Stay Out of the Ruts and Keep Moving

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This past weekend we had our Settling Into Silence practice retreat at the Charter Hall Retreat Center. During a walk on Saturday I met a man who lives nearby and helps care for the dirt road. The road was muddier than it had been when we came in on Friday night and so I asked if he had any advice on driving the road when we left on Sunday afternoon. His immediate reply was: Stay out of the ruts and keep moving.

It seems good advice for life as well.

We all have our ruts. Some of our ruts are the self-limiting stories we tell ourselves: "I’m a person without discipline." "Whatever I do, it probably won’t work out, so why put much effort into it?"

Some of the ruts are the judgments we make of others: "She’s mean." "My brother has always undermined me."

And some of our ruts are habitual ways of responding to emotionally charged stimuli: avoiding situations that create even a little uneasiness, or being unable to say no to the immediate pleasure of a chocolate chip cookie.

Many people around us help us deal with our ruts, from psychotherapists and psychiatrists, to artists, teachers, and nutritionists. Good friends, also, often have more clarity about our ruts than we do.

Mindfulness practice, however, has something special to offer. As at our retreat, we are constantly encouraged to develop our capacity to be present to life as we actually experience it: aware of our breath, aware of our emotions, aware of our urges to respond in certain ways, aware of our inner dialogues about our experiences. We learn to differentiate between direct experience and the glossing over of experience we often do.

The difference between awareness and "glossing over" was apparent during the silent meals we shared on the retreat. At the end of the retreat participants commented that in everyday life we usually have expectations of our food, we think we know how it is going to taste. When we ingest the food, we are not focused on the tastes and textures, and are usually aware of only the strongest flavors. During the retreat, we had the luxury of just eating, without other tasks at hand, and we came to the table with unusually calm minds, better able to stay with experience. Our meals tasted richer, more nuanced — we were more likely to be surprised. In the Zen tradition they call this "Beginner’s Mind."

In the same way, calm present-moment awareness helps us see more possibilities in our everyday lives and our everyday ruts. Even though I may have strong memories of the times a parent wasn’t there for me, with mindfulness I can recognize also the times when he or she was supportive in many other ways. Staying with our experiences, leaning into uncomfortable or painful memories, enables us to understand them in a richer, more nuanced way, and allows us to move out of our ruts.

"Keep moving" is good advice, too. When we keep moving, life opens up for us. William Blake wrote:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

The first of the three Dharma Seals, the most fundamental teachings of the Buddha, is impermanence. impermanence means that each moment is new, with new possibilities.

At the end of the retreat, practitioners talked about feeling carried by the flow of moment during the retreat. There is nothing one has to do to get a new moment. It is an unconditional gift of the universe.

This Thursday evening, after our sitting, we will share our experiences with ruts, movement, and mindfulness practice. What have we learned? Where are we struggling?

You are invited to be with us.

The Sufi poet Rumi loved the possibilities in each moment. His poem, This being human is a guest house, is below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.

Still treat each guest honorably,
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(Translated by Coleman Barks,
From Open Secret: Versions of Rumi)