It’s Sunday, and I just got back from the community meditation service at Portland Insight Meditation Center. I was tired and grumpy and whiny and the meditation sucked arse because I was either falling asleep or having mild panic attacks about money, both of which made me want to crawl out of my skin. The nice thing about insight meditation (also known as vipassana meditation for those who like to know the groovy Sanskrit names of things) is that you can’t really do it wrong – if you’re having an arse-sucking meditation full of tiredness and whiny-ness and Grumpy Eeyore crap attitude, rather than seeing it as a failure to get your ohm on you can view it as an opportunity to observe tiredness and whiny-ness and Grumpy Eeyore crap attitude. Which, as it turns out, is kind of interesting.
For instance, I observed a strong desire to either shimmy under the bench and take a nap or leave the center so that I could go look at my finances and worry about them in a more focused manner. In the grand scheme of things, the outlandish ridiculous childish thing (taking a nap under the bench in a public place because I am grumpy) would probably be more helpful and less destructive than the supposedly normal adult thing (staring at numbers and freaking out because they are small-ish) because while a nap would have the effect of reducing my grumpiness, no amount of palpitating about my finances is going to increase my bank account. In the end I did neither, and I walked out kind of chuckling to myself about what a po-faced weenie I can be sometimes. And that was, in its own weird way, a valuable insight.
A couple of weeks ago I had a similar opportunity to observe a seemingly intolerable emotional process and learn something from it, the tale of which I shall now recount.
To lay the foundation I must tell you that I have some body problems. Besides a zillion miscarriages and endometriosis and ruptured ovarian cysts and a whole host of other catastrophic ladypart issues I have bursitis in my hips and tendonitis in my right arm/shoulder, which can make it very difficult to sit upright without a chair back for very long. When I first started meditating at home I would lay on the floor because breathing could be difficult with all my core muscles wonking out to compensate for the effed up hips and shoulder. The first few Sundays at Portland Insight I’d sort of tucked myself into the back of the room and lain down while the guided meditation and subsequent lecture was going on, and no one had mentioned anything so I didn’t think anything of it. One Sunday I thought I’d get a little more involved and tried sitting up on some cushions in the center of the room like the pros do. I got a bunch of cushions and shoved them wherever things felt iffy and settled in. It very quickly became incredibly painful, but it was a great way to practice noticing sensations without clinging, right?
When the meditation was over I stayed where I was and propped the pillows under my head so I could lie down and rest my hips and back and shoulder, which were now kind of yelling at me. The director of the center started the lecture (about impermanence and present moment, good stuff) and I was enjoying it. Then out of the blue he looked right at me and asked, “Would you mind sitting up?” I was totally shocked and mortified and awkwardly started sitting up, and then he said “Unless you need it for your back, in which case stay down.”
I spluttered that I do indeed have back problems and was it ok if I stayed where I was, and he said again that it was fine and then noticed with a laugh that he had forgotten to take his shoes off (which you’re totally ‘posta do). He made a joke about how bare feet aren’t any more spiritual than shoes and if some people needed their shoes on that was ok too. That was it. That was the whole thing. I went back to lying down and he went back to his talk.
And I began to slowly implode with shame.
Like an avalanche, like a riptide it took me, so violently that I barely heard anything else for the next 15 minutes. People must think I’m rude. He must think I’m rude. I had no idea this was a rule – is it a rule? If so, why is it a rule? Is it some kind of respect thing, like I’m being disrespectful? How the hell was I supposed to know that? I felt so comfortable here and now maybe I can’t come back. Can you get kicked out of a meditation community for lying down during the Dharma talk? God, look at everyone else, sitting up with their straight backs and their strong core muscles and their nice clear minds, and I’m over here all broken and fucked up being disrespectful in some way I didn’t even know about. And EVERYONE is looking at me. CLEARLY.
I had a sudden flashback to 3rd grade, when Mrs. Uyeda with the one scary permanently raised eyebrow would bring my math workbook up to the front of the class to show everyone the pages I hadn’t done. That burning, that sinking, that feeling of being trapped paralyzed in the chair with no good way out of that endless, torturous moment. That shame. Oh god, that shame.
And all the other kids around me are smart and can pay attention, they’re clean and loved and not dying of fear all the time. Their houses are safe and their parents are sober and help them with their math homework instead of yelling and nobody beats them or punches holes in doors when they try to get away. Their teeth aren’t ugly and gapped and their fingers aren’t bitten bloody and their insides aren’t rotting and corrupted with whatever this thing is inside of me that makes me so, so weird and bad and unlovable.
And in the meditation hall I could feel all this happening, could feel the stinging shameful tears starting behind my eyes and my breath going ragged with the effort of keeping it together as my brain catapulted me backward in time with the force of a sci-fi blockbuster. And I kept reminding myself that what I was feeling was totally ok because it was what I was feeling, and that it was transient, and that it didn’t define me because the past is not happening right now, in the present, in THIS present where I am safe and loved and loving and he said it was ok and anyway nobody is probably even fucking thinking about me anymore because I am not actually as important as all that, for fuck’s sake.
And I started to get a hold of it – or no, to NOT hold it, to just let it through and let it go. It was the end of the talk and he asked if anyone had any questions. A woman asked about how to stay mindful with her 2 year old. And I fell apart again.
As he spoke, answering the woman’s question beautifully, he got choked up for a moment talking about the incredible heartbreaking power of parents’ love for their children. I felt my belly ripped apart with the ache, the longing, the unbearable knowledge that I will never know that love. I will never hold my own baby and watch it grow and have my heart broken by it. All the old alienation returned, enthroned like a sainted idol in a feast day procession, flanked by the clean, safe, unbloodied children in my 3rd grade classroom and all the normal people with their normal bodies that do normal things sitting in normal positions all around the room. Everything I am not. Everything I am not. Everything I am not.
Holy shit, that shit is powerful.
I managed to stay in the room. I didn’t flee; I let tears and snot run down my face because there was nothing I could do about it. I tried to be as silent as possible because I didn’t want anyone to notice me and try to comfort me. The director noticed, I’m fairly sure of it, and he said a couple of things that suggested that he was trying to make space for whatever incomprehensible shit was going on with that new woman who was lying down and is now sitting up with tears and snot running down her face. I can’t remember what they were but I noticed them. I even managed to stay through the part where everybody stands up in a circle and holds hands and chants stuff, although that was mainly because by the time I’d made it back to the door it was already blocked by hand-holding people and it was either hold hands or bust through them running, and I thought the former would be far less disruptive. When it was over I walked to my car with my whole face flowing, drove home with my whole face flowing, and my whole face continued flowing as I went through my day trying to synthesize and learn from what had happened.
What I took from it was this:
Shame is one of the most powerful hallucinogens on Earth. It can literally warp your perception of reality and make you absolutely, unequivocally sure that you know what the people around you think or will think if the object of your shame becomes known. It is also incredibly narcissistic, casting you as the star of your very own diabolical horror movie because of course, you are so important that everyone else is going to expend their hard-earned time and energy thinking shitty thoughts about you. And we become wasteful ourselves – the incredible acrobatics we go through to mitigate shame, intellectualize it, avoid it, repress it, become rageful in defense against it, are all extravagantly unnecessary because shame, like all other emotions, is a transient state that does not define us. As real as it feels in the moment, it’s a delusion. In the end it’s all ok, because we are where we are and we’re allowed to be exquisitely kind and compassionate toward ourselves, even when we are covered in tears and snot because a total stranger asked us to change position.