“If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could
have a pretty good time.” ~Edith Wharton
Eighteen years ago a well-known Zen Master
accepted me as a long distance student.
In one of our first email exchanges I wrote, “Dear Teacher, I am trying to sit every day for thirty minutes and in my practice I am trying to follow my breath.”
“Please,” he wrote back, “stop trying. You are your breath.”
I remember reading his words and feeling
perplexed, confused, almost annoyed.
What in the world did he mean?
Wasn’t it obvious that we had no choice but to be our breath?
Weren’t we all breathing beings?
And how did “being breath” in the end relate to my life, to my meditation, to my hope of becoming a better human being.
When my teacher’s words arrived, getting to my meditation mat was a huge effort.
Once I finally managed to get to the meditation
mat, I would set the timer and start counting my
breath: one (breathe in), two (breathe out), three (breathe in), four (breathe out), five (breathe in), six (breathe out), seven (breathe in)…
Needless to say, my thoughts would
immediately jump in and I would find myself
losing track of my breath and my counting.
I would have to start back from number one,
only to see the distractions appear all over
I don’t remember ever getting to number
Not only was carving out thirty minutes for
meditation a huge effort, even the apparently
simple task of counting the breaths revealed itself to be an exhausting endeavour.
I knew at an intuitive level that it shouldn’t have
been like that—I knew that my teacher was right—but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I was doing wrong.
It took me eight years, and many major life crises, failures, losses, and divorce to understand the meaning of his words.
Now that my life has fallen apart like I never
thought it would or could, I know what my Zen
teacher meant: I was trying too hard.
I can now see that in my meditation I was not
actually “following” my breath.
I was trying, very hard, to catch it.
I was chasing it. I was trying to grasp it, trying to hold onto it, trying to make it fit into my orderly numbered, counting boxes.
I was trying so hard to reign it in. I was trying so hard to control it.
Once I realised that, it only took a moment of self- honesty and one quick look at myself to see how that same impulse to control my breath was
operating in all aspects of my life.
I was “trying” to be a good man and always
promptly responded to needs of others, even when their needs could have probably waited just a bit longer—enough, maybe, to give me a chance to finish a chore or a much treasured cup of tea.
I was “trying” to be a good man and “tried” to
always be available for conversation, even when all I wanted and most needed was some quiet time to myself or simply some peace to concentrate on cooking my dinner.
I was “trying” to be the do-it-all man and took on a full-time teaching job, one hour away, while still teaching evening music classes.
I was “trying” to keep the social life of the family rich and fun and took on social commitments during the weekend even though most of it needed to be spent cleaning my house or going to a walk.
Just like I did with my breathing, I was chasing
my life in the attempt to reign it in, to catch it,
to grasp it in the hope of gaining some control
It took a messy divorce and loss of my financial security, two moves in less then a year, financial
uncertainty, and more losses of friends to finally
admit that I just could not “try” anymore.
I could no longer make my life unfold the way I
wanted it to unfold or make it look the way I
thought it should look.
I could no longer “try” to make people happy; I
could no longer be what I thought they wanted me to be.
I desperately wanted healing, and yet I didn’t even have the physical strength or the mental clarity to begin to mend the broken pieces of my shattered life.
Unlike other financially stable people, I could not take off and go on a meditation retreat in India in the hope to find my own lost self; my cat and dogs needed me.
Nor could I go to Sychelles to be with my
friends who had gone there on vacation.
Instead, I found myself completely alone after
having lost the entire social circle I shared in my failed marriage, and after moving to a small apartment in a struggling small rural town where I had no connections whatsoever.
There, I had no choice but to confront my
brokenness and aloneness; there I had to accept all the limitations of my new life, and as Charles
Bukowski says in his poem “Alone,” there, I had to learn my walls, I had to accept them and learn to love them.
It turned out that for me the only way out of
my darkness was not to escape it but to plunge
right into it.
Among the walls of my apartment I found myself gravitating to the mat again only to find out this time that I couldn’t even physically sit.
I had so much emotional pain stuck in my abdomen and chest that I couldn’t even feel my breathing.
Since the only way I could become aware of my
breath was by lying down, I decided to meditate in a supine position, shavasana style.
Once I gave myself the permission to do that,
something great happened: I experienced gravity, and gravity held me and healed me.
My abdomen relaxed; I could finally feel my belly muscles rising and falling; I could finally feel my breath.
With gravity’s healing support, I could then observe the breath; I could notice it, witness it.
In my brokenness I had to finally let go of
control, surrendered to whatever my life was
and had become, trusting that the breath of
life would take me where I needed to be, every
day, every moment.
That was only few years ago and now I am finally able to sit on my meditation pillow.
Following the breath is also quite a different
When I sit, I am able to be a viewer, an observer.
I watch my breath, I watch what it’s doing, I observe its rhythm, its ups and downs, its
ins and outs, and I just let it be. I accept it with all its irregularities. I just let it do its thing.
I am not sure yet how all of this is getting played out in my life.
One thing I have learned, however, is that letting go of how we think our life should be
and letting ourselves fall, maybe even backward, into radical self-acceptance and radical self-love are gifts to be treasured—even if those gifts come through harsh life lessons and losses.
Some of us were lucky enough to come into the
world with those gifts built into our system.
Some of us have to consciously make an effort and work hard at cultivating them—sometimes at creating them, sculpting them from the raw matter of our mistakes and failures, inventing them out of nothingness because nothing or too little was given to us.
But that, in my opinion, is where it’s worth trying.
That is an effort worth making—one that will not assure us of a smooth ride but that might bring us to a place of inner peace, joy, appreciation, and gratitude, where a lasting transformation might actually happen.
And then, after we stop trying so hard to chase
“happiness,” to control life and make it look the way it ought to look, then we can probably begin to have a pretty good time.
Just some random thoughts that came to my mind….©Profarms’ Random Thoughts®