Someone recently emailed me with a question about meditation and about a difficult situation she is in with someone at work. I'm posting my reply here in case it's helpful to others. I did not include the original questions as they are implied, I think, in the responses. Enjoy!
Very good! Thank you very much for the excellent email and all the good work you are doing. It warms my heart to know you taking care of yourself in this way.
Way to go on the meditation! Yes, it is hard—very hard—and of course you are not the only person who experiences meditation in this way. Everyone does. It’s hard because paying attention and being in the moment are antithetical to the way we were all taught to survive in this world. Our survival strategies all have to do with being in our heads, believing the voices of conditioned mind, lost in stories, and so on. We have all been practicing non-presence since we were small, and have little practice in just being. I won’t promise that it will get easier if you keep plugging away, because it will likely continue to be hard—the hard part about it will change and deepen over time as you change—but I can promise that you will become more skillful. And as you do you will become more able to influence what happens in your mind for the better.
You asked what you should be doing while you’re meditating. No, it’s not helpful to try to not think. Thinking happens on its own, whether we are attending to it or not. It’s like a radio: as long as the radio is on it’s going to play, but we have a choice about whether we will listen. To try to not think is to set up a contest you will fail at. What you can learn how to do during meditation is put your attention on something other than the thinking. That’s the purpose of the counting that I described in an earlier email: it gives you something to put your attention on. Put your attention on your breath and the counting. Pretty soon your attention will be captured by thought and you’ll be elsewhere—worrying, in a fantasy, in a story of some kind… As soon as you realized this has happened, drop the thoughts that have your attention and bring your attention back to your breath and the counting. The repetition is helpful. It’s like learning how to hit a tennis ball—if you keep doing it over and over again you gain skill. In meditation the skill is the ability is to let the thoughts go and have your attention in the moment instead.
That was a good question. Questions about things that are unclear to you are helpful because they give us a way in to your current work. Keep them coming! (And if I didn’t answer the question try me again!)
In regards to the office manager at work—good! At the monastery we called situations like this, half-jokingly, “practice opportunities”. These kinds of life situations are difficult and painful, of course, but they do present real opportunities to see what is going on, how conditioning does what it does, and to become freer, happier people. I would suggest you take on the situation with the office manager as a sort of spiritual project. So let’s take a look at how to practice with this situation in a way that you can profit by it.
The first thing to consider is that the office manager is not causing you to feel the way you feel. It always seems like it’s the outside thing that’s causing our experience, but it isn’t. The real cause of whatever experience you’re having is the story about it in your mind. Do you see that? If there were no story, no thoughts about what she’s doing or how she is, then there would be no problem. There would be the impact of what she does or says, of course. If she is doing unethical things then I imagine she is having a hurtful impact on people. At this level (without a story), however, there is no necessary suffering, no unhappiness on your part. Even if she does something that has a negative impact on you there is no real suffering in that—just the consequences of her behavior. The trouble starts when conditioning begins to tell you a story about what she is doing or how she is.
That is why its helpful to identify the self-talk. The self-talk is the language conditioned mind is using to create the story. If you learn how to drop the story and just relate to the situation as it is then you will cease to suffer over it. (Quick note: “Suffering” in Buddhism is sort of a technical term. It suggests the state of being out of the moment, out of touch with our authentic selves.) Yes, conditioning is getting you to re-live situations over and over again in your mind. It’s like being stuck in a movie theater. That is how it keeps the suffering going. Dig a bit deeper and identify the self-talk that is in the story. Here is what it would be for me if I were in your situation: “I don’t like her! Look at what she just did! That wasn’t right! How can she stand to be that way? Oh my god, she did it again! Am I the only one who can see how she is? I respect that she is a good manager, and I appreciate that she is good with the patients, but she is so inauthentic! She is the opposite of everything I stand for! It stresses me out to be with someone like her. I wish she didn’t bother me so much...” Do you see what I mean? You’re looking for the actual things you say to yourself (that conditioning says to you) about her. Seeing the actual self-talk will give you the power (as long as you don’t believe it) to drop the story and end suffering in that moment.
So here is what the practice could look like in this situation:
You notice that you’re triggered. You feel angry or upset or whatever you feel when she’s getting to you.
You turn your attention away from her and put it on the story in your mind, on the fact that there is a story happening that is causing your reaction. (Very difficult to do, especially if there’s a lot of emotion, but you can learn to do it for sure).
You identify the self-talk that is causing you to feel however you are feeling. (Remember, it’s the self-talk that’s causing the problem for you, not the office manager)
You let go of the self-talk and turn your attention to your breath, just like you are practicing in meditation. This will not necessarily make the feelings go away, but it will create an opening for self-compassion. And if you really pop out of the story the feelings and any unhappiness will go away also.
Probably before long she will say or do something, you will get triggered again, and then you can practice the above all over again. The more you get sucked into the story then step out of it the weaker the story will be and the more freedom you will have.
Make sense? If not, feel free to ask about any of that.
A couple other things that might be helpful as you work with this:
It’s okay to feel angry or upset or self-righteous or whatever else you feel (you haven’t told me how you feel, so those are just guesses). It’s not wrong or bad to feel these things. It’s completely natural.
It’s helpful to an extent to try to see the good in her rather than what you don’t like, but only to an extent. That’s like trying to talk yourself out of feeling the way you do. It can’t really end the suffering that’s there for you. The reason is that a story about the good is not really different than a story about that bad—it’s still a story. You need something more powerful than the story that keeps pulling you in. The moment is more powerful, as you will find as you learn to drop the story and turn your attention there.
What you are experiencing is not petty. It’s human. We all experience things like this (including me). And you have an opportunity here to make a choice that most people don’t make. Usually in a situation like this people respond in one of two ways: to blame the other person or to blame themselves. The other choice is to use the situation to learn how to end suffering.
I would suggest that you practice with the situation in the way that I outlined above (and continue with the meditation) for a few days or however long you want, then let me know how it goes. I love projects like this, and I can’t wait to hear!
Take care, Dana! Keep up the good work!