Sally Kempton: Living from the center
A month after I started meditating, I went home to visit my mother. This was back in the day—only a few years after the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, and caused a storm of mostly satirical press commentary. Meditation was still considered an activity for eccentrics and hippies, and my secular humanist mother found my insistence on sitting every morning hilarious at best. In the mornings, while I was sitting in meditation, she would walk past my closed door every few minutes and call out, “Aren’t you done yet?”
I rolled with it on Saturday. But on Sunday, when she knocked on the door for the third time in twenty minutes, I lost it. Bursting with anger, I got up from my seat, opened the door, looked at my mother and said, “Can’t you leave me alone?” And my mother smiled a ‘Gotcha!” kind of smile and said, “I knew you hadn’t become a saint.”
That was the moment when I realized that effective meditation practice is not just what you do when you’re sitting on the mat. It’s also about how you react when your loved ones (and not so loved ones) do all those things that have historically annoyed or frustrated you. It’s not that meditation will turn you into a saint overnight. (The fact that you haven’t turned into a saint is one of the best reasons to keep on meditating!) Yet, one of the gifts that meditation can give you is the ability to use certain inner skills—skills like self-inquiry, substituting a loving thought for an angry one, gentleness, and especially the insight to notice a reactive emotion before you act on it—in difficult moments.
Meditation is for living. The inner practice is meant to radiate outward until your whole life becomes an ongoing training in living from your own center. As the intrinsic alchemy of meditation works…
its subtle changes in your consciousness and character, it simultaneously challenges you to take action on what you are becoming—to bring your meditative skills, insights, and experiences into the rest of your life.
The strength of your practice is tested in every single moment and interaction. Are you able to bring the love you experienced in meditation into your actions? Are you able to stay in touch with Awareness when you are working, when you are moving into a new house, or when someone you care for disappoints you? Are you speaking and moving from that deeper level of being, or are you on automatic pilot, perhaps even doing the right thing but with no sense of contact with your deeper being, no access to its inspiration and love?
Certainly there will be times when the inner world with its inspiration and broader vision seems to be at your fingertips, moments when love sweeps over you all on its own. You may suddenly find yourself in the state called “flow,” acting unerringly without any apparent effort and with a quiet mind. The witness may rise up in the midst of an argument or crisis, holding you steady and poised in a situation where you would ordinarily go off the emotional deep end.
You might have mornings when the world shimmers with sacredness, when you find meaning in the blown leaves on the sidewalk, when the newspapers in the gutter seem to pulsate with the overflow of your own happiness. You will experience the ongoing magic of synchronicity, when a conversation overheard on the bus or a message seen on a billboard seems to give subtle spiritual teachings. At such times, work is transmuted into worship, and a walk in the woods turns into a processional up the nave of a cathedral.
Yet there will be other moments, many of them, when the gifts of meditation are there only if you work for them. The mere fact that you meditate will not suddenly make you immune to psychological pain. It won’t eliminate mood swings, feelings of inadequacy, or problems with other people. In fact, people who meditate can be just as subject to ups and downs as anyone else. The major differences lie in their attitude toward their mood and tendencies and in the resources they have to deal with them. When sadness, anger, and frustration arise, they have learned how to separate their intrinsic sense of self from their moods and feelings. They know that a core part of them is untouched by the emotional weather. Not only that, they have learned some skills in meditation that can help them through a difficult encounter or a mental traffic jam. They have more choices about how they deal with their feelings, how they work with the desires, fears, and crises, which might otherwise derail them.
Living from our own center takes effort, but it is also exciting. When we see life as an ongoing spiritual training, we live inside a view that lends significance to even the most ordinary interactions. We don’t think so much in terms of winning or losing, success or failure. Instead there is only the training, the consistent effort to come back to the love and lucidity we carry inside and to bring the values of the inner world into our outer actions.
This, then, is the second level of practice: the waking practice of staying in touch with our center, cultivating our character, contemplating and learning from the situations life presents to us, and discovering the techniques, teachings, disciplines, and forms of open-eyed practice that will allow us to live from the developing awareness of the Self.
Maintaining Inner Attention
In the Shaiva yogic tradition of northern India, an enlightened being is said to live in shambhavi mudra, a state in which, even when her eyes are open, her attention is centered in the inner field of unchanging luminous Awareness. This is a powerful depiction of the enlightened state; it is also a key to open-eyed practice. Open-eyed practice is a kind of “as if” game. You are practicing to be an enlightened being by acting and thinking as you would if you were actually in that state. A key practice for this is to maintain inner awareness—a steady current of attentiveness to your own Awareness, to the sense of being or Presence that you tune into when you turn attention back on itself.
Like most essential practices, this one is extremely simple without being at all easy. Inner attentiveness has a frustrating way of dissolving at crucial moments, when you are worried, excited, or under pressure. Even on ordinary days, you naturally move in and out of it, since that essential Awareness tends to be experienced in flashes, in glimpses that come and go. That is why it is helpful to work with different practices at different moments. At times you will face directly into the light of Awareness. At other times you will approach it sideways, through the breath, a positive thought, or even a physical posture.
To maintain inner attention in a steady way demands a threefold effort:
First of all, you need a set of practices for inner focus or remembering the Self. They should be practices that work for you, and you need to do them regularly.
Second, you need to be doing “character work,” examining your motives and attitudes and learning how to express the qualities of the Self—compassion, gentleness, kindness, steady wisdom, truthfulness, and the rest.
Third, you need to develop the habit of checking in with yourself to monitor your state so that you can recognize when you have slipped off center and then discover how to return.
Many meditation practices—practices like mantra repetition, awareness of Awareness, focus on the inner witness, attention to the breath, seeing thoughts as energy—are also meant to be practiced in day-to-day situations. So are the different attitudes you work with when you meditate. Just as you can begin meditation by offering your practice to God, or for the benefit of others, you can also offer your daily actions as service and see how that simple act shifts you out of self-centeredness and unknots the tendency to grasp at outcomes.
Your sitting practice of becoming aware of Awareness, or being the witness of your thoughts, can become an inner baseline that you return to during the day. It helps you move out of heavy emotions, distractions, or neurotic thinking patterns. Remembering oneness, holding the understanding that the seemingly solid world is essentially energy, will let you act in the world with more openness and fluidity, and with a sense of your kinship with others, with nature, and even with inanimate objects like your computer or your car.
It can be helpful to create set times in your schedule for your practice of mantra repetition, awareness of Awareness, or remembering oneness. You could make offering your actions, thoughts, and feelings a daily ritual at the beginning and end of the workday. You could make a habit of remembering to place your attention in your heart once every hour, or you could set your wrist alarm to ring five minutes before the hour, and then use that five minutes to bring to mind a teaching you are contemplating, or to ask yourself a question like “What would love do now?” or “What would kindness do now?”
You might work with a different practice every day until you find the practice or practices that feel like yours, and then spend some time exploring them deeply. As you practice this open-eyed meditation, you will see its effects. First of all, you should feel more integrated. There will be less of a gap between sitting meditation and the rest of your day. It will be easier to go into meditation when you sit; and you should need to spend less time “deprogramming” yourself from the stresses of the day. Then, during your waking, working hours, there should be a certain sweetness to life, a sense of openness and space in your world. You’ll find yourself feeling closer to others, less afraid, calmer, and more inspired.
During anxious moments, busy days, and periods when life seems to be caving in on you, these practices can become a real refuge. They help you stabilize your state.