the deep end: developing meditative awareness while moving through hard times
“If you penetrate to the core of your aloneness you will not only find yourself, there will also be this unknown boundless presence. Is it you? Is it other than you? What is it? An unknown, boundless presence at the very core of your aloneness. No matter how deep you go, you’ll find it there.” – Michael Eigen from the book, The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein, M.D.
“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind - you are the one who hears it.” Michael A. Singer from his book, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself
On a sticky afternoon a few weeks ago, as I was nursing a cold, I lounged in a chair poolside in my in-laws' backyard. Colds in the summer suck. As I was looking longingly at the cool and inviting water, I noticed my son wasn’t swimming even though it was sweltering, and my husband and daughter were splashing happily in the pool. He told me he wasn't swimming because he didn’t like the deep end and because he feared getting "sucked in."
Because I am driven to understand what helps people move through major traumatic events and turn them into experiences of growth and healing - and because I needed a “light” summer read - I had just finished a book called The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein, a practicing psychiatrist and Buddhist scholar.
When my son mentioned the deep end, I instantaneously thought of the book and the nature of the mind and how it resembles a pool. I, too, have feared being sucked in, both by deep water as well as by my crazy meandering mind.
It may feel intimidating to take the plunge and dive into the deep end, but when we do, we are often gifted with cool, refreshing freedom. We can plunge deeper and hear only silence. It is peaceful but fleeting as we must come back up for air. It is similar to meditation in this way. Often when we sit, we have very brief moments of the space between our thoughts before the next one pops up. But this this space, whether it is in a pool or during a moment of silence, whispers calm reassurance that there is nothing to fear and that we are never truly alone.
How do we know that we are never alone? Maybe we receive a glimpse of it during seated meditation or maybe we hear, see, or feel a gentle touch from an angel on our shoulder. Maybe in the profound depths of our hearts, we just know.
But no matter what the experience is that we are having, we learn that we are something other than the experience itself…something deeper than the mundane and beyond the bubbly agitation and sadness.
We come to understand what many meditation teachers refer to as the witness – the one who simply observes the thoughts and feelings without attachment, judgment, or the desire to change them. The one who hears and the one who sees.
This witness, or what may very well be the soul, feels to me like a benevolent, neutral, and casual observer. It does not get caught up in the drama whether that drama is excitement or anguish. It is steady, comforting, and omnipresent. And it is available to us all.
One of the most helpful pieces of information in Epstein’s book is his explanation of meditative awareness. He discusses that the appearance of the many unpleasant thoughts and feelings that sometimes surface during meditation, while the cause of much frustration, fear, and shame, are actually a positive sign. He believes that these are often among the first indications of the opening of the internal landscape and that, “They stop being obstacles when we learn to hold them in meditative awareness.”
This holding, I believe, is key, like gently cupping something sacred in the palm of your hand such as a delicate flower or ladybug. Eventually the flower drops or the ladybug flies away, and you are simply left with the beauty and simplicity of your open hand. And heart.
Because it may feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable to pay attention to unpleasant feelings or disturbing thoughts, we often distract ourselves or ignore them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do much to help us cultivate awakening or the ability to move through our pain and suffering.
Michael Eigen, a psychotherapist referenced in The Trauma of Everyday Life, writes, “Relief comes, in part, when we stop fending off the unpleasant and allow it to be an equal part of the experience."
And Epstein echoes this, writing, “Shutting down one kind of feeling inevitably shuts down all of them. In protecting ourselves from the unbearable affect of trauma, we also close ourselves off from love, joy, and empathy. Our humanity resides in our feelings, and we reclaim our humanity when we direct our curiosity at that which we would prefer to avoid.”
Post - traumatic growth (PTG) is the name given to the study of how people change and evolve in profound ways after experiencing trauma. David Feldman, PhD, who has just co-authored a book on the subject called, Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, says, "Trauma survivors who experience PTG acknowledge their own sadness, suffering, anger, and grief and are realistic about what happened to them. But in the midst of their pain, they are able to ask: Given where I am in my life, how can I build the best possible future?"
In my quest to develop meditative awareness and also build the best possible future, I created a list of what I have found to be the most helpful. Let me be honest, I am a work in progress. And sometimes it feels like all work and no progress. And sometimes I just feel like a piece of work. Nevertheless, here are some proven ways to develop meditative awareness and hold a healing space while moving through hard times.
1. Not being “busy” all of the time and creating moments for quiet and stillness…pause. breathe. Create opportunities during your day to stop and notice what you are feeling and thinking.
2. Noticing thoughts and feelings without being attached or judging them. They are not you, they do not define you, they are just as fleeting as the next passing thunderstorm.
3. Identifying feelings by naming them. By naming our feelings, we acknowledge them and only then can we move through them. Ignoring or repressing them makes them more persistent.
4. Validating feelings (even if no one else does.) This means honoring your feelings even if no one else understands or can relate to your experience.
5. Write a list of all of your support people. You know the people in your life that you feel "get" you and don't judge you...make a list of them, the ones you go to when you are sad or angry or need to vent. This list includes therapists, healers, doctors, etc.
6. Practice cultivating "the witness" – the part of us that observes with neutrality and a patient presence. “It’s not what you are experiencing that is important, it’s how you relate to it that matters."
7. When welcoming quiet to the mind and heart, remember the goal is not to clear the head and heart! This is impossible, you will always have thoughts and feelings. When in meditation, just notice the little gaps and spaces suspended between thoughts...it can feel as weightless and lovely as floating in a pool.
And, just as no diet is right for every body, no way of life is right for every soul. We all have different tools and techniques that work for us whether it is how we learn to go on after a traumatic event or simply how we deal with every day fears and hassles. It is about opening up, getting curious, and learning how to hold enough space for you to be you. Perhaps it is a lot easier than you ever could have imagined or maybe it is harder, but you will never know unless you at least stick one little toe in the deep end and give it a try.