You don't need to have a perfect situation to develop your ability to be present in your everyday life. You don't have to be able to get into full lotus, or have a meaningful job that you enjoy, or to be a naturally serene person. I think you can make the primal connections you need to feel at ease right in the midst of terrible pain and suffering, high stress, paralyzing anxiety. You only need to break the bad mental habit of living your life as a slave to your opinions and fantasies or on automatic pilot. And to cultivate the skills necessary to actually be present during your ordinary life.

How Meditation Can Help:

The most important step in breaking free of a life dominated by stress and anxiety is to be present for what's actually happening rather than to be swept away with our ideas about what MIGHT happen to us later. Theres a difference between actually living an event, open to all the details of its immediacy, and thinking about it beforehand. Our heads know certain things but when we're present with our bodies, constantly receiving somatic information -- which our intellects might not even be aware of -- something magic happens: the situation becomes fuller and assumes an integrity our heads could not even comprehend. So much stress comes from our imaginings, our projections onto the future, rather than the reality of the experience. For example, I often fall into my apprehensions about the future, that I will eventually be confined to a wheelchair because of my rheumatoid arthritis. These thoughts cause me more anguish than I ever suffer in the present moment with my pain. This is why it's so important to set up your camp in the present moment and give yourself permission not to know what will happen next or how you will deal with the next moment. At least right now you are safe and coping with what's in front of you.

Ironically when you give yourself permission to be out of control -- in the sense that you don't know what you'll do next -- and you come into the present with all your thoughts and feelings available to you, things slow down so dramatically that you have a heightened sense of being in control. This is because you become aware of the more subtle aspects of the situation: your own physical sensations...a look on someones face, an inflection in a voice, body language. Because it cultivates this skill, the ability to return to immediate experience rather than stay in your preconceived ideas, Meditation also dramatically increases your options in any stressful situation. When you pay attention to what is happening right now, all of your resources come into the present with you; theyre not suppressed by the habits of thought that ususally block them. So the odds of your handling the situation with skill and positively influencing the flow of events are maximized, not minimized, by your conscious presence.

In the moment when you're actually having a stressful moment with someone else, a co-worker perhaps, you realize when you're actually having a confrontation -- your heart beating, your face flushed, your anger rising -- that you don't have to suppress your thoughts and feelings to prevent yourself from going out of control. You can feel threatened and hurt and angry without doing anything that will jeopardize your job. Being present you can see your thoughts and feelings for what they are: thoughts and feelings. They don't necessarily have to lead to action. You are free to think and feel anything you want; you are not free to haul off and hit someone. You are perfectly capable of making this distinction.

At first attempting to be more aware of the elements of your experience is like sticking a frail pole into a rushing river; it gets carried away by the current of your thoughts and fears. .Replacing your automatic reactions to stress with an attitude of open awareness is not easy; it requires a great deal of practice and cultivation. You will have to do it again and again before your meditation muscle is strong enough to take you through an entire crisis. At first you'll be lucky to get one breath's worth of relief, one moment of awareness when you register your heartbeat, flush, underarms, but you'll develop. After awhile you will develop a great deal of faith in your ability to hold your ground in difficult situations. Not necessarily with the wisdom of Solomon but with your own intelligence and sanity to which you now have much greater access.

A particularly helpful aspect of learning meditation is that it develops your ability to take a seat in your Body and Breath. Sense data is a stable reference point to anchor you. It is a constant stream you are always receiving from your eyes, ears, skin, etc. To focus on these without judgment as to whether they are bad or good, is to enter a world so rich, so varied, so inherently fascinating that you might wonder how you chose to spend most of your time in the world of thoughts and concepts when you have available to you this great delight right at hand. If you start to consciously spend time hanging out here, you might increase your odds of being able to return here when things get rough.

If you can tune into your breathing during stress, it will change your reference pointt for just a second, and you will find yourself just perceptibly refreshed by breath. It gives you a new perspective. It sets up an opportunity for the next pause to breathe and so on. My body and its sensations are how I personally experience my reality. My breath sets a rhythm for my actvity. I breathe in the world, then I breathe it out. I feel my body's yearnings as the wellspring of my own desire. Grounded in my body, I am able to distinguish generosity from obligation, need from avarice, appetite from obsession.

Stress Reduction Workshops:

At Hell's Gate: Practicing with All Kinds of Pain

Many of us have terrible suffering: grief, anxiety, depression, physical pain, or chronic illness. How do we deal with such difficult states of mind and body? Meditation practice encourages us to live rich and satisfying lives right in the middle of our misery. In this workshop we will acknowledge our individual suffering; examine how particular thoughts and feelings produce specific types of stress and pain; do gentle comforting movements; learn to recognize obstacles to concentration in our daily lives; and discuss the importance of specific types of pleasure and comfort in lives made difficult with recurring pain and stress.

To be scheduled. Watch Calendar for more information.

Zazen in Motion: A Stress Alleviation Strategy

The most important step in breaking free of a life dominated by stress and anxiety is to learn how to sink into the present with all of our senses and feelings available to us; then all of our personal resources come into the present with us. We can break the habit of "showing up" only for the moments that we think are worthwhile and then going numb for all the rest. Just as a muscle gets weak from disuse, our ability to be present fades if we don't practice awareness right in the midst of our goal-directed activity. During this afternoon of practice, we will use commonplace physical activities to develop meditative consciousness: gentle exercises that promote mental flexibility; talking meditation; eating meditation; and focusing the attention on a series of objects while walking.

To be scheduled. Watch Calendar for more information.

Good friends at Tassajara

Return to top

Home | About | Schedule | Quotes from Dharma Talks | Books & Tapes | Site Map | Contact

2006 Darlene Cohen. All rights reserved.