October 22, 2008

Wise Woman Inner Buddha

The Girl Who Cried Epiphany posted recently about something that one of her wise woman role models shared with her:
Another gem from this woman from Cork was about turning to “the woman at the head of the table,” the noble creature who keeps order over all of the other characters that make up the personality. One needn’t worry about being swept away by the part of herself that is too bossy or too conceited or too insecure when she can trust one woman to sit regally and keep everyone in check with a kind, firm hand. That woman at the head of the table, of course, is the finest expression of yourself, the one with the clarity and the discipline to show your best face to the world.
This got me excitedly thinking about the wise woman I have come to call my inner Buddha. Read on for more about how I discovered her and a simple formula for calling out your own wisdom.

I've participated in a number of 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreats at the Dhama Dhara center in Western Massachusetts (check them out - free courses, including delicious vegetarian meals and good accommodations, entirely supported by unsolicited philanthropy from people who have previously sat a course) speaking only to the assistant teachers and course manager for the duration of the course, and then only about the practice or the facilities as necessary.

During my first few retreats I think I asked the assistant teachers at least one question at every available time to do so. Without realizing it, I was the twenty questions girl, constantly asking for reassurance that I was doing this whole thing "right."

The answers was always the same to me, and to others whose questions I could hear during open question times - return to the practice. Vipassana is all about maintaining equanimity while observing the breath and physical sensations on the body. Not too complicated.

Almost every question we students ask at these retreats fit into at least one of two categories:
  • Our craving for reassurance and validation
    ("I know I'm supposed to just observe sensation right now, and I'm feeling sensation everywhere...is that all right?" comes up a lot)
  • Our aversion to sitting in silence with only ourselves for counsel
A few days into my most recent retreat, I finally saw my frequent question asking for what it was and committed to rely on myself for the answers when questions came up. Instead of letting someone else do it, I told myself to start again, to observe my breath and sensation, and do whatever it took to maintain my equanimity. And I decided to wait until the end of the course to ask any questions, if they still remained with me.

And for the first time I made my own decisions about my own practice. At my most daring, I chose to break the rules and "do it wrong" at one point, which, as it turned out, was doing it right after all.

Quick background - a few days into these courses, once new students have some experience with the practice, three one-hour long sits each day are designated as sittings of strong determination. The idea is to sort of build the muscle that enabled the Buddha to sit down at that bodhi tree with a strong determination not to get up until he was enlightened.

Students are asked to choose a position and to meditate for the hour without opening our eyes, hands, or feet (back and neck adjustments are totally fine). New students usually take multiple attempts before they succeed in remaining still for the full hour.

But what did I do when I attended my first retreat? I powered through it, completely ignoring the teaching that emphasized equanimity in my effort to succeed. I silently sobbed and panicked through the full hour long sit, but damn it, I wasn't changing my position. And afterward, I really thought I'd done what I was supposed to do. I thought so for years.

So back to this most recent retreat. Over time, the strong determination sits became easier, and many had passed by then in simple meditation. But here and there, I would experience an hour like that first one. And one such hour reared its head during this retreat.

Newly tuned in to my inner Buddha, I moved during a sitting of strong determination for the first time ever. Buddha's teachings on meditation focus on developing self-reliance as we discover our own Buddha nature. My inner buddha, it turned out, was an incredibly wise woman. When she sensed that I was about to become unhinged within the confines of my own body even as I sat still for an hour, she gently told me to move. To fail. To be at peace with doing it wrong in order to retain the calm equanimity that was so much more important than proving I could sit still for a long time.

So I did. Because I had muted the voice that always asks for external explanation and direction, I was finally tuned into this amazing woman, this inner Buddha who really is me.

But hey, I'm also a human, and not currently of the fully enlightened variety. I did look for some reassurance from my assistant teacher after the course had ended, telling her that I knew what I had done was the best thing for me and my practice when I did it, wondering if she agreed, and acknowledging that I knew asking her was a demonstration of my craving for external validation and approval. Gentle as she is, she laughingly provided encouragement, saying that all of this is part of walking the path...

When I remember to ask and listen to my inner Buddha, "the woman at the head of the table" sitting regally and keeping everyone else "in check with her firm, kind hand," things go along much more peacefully, and nowhere is this more true than with parenting. When the frenetic do-er voice pipes up in my head, telling me that my son Kai is taking too long to nurse to sleep, or should be happier playing nearby on his own while I do dishes or cook a meal, she is the one who reminds me to surrender to this moment, to connection, and to love. To meet the moment and my child where they are at with what they require of me. My inner Buddha is also my own earth mama - the sagest of sage mothers out there.

So here's today's formula. I don't know for sure whether it will work for you - but it always works for me when I need to hear my own "woman at the head of the table":
  • Get rid of any background noise and set your cell phone to silent. Better yet, turn it off.
  • Find a comfy place to sit or lie down. Then sit or lie down there.
  • Pay attention to your breath. Notice how it feels in your nostrils and on your face. Don't try to change or name its pattern, just pay attention to it like a scientist observing its subject.
  • Ask your buddha if s/he's there. Then ask what you should be doing at this very moment. Then do it. Even if the answer surprises you or is different than what you think it "should" be.
If you try this, let me know how it goes. I adore comments and also e-mails (lauren dot bellon at gmail dot com).

Photo Credit: Zevotron @ flickr


Anonymous said...

What a great post, and what an honor to have my ideas help shape what you wrote.
I am not even at the meditation baby stage yet, more like a meditation zygote, and your words were really helpful. I think that as I am exposed to all different traditions I start to get confused by the places where contemplation, prayer, and meditation all overlap. Surely that is just an example of how I am not ready to let go of my ever vigilant "do-er."
Again, I am so glad that our writing has influenced each other's, and I am so glad to have found a fellow journeyer.


(Oh, and P.S. I think there is something a little funky with the link you included to my blog... it doesn't seem to work).

GooberMonkey said...

Thanks, Marisa...for the your thoughts and for letting me know about the link - it's repaired now. I hear you on all the different traditions. For the moment, I have stuck with one yoga tradition (ashtanga) and one meditation tradition (vipassana), and think there's a lot of value in not hopping around a lot. I've been with both of these long enough now, though 5 years with vipassana, still the zygote/baby phase, but comfortable with the way that it works, and 7 or 8 years with ashtanga) that I am feeling ready to start exploring a few other traditions to get a better sense of how my own practices fit into a larger whole...not sure if that makes sense exactly, but it's where I'm at right now. It's amazing to me that even within "yoga" and "buddhism" or "christianity" or any tradition, there are so many paths and ways of practicing...

I'm also glad to have encountered you!