Leaning Into Center

Leaning Into Center

Discussion date: Thu, Jul 16, 2009 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Recently the Tuesday – Thursday morning sitting group read a section from Peace is Every Step in which Thich Nhat Hanh offers a simple meditation poem:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

He concluded the section by noting:

This exercise is not just for beginners. Many of us who have practiced meditation and conscious breathing for forty or fifty years continue to practice in this same way, because this kind of exercise is so important and so easy.

During our morning sharing it came to me that being able to live like that, day in and day out, and calling it easy, requires a balance, a stable centeredness with life. Many of us, however, are so out of balance, and have been for so long, we can’t even feel when we are centered. It is similar to holding a pose in a yoga class, believing our posture is upright, and then the instructor comes by and says: "You are leaning back a lot," or "You are leaning forward."

For me, "leaning back from life" means expecting good things to come to me because I’m special, or I have the prerequisites, or that is what happens with people like me. We can call it being spoiled and self-centered, or maintaining an attitude of entitlement and privilege. For those who habitually lean back, often there are agonizing disappointments in adulthood, as the expected relationships, careers, and rewards don’t materialize. If we are lucky a partner, friend, teacher, therapist, or employer helps sets us straight. Sometimes it takes all of them working together. It can be painful and feel like we have to make a great effort to lean forward into life. In fact, though, even though we think we are leaning forward into life, we are simply leaning into center, into balance and poise.

Leaning "forward into life," is something else. It comes, I believe, from a deep sense of lack, deprivation, or worthlessness, and it manifests as a single minded pursuit of goals, a desperateness to have or attain this or that. We believe, if only we can get it, or get there, then we will be happy. Because of the single mindedness, as adults we often we get external rewards. But the deep satisfaction, the contentment, doesn’t come. Like with leaning back, if we are lucky a partner, friend, teacher, therapist, or employer, or all of them working together, may help set us straight. With time and effort we may learn to readjust. We feel like we are leaning back, though really it is leaning into center.

My experience from my own life and from teaching mindfulness to others is that finding our center is the critical element in terms of developing and maintaining a satisfying mindfulness practice. If we are always leaning back, even though we may read many books, fill our houses with Buddhas, and tell ourselves that we have been practicing for years, our practice is half-hearted and we are chronically disappointed – we are not getting the peace and joy we want.

If we are always leaning forward, we may put in many hours on the cushion, go to many retreats, and make many sacrifices, but there is also a tightness present, an over-efforting, a cheerlessness. The great exertion is often followed by disillusionment, resentment, and burn-out.

However, if we can come to mindfulness practice with openness and self-awareness, mindfulness practice can help us learn how to lean into center. Even if we started very contorted, bit by bit, we begin to find more balance and lightness. Maybe we can even feel we have wings, as Mary Oliver does in her poem Halleluiah:

Everyone should be born into this world happy
and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Halleluiah, anyway I’m not where I started!
 
And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years.
 
Halleluiah, I’m sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.

This Thursday, after our sitting, we will share our experiences in leaning back, leaning forward, wobbling, and finding our balance. You are invited to be with us.

Peace and joy to you,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


Present Moment, Wonderful Moment
From Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

In our busy society, it is a great fortune to breathe consciously from time to time. We can practice conscious breathing not only while sitting in a meditation room, but also while working at the office or at home, while driving our car, or sitting on a bus, wherever we are, at any time throughout the day.

There are so many exercises we can do to help us breathe consciously. Besides the simple “In-Out” exercise, we can recite these four lines silently as we breathe in and out:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

“Breathing in, I calm my body.” Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day—you can feel the coolness permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel my breath calming my body and mind.

“Breathing out, I smile.” You know a smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Wearing a smile on your face is a sign that you are master of yourself.

“Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else. I sit here, and I know exactly where I am.

“I know this is a wonderful moment!” It is a joy to sit, stable and at ease, and return to our breathing, our smiling, our true nature. Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy right now, when will we have peace and joy—tomorrow, or after tomorrow? What is preventing us from being happy right now? As we follow our breathing, we can say, simply, “Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.”

This exercise is not just for beginners. Many of us who have practiced meditation and conscious breathing for forty or fifty years continue to practice in this same way, because this kind of exercise is so important and so easy.


 

Discussion Date: Thu, Jul 16, 2009


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