First there is confusion, then there is a smug bitch, and then—there is nothing.
Recently, on a Buddhist-based news feed I follow, where people diss each other to an alarming degree, someone complained about the “I’m better than you because I’m so spiritual” vibe prevalent in some circles. Then the complaint came closer to home: A friend told me she found me to be “too Buddhist and aloof.” The proximity of these two events gave me food for thought: Has mindfulness made me a bitch?
“Bitch” is a very popular word in our colloquial lexicon these days. I’ve seen it applied both positively and negatively to men, women, ideas, events, and even motorbikes. In this case I’m using it in two ways. First, to get your attention—did it work?—and second, to describe what I consider a gender-neutral manifestation of the ego: the know-it-all.
Before I started practicing meditation, I didn’t know if I was coming or going. Multiple answers came and went, but the question of what life was all about kept rolling around like a loose marble on my hamster wheel of a mind. I actively sought guidance.
My quest for wisdom began with an audience with a famous Hindu teacher. The room was packed and people were chanting. I was told that when the swami touched my head with a peacock feather, I would receive clarity. It was difficult not to admire his followers. They were all smiling brightly and looked like they had “the answer.” I stood in line, offered some fruit, got bopped with the feather, and it was immediately crystal clear: I was, indeed, confused.
So how did all this lead to bitchiness? Well, let’s start with a process, a from-here-to-there, a classic Zen teaching on the path to awakening: Before enlightenment, the mountains are mountains. Then as one seeks, the mountains are not mountains. And after enlightenment, the mountains are mountains. Only my version is: “First there is confusion, then there is a smug bitch—and then there is nothing.” Stay with me.
I brought that full dump-truck load of confusion to the meditation cushion when I finally found an environment sufficiently compelling to get me to stop, sit, and look at my mind. My very first introduction to meditation was offered by an extremely pregnant, good-humored young woman. No fanfare. No fruit. I was one of a bunch of beginners, and the teaching was straightforward and down-to-earth. I was all in.
We were told to sit in a comfortable, alert posture and follow the breath. Whenever a thought arose, we were to notice it, label it “thinking,” and gently return our awareness to our breathing, with particular attention on the out breath. Easy peasy! A gong was struck to begin each session, and when the sound faded, we were left to our own experience.
Once I entered the practice, I had very little awareness of anything else. Easy vanished after the first 10 minutes, and I was overwhelmed by a tsunami of self-created nightmares, looping desires, and unbridled ambitions, and an ocean of sadness that rose and fell, and rose and fell, ad nauseam. If you have never been there, if you didn’t experience a meltdown during the early stages of meditation practice, then maybe you were picking flowers. I found myself digging down into the grubby, murky convolutions of memory and impulse—the manure, so to speak, that flowery little everyday thoughts grow on top of. Just the sheer number of thoughts was alarming! I had a manic mind of thoughts, and it took hours, weeks, months of sitting meditation to settle even just a bit.
Thankfully there was consistent guidance at this stage. I was assigned a personal meditation instructor I could meet with regularly to talk about my experiences. No matter what came up, I was frequently and kindly reminded to return to my breath, again and again and again. When I finally lifted my head out of the cesspool of swirling light and dark, so many things had happened. I’d looked into forbidden corners, and I’d brought myself back from the endlessly twining entrails of my imagination. Thoughts had been released and emotions had dissolved. The process was visceral: great heart swells, deep sighs, tears, pain, and surprising spaces in between. I felt like a tiny shoot struggling out of the earth into the air for the first time. It was a moment accompanied by a distinct flash of joy…