
Acceptance. Stop trying. Don’t improve. Participate in reality, which is unexceptioned. Have your life. Understanding is not your problem. Stop.