(Drifting Clouds - Hiding Sun . . . )
I came to understand how my upbringing played a role in my perception of the world and how my life had unfolded. It was part of the problem. How reactive and warlike my life seemed! I saw that for years I’d led anything but a stable or peaceful life. My boyhood was characterized by the sensation of pain and fear, but there was also a yearning for love and recognition. On one hand I felt guilty about being such a bother to my parents, yet I sat on a powderkeg of rage at having been treated so inhumanely.
Then I remembered Vietnam and realized the profound effect it had on me over the years since.
Sailing on, I saw a trend in my life of either running from, or chasing after something. Whenever I thought I had “the answer,” it disappeared. I was either regretting or trying to recapture something from the past, or worrying how the future was going to turn out. Nothing ever seemed to stay the same, everything seemed so...well, impermanent. Just like living on the sea, everything was always changing.
As the personal voyage deepened, time and introspection led to more profound insights. Although I had an outgoing personality and enjoyed a lot about life, there was this underlying angry, sad, and painful part of me that nothing I tried could reach. I began to admit that close relationships were difficult for me. I saw how, like my parents, alcohol was involved in most if not all of my social activities and I drank to “take the edge off” my inner pain and turmoil. I saw that, in spite of a lot of helpful counseling, I hadn’t found anyone, or anything, that gave me the answers I was looking for. In fact I couldn’t even describe for myself what it was I sought. Yet I was being driven by this seemingly relentless need. I wanted to know, to resolve. I yearned for an imagined peaceful life, and had tried lots of things to attain it. I looked for just the right counselor; I changed locations; I married and remarried; I changed jobs; I traveled. It didn’t matter how much money, how many awards, how much or how good the sex was, how nice I tried to be, or how much I had learned—there might be relief for a time, but something was always missing. Permanent happiness seemed hopelessly elusive. I realized that even in those times when I did feel happy, soon I would start worrying about how long it was going to last. I was my own worst enemy.
As we closed with Ft. Lauderdale, I knew it was time for me leave the boat and return to Oregon. For the first time I knew that the focus of my personal work had to be just that—work on myself. Blaming wasn’t the way to freedom. Expecting others to change wasn’t going to work, either. Life at sea, though brief, had taught me more than I had bargained for—the human spirit is vast, and the only answers to be found are not outside of one’s own experience, but inside it.
When I arrived back in Salem I found a small apartment, got a job, and settled in. I decided to teach myself to meditate, while continuing with counseling and studying. A spiritual path was born.
Allies and Inner Work “We have what we seek. It is there all the time, and if we give it time it will make itself known to us.” Thomas Merton, Catholic Monk
Throughout my life, when I looked for answers, I looked everywhere but inside myself. I had read quite a lot, including several books on meditation. Many books by Ram Dass and others helped in my early explorations. One book however, A Gradual Awakening, by Stephen Levine, has proven to be the most valuable (and dog-eared) contributor to my learning. The method described is called Vipassana (Insight) meditation, and is derived from the Theravadan Buddhist lineage. Theravada means Way of the Elders.
Let’s begin with the question: what is meditation? The definition of “aware/awareness” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary seems most accurate: “...knowing or realizing; conscious; ... having knowledge of something through alertness in observing what one sees, hears, feels, etc.; ... awareness of a sensation, feeling, fact, condition, etc., ... mere recognition or a focusing of attention.”
In A Gradual Awakening, Levine gives several examples of where to focus one’s attention. I settled on the technique of bringing my attention to the sensation of the breath at the nostrils as a point of focus, and began to try to gently hold my concentration there. I sat cross-legged, my buttocks slightly elevated on the edge of a firm pillow(s), back straight, hands on my knees, and eyes closed. As Stephen instructs, whenever I noticed thoughts straying from that point of concentration I noted ‘thinking, thinking,’ then gently returned to focus on the sensation of the breath at the front edge of my nostrils.
As I meditated more regularly I noticed how hard it was to be with myself. I strayed from the breath, again and again, finding myself lost in thought. I became fidgety and agitated. I saw how easily I was pulled from focusing on my breath to some thought or attendant feeling. I saw how being lost in thought was somehow related to being lost in life. But each time I became aware of being lost I’d note “thinking, thinking” and return to the sensation of the breath again.
This practice revealed to me for the first time how strongly I identified with my thoughts about who I imagined myself to be. I saw how judgmental I was, even with my loved ones. I saw how often I negated the basic humanness of individuals or groups whom I categorized as “them” or “they:” people I called “dopers,” “draft dodgers,” the “bad guys.” For the first time I began to really see how thoughts and attendant feelings come and go. Some are random, some return regularly or have a pattern. Yet, they come, they go, just like the breath.