I continue to notice little changes that I attribute to my meditation practice. Good ones. My current practice revolves around mindfulness, the attempt to just be aware of and notice thoughts as they happen. When you get into semantics, this is usually considered at least a notch or two down from concentration, where you intend to more absolutely control what goes on in your head. Mindfulness doesn’t attempt to do anything other than return the focus of the mind back to what’s going on in the present, right here, right now, and for a chronic overthinker for myself it’s a really liberating process. It’s a little weird – Zen masters like Nishijima and even Brad Warner have written anti-mindfulness rants, so there’s something about the notion that’s anti-Buddhist to some Buddhists. But my favorite guides to mindfulness are from different sects and it would be difficult to describe zazen without introducing some element of mindfulness, so your karma-mileage may vary. In any event, the word “mindful” has become loaded in a Zen context, and I’m just a guy trying some things out to see what works.
Monday was hard; 50 things to start the week with, all due at once, Anette home vacuuming and blasting television while I’m on conference calls, my daughter and her friend running around. It felt a little overwhelming early on, and I was having a hard time just getting anywhere. I think a little of my practice kicked in, and I stopped screwing around and just started and finished one thing. And then moved on to the next thing to start and finish. It sounds stupid, I’m sure, and it probably is. But it’s so easy to get mired when we’re multitasking that doing the first thing first just doesn’t occur to us.
What’s mindfulness got to do with it? Well, that’s kind of what the practice is, ignoring the pointless distractions and getting back to the matter at hand. If I’m practicing being mindful about, say, breathing, my mind will absolutely, definitely wander, and the practice is to gently bring my attention back to the breathing as often as I need to, over and over. Having been practicing this lately, I found myself using the same kind of quiet discipline and turning my focus to my work, over and over, as often as necessary. When my mind wandered, something kicked in and gently brought my focus back to the task in front of me. Suddenly, I was cranking out the work. Temporarily liberated from “not knowing where to start” by the simple act of starting.
About an hour ago, I had another “moment.” My daughter’s got a cough and was laying between us; Anette had been up with her an hour or so earlier getting her some Children’s Cough Placebo or whatever the ineffective kid’s medication was called, and she’d still roll over every 3 or 4 minutes and cough freely in my face. (And then back the other way to cough in Anette’s face. We’re all going to be sick.) This kept me awake, as might be expected. I mean, almost everything keeps me awake, so it may as well be my kid coughing in my face. I was laying facing away from her when I heard The Sound – a dog pissing, very close to my head. I yelled something like, “Arrrrghg!” and I squinted around to see what I could. My wife and kid jolted out of whatever half-asleep state they were in. Loki, the puppy was bolting away, I could tell his shape and gait even with my advanced myopia thanks to the fairly bright backlit clouds that cast a glow into our room. I was instantly out of bed and had one foot in a dog pee puddle. My rage flared.
Anette asked what was going on, and I told her Loki had peed on the floor. I used a different vocabulary to describe the situation, of course. I grabbed the pillow he’d peed on – I think he was marking it because the guest dog, Gracie, had been laying on it and he’s young enough to still be kind of possessive. He really never does stuff like that, it’s pretty out of character. That didn’t make it piss me off less. I started to walk toward the other side of the house with the pee-pillow and Anette turned on her nightstand lamp. Loki was slinking ahead of me in the dark hallway, and I was going to shoo him outside when we got to the living room. But mid-hallway, he slunk back around and headed back toward the bedroom even when I tried to stop him. I was furious, and I howled with anger and turned back around, half crouching in the totally dark hallway and trying to grab his collar with my right hand. He’s very quick, but he was only going just fast enough to stay out of my reach, mocking me.
Back in the bedroom, Anette and Sydney were fully awake. They were both propped up on pillows, and Loki smashed over them to avoid my grasp. He was carefully avoiding the spaces between and around them and instead stomped squarely on their bodies, which spiraled my anger even further. (Kind of a “How dare he!” type of outrage.) I notice myself still holding the pee pillow in my other hand, which infuriated me even more (“How dare he?” Part II, or something), and I was cursing like a cabbie and trying to grab him as he stomped over my human family, back and forth.
Anette and Sydney didn’t budge as he evasively smashed them, and some part of my Hulk-mind noticed them just calmly watching the back and forth, only moving their eyes as though following a tennis match. Anette shifted out of the bed and quietly said, “Why don’t I take him outside? Everyone in the house is shaking.” I sort of froze to take assessment. I took a look around me and saw my other dogs nervously circling around, noticed the pee pillow still in my left hand and extended away from my body, felt my Popeye grimace of a half-asleep-glasses-wearing-angry-guy trying to grab a puppy in a mostly dark room while holding a pee soaked pillow in one hand. Denied the chance to implement my “put the dog outside for a little while” plan for justice, I stomped out of the room, still cursing and grumbling, threw the pillow in the laundry room and slammed the door.
The insanity of it all hit me as I walked back to the room with Dog Pee Smell Remover and a roll of some kind of paper product so I could sit and mop dog pee out of the carpet next to where I put my head when I “sleep.” My daughter watched me and made some small talk. (It’s weird to catch your 4 year old making small talk.) The anger totally faded, and it only took a couple minutes once some part of me allowed me to let go of it. This is a new thing for me; I used to pride myself for being able to maintain a grudge for years at a time – and I don’t mean some weak, part time conceptual grudge, I’m talking about all consuming constant sleep-depriving single-minded anger for months and years. I took my freshly lucid non-angry state and used the pleasant clarity to dig up a humidifier and some kid’s Vick’s Rub to try to help with her cough. It was then that I became pretty aware of how my mindfulness practice had facilitated my quick shift.
What’s meditation got to do with it? Everything. My imperfect and human initial reaction of anger, not so much, but the ability to let go of it, 100%. In the practice of mindfulness, emotions and distractions are permitted and even expected, but you’re not expected to follow them – that’s the discipline, that’s what you practice. So after having practiced watching emotions like anger pop into my mind and then working to not let my attention be carried away by them, I found myself doing the same thing in real life. I had pee to sop up and a daughter to talk to, and my attention quietly and automatically went there and the anger dissappated since it was no longer needed or relevant.
Again, it probably sounds dumb or even imaginary, but for me, just letting go of my anger over a minute or two is a big deal. It wasn’t like some automatic saintly response, nothing like that. The effects of mindfulness practice are not dramatic for me, they’re subtle. It was like driving very quickly toward a tree, and rather than hitting the tree as I normally might, I made a tiny course adjustment early enough that I easily cleared the tree. Not a last minute swerve, either, just a tiny correction. Little differences that result in a greatly different outcome. Nothing more complex than me catching myself doing stuff that I’ve always done but haven’t always caught myself doing.
Wide awake, I sat and did zazen for 15 minutes. I was pleased with my focus, normally it knocks me out at the end of a day, and while it should have bugged me, I found it pleasing to be distracted by laughter instead of stress or anger or frustration. I caught myself chuckling and snickering at the ridiculousness of it all during and after my meditation. I’d caught a little glimpse of how funny life really is and how silly my own actions are even when I’m not being silly. My half-asleep wife wanted to know why I was snickering, and I couldn’t quite get the words out to explain how funny it struck me to see how seriously I take myself in such matters as dog night-peeing, or the weird fun I was experiencing at having caught myself in it.
So it’s been a full night. Face-coughing, dog pee, rage, laughter, meditation, humidification, Children’s Placebos, a mini-satori, and now blog-rambling. Maybe I can get some sleep now.