But how does being present and compassionate get things done?
Meditation practice fosters within us a sense of generosity and creativity. Spacious action arises out of those skillful impulses in whatever form is the clearest expression of our natural talents. Do we have the patience and persistence to sit until we are ripe and ready for skillful action? Do we feel we have the time and the permission to do so? Probably not! In our culture we are encouraged to ‘go for the gusto,’ to be goal-oriented, to plan for the future, to dream big, to ‘not stop ‘til we get enough,’ to ‘go for the Gold,’ ‘be all that we can be,’ etc. etc. Where in all these prompts to perfection, all these indications that we are not enough as we are, would be find room for simply sitting? And we come back to that question of how would we get anything done?
Gandhi is quoted as saying, "I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one."
How I wish I had heard that quote back in the early nineties when I went through an extended lapse from regular meditation practice because I felt I didn’t have the time! Thus destabilized from my foundation of awareness, I paid no heed to my body’s call for a respite, for a time of silence and sitting. Instead I kept my nose to the grindstone and honored every commitment I made to others, but did not take the time to honor a basic commitment to take care of myself. At that time there were no well-publicized local retreat centers that would provide me with the simple life of sitting that I clearly needed. So what did I do?
I got sick. Illness is the one long-accepted form of retreat in our culture. Get sick in the body or mind and we will be forced to rest. We will become so unskillful or disabled that others will insist that we stop what we are doing and go away and don’t come back until we are well enough to pick up our burden again. Maybe we end up in a mental ward, a cancer unit or a prison cell. And there, if life were fair, the healing would begin. But instead chances are we get caught up in yet another intense culture where we feel threatened and overwhelmed…unless we are able to recognize the opportunity to let go and simply be.
I was heartened to read recently that in an Alabama prison there is an ongoing meditation retreat program for inmates who choose to participate. I wasn’t surprised that it has been extremely successful and that the recidivism among the members of that incarcerated sangha is much lower than the rest of the prison population.
When I was diagnosed with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome) I felt fortunate that my illness was not life-threatening. All I had to give up was a career with which I’d had a love/hate relationship, half our family income, and the ability to do more than one thing a day beyond feeding my family and cleaning our home. Suddenly my overwhelming array of choices was eliminated.
Imagine that! If you could only do only one thing a day, what would it be? It became so clear to me who and what nourished me and who and what drained me. That was the deciding factor for any social encounter, any outing or any activity. The foods, films and people that put me into a tailspin of weariness were off the list. Television and novels that had been my days-end vacation were off the list! How had I not noticed that all these things were draining me? How had I not noticed that my nice corner office at work had been abuzz with freeway noise that I couldn’t hear after a while. How much energy had it taken for me to provide an inner muffle for that sound?
This discovery of what nourished me and what drained me was the product of my return to meditation, the one thing I could do as much as I wanted during my illness. In fact, for nine months I experienced a physically-enforced personal retreat. Through meditation I touched that deep connected mindfulness that creates the possibility of skillful spacious action. Until then I paid little attention to the many decisions and choices I made during any given day. I did what I had to do to get things off my plate, to get past where I was and onto some more tolerable future place. No wonder I got sick!
Now, thanks to the widespread practice of meditation and the development and appreciation for emotional intelligence, we have greater access to and greater acceptance of the knowledge to recognize when we are on autopilot, when we are becoming unskillful. We also have the resources available in the form of meditation instruction and retreats that can provide us with the ability to stay present and compassionate. Yet many of us are still not giving ourselves permission to let go for even a half hour a day and give ourselves what we need.
In the state I had been in working up to my illness, I was so disconnected that I didn’t feel deserving of anything for myself. I also felt that it was not something I could ask for. At some level I hoped that someone would give it to me, but I didn’t speak up and let it be known that I needed it. When my doctor told me I needed to quit my job, I went on half-time. But it wasn’t until I used that freed up time to meditate and get in touch with the inner wisdom that each of us has access to that I got it that I needed a complete time out in order to heal.
So what is it that kept me from asking for what I needed? It was a sense of unworthiness. Imagine sitting at the dinner table, feeling you have no right to ask someone to pass the salt. When I began meditating, I recognized that I was an intrinsic part of the universe, deserving what every being deserves, no less, no more. With that awareness I could accept my seat at the table and if I needed something, I understood that if I couldn’t reach it, it was reasonable to ask whoever was closest to it to ‘please pass the salt.’
I could also begin to recognize others who also felt undeserving of a seat at the table and I began to see that the table is infinitely expansive and there is plenty of food for all, so part of being at the table was inviting everyone to take their seat, their rightful seat that for whatever reason they had vacated or hadn’t been told was theirs.
What does it mean to you when I talk about accepting your seat at the table? What does it mean to you when I say ‘Feel free to ask for what you need?’
When we talk about skillful action we also talk about unskillful action because it helps us see more clearly. In this imaginary table we have constructed, we might see that there are those who see the seating and the food as limited, who look like they are sitting at a poker table and accruing chips instead of at a dining table with plenty of food and delightful conversation.
We can look at our own actions at the table. Are we eating off someone else’s plate? Are we telling others what they should and shouldn’t eat? Or are we allowing each other the full reign of our own seat and table setting?
How are we relating to the plate in front of us? Is it full or empty? Is it enough? Is it too much of one kind of thing and not enough of another? If we are looking longingly at another person’s plate or wishing we were in another’s seat, we can return to our mindfulness and skillful inquiry to ask what is driving that desire to unseat someone else or take what they have when there is plenty at the table and we already have a seat?
What are we afraid of? It always comes back to that when we get to a place of scarcity and contraction.
On a silent retreat at Spirit Rock a while back I realized that ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to prove, nothing to hide and something to give.’ It wasn’t the first time I had realized that, but somehow phrased in that way, it was something I could write down and pin to my bulletin board where I can see it every day. It still informs me, and sometimes surprises me.
Once we begin to see that, even though we still have habituated patterns of fear-based beliefs and behaviors, we can begin to rest in awareness. We can really appreciate what is in front of us, even when it isn’t all chocolate pudding all the time. We can learn to look around and see what needs doing and understand what it is we bring to the table, what we have to offer from our set of skills and gifts and interests. Through the practice of meditation there is a natural shift of focus to what we have to offer, what is upwelling inside us from our natural generosity of spirit without any sense of agenda or recompense, just a joyous love of life and gratitude for this experience, even though it is sometimes painful and challenging.
Since we are not monks or nuns, since we are not on retreat constantly, we have options and challenges. Our needs are not taken care of by others. But in some deeper sense, we are taken care of. For those who believe in God, there is the personified understanding of being children of God, held in a loving embrace. For those for whom this personification doesn’t resonate, there is the scientifically based understanding of the interconnectivity of life, that we are all stardust, one being, and that each of us, even those suffering and struggling with outrageous misfortune, are intrinsically valued.
Maybe we feel we are not valued by some specific other – a parent perhaps -- against whom we may rail, feeling abandoned or brutalized. But if we continue to come back to our intention to be present and compassionate, we will shift from feeling dependent on the permission, admiration or love of others. They don’t own the table. They don’t have to pull out our chair. We begin to see we are already seated, already here, at the table of life, nourished by the wholeness of being, accessed at any moment through awareness of the present and a willingness to be compassionate to ourselves and others.
So this is the way we get things done. We accept our seat at the table and we maintain the clarity and compassion to enjoy the interactions with others around us, to pass the salt to whomever needs it, and to not be afraid to say, “Could you please pass those sweet potatoes? They look mighty tasty!”