Tangled thoughts and frazzled feelings
Mindfulness begins with meditation. Without a meditation practice, it’s very difficult to stay present, meet the moment as it is, be compassionate, and connect with a nonjudgmental attitude. Meditation is the training ground for all the other things we collectively call a mindfulness practice.
For many months, I’ve watched the building in the picture above grow day by day. In its early stages, I was puzzled about what it was going to be. I mean, I knew what it was: a huge hole in the ground and such a big mess that I couldn’t imagine anything useful coming out of it. In fact, because it’s on federal government property, I joked every day that it was where my tax dollars were being safely stored. (That turned out to be truer than I suspected!) Yet was interesting to watch all the heavy equipment move in (and the dirt move around); the enormous cranes, bulldozers, and cement mixers gathered like toys in a giant child’s sand box. But nothing much seemed to be happening – at least, in my time frame.
Meditation often begins like that. It can seem like a confusing array of techniques gathered together on a site that is a mess of tangled thoughts and frazzled feelings. I start by bringing my attention to my breath and count 1 for an in-breath then 2 for an out-breath. I’m supposed to get to 10, then count the breaths back down to 1, and back up to 10, all the while keeping my attention on the flow of the in- and out-breath at my nostrils. Of course, as I’m chattering away at myself about what I’m supposed to be doing, there’s another track playing a commentary about how I’m doing.
1, in breath, yes tracking that breath, oh it’s warm, oh right I forgot to notice it’s warm, 2, wait it can’t be warm, it’s warm on the out-breath because the body temperature warms what am I doing this isn’t paying attention while I count this is analysing the breath oh right that’s what I always do no wait always that’s a judgment let’s get back to counting what? wait was I at 2 no can’t be I’ve been sitting here for more than one in and out breath.. wait…damn oh nonjudgment start over
Even though I tell beginning practitioners that it’s quite normal, there’s always a some anxiety that comes with this phase of practice. Who would believe that something organized is going to come out of this mess of mental activity? Not only that, there are all these pesky feelings that go along with bringing awareness to the breath.
I can’t believe I screwed that up. How do you mess up counting from 1 to 10? Really. Maybe this is not for me. I told them I can’t meditate! I wonder if it’s too late to get my money back?
Frustration is sort of a ground level and typical feeling I encounter in meditation. Other more profound feelings can arise too and be particularly anxiety-provoking; sadness, grief, anger, and other intense feelings make me wonder if meditation is for me. After all, why would I want to do something that leaves me feeling more frazzled than when I started?
Setting the foundations
It took many, many months before the hole in the ground started to grow a series of cement structures. The foundation of the building began to emerge out of the mud and the heavy equipment moved further to the edges of the property. Then it seemed like nothing more was happening for a very long time.
As frustrating as it is, cultivating the habit of following the breath is really, really important when starting a meditation practice. Yes, there are tangles of thought. Yes, there are (and always will be) feelings that surface. In these early stages of meditation, it’s important to use the tangles and frazzles as a signal to just come back to the breath. When I do that, I’m developing a disciplined attention and discernment of where I want to direct my attention. But, you might ask, aren’t your frazzled feelings important too? Isn’t mindfulness about feeling the feelings? That is true however remember I’m just starting out. By redirecting my attention to my breath at this stage of practice, I’m not disregarding that brilliant solution to the world’s problems or disrespecting my sadness or grief. I’m actually giving space in which to grow my capacity to untangle my thoughts and face the frazzle with care and wisdom. Let’s face it, the very reason I experience suffering is because I try to tackle tough emotions and messy thoughts from a wobbly base.
I often feel impatient with myself because it takes time to build that solid foundation. And I used to think that once I got the foundation set, I would be able to build a magnificent Meditator-Mansion on it where I would have amazing trips into my inner universe. Sadly – or maybe not – I’m just a run-of-the-mill butt-to-cushion meditator who crams it in between morning tea and the daily commute or sneaks into the clinic room for a few minutes when I get a cancellation in my schedule. My life is likely going to be spent setting up that foundation, sometimes fixing it when it crumbles from neglect, and putting up a little hut where I can take refuge from my tangled thoughts and frazzled feelings.
That’s fine. The profound experience of inner universes notwithstanding, I’m pretty grateful that, day-by-day, I feel a bit more solid when tough stuff happens in my outer and inner world. There, I find myself sitting down on my mental cushion and starting to 1…in…2…out…3…how could they!…1…in…2…out…3…in…