On Climbing Back Out of Practice-Diverting Holes (And Avoiding Them in the First Place)
In trying to recover some I what I wrote on the original (or at least the second original) DukkhaGirl blog, I came across this post on the American Buddhist website, which he titled “Dukkha Girl’s Monkey Mind Meditation.” Sometimes, what people chose to save of what I posted surprises me, and this, by far was not (in my opinion) my best post. The one here stops midway and seems to link back to what was an archive page with all of my meditation posts at the time.
While I don’t remember the content of the original post, I do think I recall where I was going with it, so I’m going to repost the saved part here and continue a bit from there. It won’t be the same as the original post but, perhaps, I have some new things to say about climbing back out of the “holes” we find ourselves in again and again.
So you’re trying to practice Zen, not just on the cushion, but in everyday life? And this is Zen practice, being here and now, right?
You’ve probably heard that Zen is not about self-improvement, growing into a “better person,” or becoming less anxious — blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada…
This is why you started Zen practice in the first place!
You hope that maybe you’ll get to the point where you’re totally in the moment and practice just to practice. But — damn it! — you have to admit that you became interested in Zen because you saw yourself as a totally messed up person. You had hope that Zen would make you ________________ (fill in the blank: peaceful, tranquil, calm, compassionate, happier, cooler, hipper, poetic, integrated, actualized…enlightened).
And maybe you are noticing some “side benefits” of your practice. The people at work note that you seem calmer taking change in stride. You yell at your family less. You are able to “just do it” throughout the day without the resistance you used to have. You still have preferences, but you’re able to do less “picking and choosing”1 and just do what needs doing.
You are on the way, right? Next stop enlightenment city?
Note: Here’s where the original post leaves off — everything after here is my later addition.
But before you can get even close to “Englightenment City,” whoops! You fall down a hole and it takes you on a detour far away from your supposed destination.
Of course (at least in my small understanding), Enlightenment City isn’t a place you’ll ever reach unless you can see it where you’re standing at this very moment, in the midst of all of life’s inevitable dukkha. It’s what that image of the lotus which only grows from the mud is all about. It’s what Hakuin was talking about in his Song of Zazen:
But, still…you fall in a hole, and it interrupts you in some way: it interrupts your practice, your peace of mind, your routine, and you find that “actualization” you thought you had, that peace of mind you thought that you’d attained, seemingly, out of reach.
In her poem, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk, Portia Nelson playfully chronicles2 her frequent blunders down a hole in the sidewalk. She keeps falling down the hole, but, each time, she becomes more familiar with it and how to climb out — until she knows how to avoid it and then, finally, knows to take an entirely different street, instead. It’s a powerful metaphor for all of the “holes” we fall into in our lives again, and again: addiction, certain types of relationships, bad habits — and patterns of thought (which, also, are habits when you look at them closely.)
Small things can throw us down these holes, unexpectedly, suddenly. And we all have unique, personal, holes. What’s a crater for me might be nothing more than a pinhole to you, and vice versa.
One day, at the time I wrote the original version of this post, a co-worker, whose opinion I valued, left the office commenting, “Well, there’s no-one in here for me to talk to.”
I was the only other person in the room.
Suddenly I was down the hole. I gave him a little bow as he left and tried to reframe it in my mind. I am no one, right?
But my efforts to reframe this into a meditation on nonself was a major fail. He was, of course, not attempting to hand me a koan. And I failed to practice the bumper-sticker wisdom I usually try to practice: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Some people would shrug and quickly shake a comment like that off. It would be a pinhole instead of a pit. But for me, the comment opened a chasm.
I thought I had come to a place of self-acceptance when it came to my introverted personality and the fact that not everyone would accept that being quiet is just part of my nature. But here, I found myself in a hole that I thought I had escaped. I had armed myself with education on introversion. My INFJ-ness came with some gifts. Didn’t it?
But I had been in this particular hole before. I went home, sat on my cushion, reminded myself, yet again, of the bumper-sticker wisdom I try to practice: “Don’t believe everything you think.” It didn’t take me to long to crawl back out of that hole. I never asked him what he had meant by that comment. I let it go (or mostly, at least, because I’m here writing about it), and things were fine.
For a little while after that, the surface of my life was pretty smooth. Even when things are going well, there’s always the occasional pothole in the road. My job was one of those things. However, I was practicing daily, taking care of my health, and, overall, things were reasonably good.
But then, as one wise person said (I think it was Ashleigh Brilliant), “I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes they all attack at once.” A bunch of “days” — things I had, conveniently, ignored in my present life finally surfaced and demanded I deal with them NOW. Events that triggered difficult emotions from childhood, significant losses — these all cropped up at the same time and opened not just a chasm but a crater.
Again, I fell down the hole — and this time, had a difficult time climbing out. For a time, I quit doing all of the things that would have given me tools — perhaps a sort of metaphysical grappling hook — to get out of the hole quicker. I quit my daily meditation practice; I stopped sitting with my little zendo group. I retreated into diversions and, occasionally, wine though I had been a non-drinker for years.
But when you find yourself in a hole, you can pull the manhole cover over your head and sit in the dark and refused to do anything, or you can choose to seek help.
Seeking help might look different for each of us. Climbing out of different holes might require different climbing gear. There’s no shame in seeking therapy. For some, it may mean reaching out to others in our lives that can help. Or it may mean giving ourselves permission to break off regular contact with people who regularly hurt us. For me, it meant being gentle with myself, challenging my negative self-talk, allowing myself to inch out of the hole, rather than attempting an unsuccessful flying leap, into resuming those activities which, previously, had been sustaining to me: meditation, writing and journaling, physical activity (I’m still working on it!).
I am, at least, developing names for the various holes I see in my path. I can wave a friendly hello to them: “Hello Introvert Self-Judgement. How are you today?” “Hello Spending Too Much Time on Social Media and Feeling Bad.” I still haven’t found an entirely hole-free street to walk down but, at least, I can notice them and, mindfully, walk around them.
I may return here in the future and explore this topic a bit more — or write a different post on getting unstuck.
I'm sorry you didn't like this post.
Let us improve this post!
Let me know how it could be improved.
- This was a reference to the Xin Xin Ming, which I was very into reading at the time, and am again, now.
her book of the same name, which is available on Amazon