Sunday, July 13, 2008

Discovering how turbulence clouds your mind and heart

Needless to say, when you’re experiencing inner turbulence, you may find it difficult to connect with being when you sit down to meditate. Sometimes, of course, you may have moments when your mind just settles by itself and you can see all the way down to the bottom of the lake. (To use another nature metaphor, think of those overcast days when the cloud cover suddenly parts and the sun shines through with all its warmth and radiance.) These moments may be marked by feelings of inner peace and tranquility, upsurges of love and joy, or intimations of your oneness with life. But most of the time, you may feel like you’re doing a breaststroke through muddy water.
Well, the turbulence and confusion you encounter when you meditate doesn’t suddenly materialize on cue. It’s there all along, clouding your mind and heart and acting as a filter that obscures your clear seeing. You may experience it as an inner claustrophobia or density — you’re so full of your own emotions and opinions that you have no room for the ideas and feelings of others, or even for any new or unfamiliar ideas and feelings that may well up inside you. Or you may get so caught up in your drama that you’re not even

aware that you’re filtering your experience. For example, I have a friend, a computer programmer, who received plenty of love and support as a child. Now, as an adult, he thinks of himself as inherently competent and worthy, even though he’s no Steve Jobs. As a result, he enjoys his career, experiences only minimal anxiety when he makes work related decisions, sees others as inherently supportive, and exudes a palpable self-confidence that draws others to him and invites them to trust him. By contrast, I have another friend, an independent entrepreneur, who has several advanced degrees and has taken countless work-related trainings but who believes deep down that he’s inherently unworthy. No matter how hard he works, he can’t seem to get ahead. Besides, he doesn’t really enjoy his work because he’s constantly anxious that he may fail, and he imagines that others are conspiring to undermine or discredit him.

In each case, the way my friend views himself and interprets what’s going on around him determines whether he’s happy or stressed out. As these examples indicate, it’s the inner turbulence and confusion through which you filter and distort your experiences — not the experiences themselves — that causes most of your suffering and stress. The good news is that meditation can teach you how to calm the troubled waters of your mind and heart, turn some of your inner claustrophobia into inner spaciousness, and find your way past your filters (or avoid them altogether) so you can experience life more directly — and reduce your stress in the process. But before I describe how meditation delivers these goodies, let me explain in some detail how suffering and stress occur in the first place.

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