Meditation and Failure Resilience

From the Department of Again and Again

I love my morning walks with Trixy the Dog. We climb 250 steps to the top of Bernal Hill and then jog and walk and fetch tennis balls as the sun rises over the San Francisco Bay. In the winter, the bay burns bright with orange and red and as I breathe deeply of the crisp sky, I feel profound gratitude for my life.

I listen to podcasts as we walk, and I recently heard Sharon Salzberg talking about “beginning again” in meditation. She proposed that that the big work is not in sitting down, it is how one begins again on the cushion after spacing out, fantasizing, daydreaming, or worrying.

Over and over and over again.

In this sense, meditation is really a practice in failure resilience: I experience “failure” repeatedly, along with accompanying opportunities to choose to start over.

In my meditation, as in my life, I am endlessly interrupted by urgent and enticing sirens. “Don’t forget to take that file to work!” “Remember you need to pay that bill today!” “Hey, you never called your dad back!”

With more practice, however, I have come to realize that use of the word “failure” is a harsh self-judgment; distraction is a very ordinary and even lovable aspect of being a human being.

As sentient beings we are eminently distractible: perhaps it is a necessary element of curiosity. Our thoughts feel weighty, pregnant, and ripe, and pose incredibly compelling and seductive challenges. To remain present in our bodies requires discipline, attention, and practice.

While it is surprisingly easy to wake up to the present moment by breathing deeply and letting go of things, to continue to stay awake in it, especially in our turgid modern culture, can be very difficult.

Still, with experience and practice, and with amazing support and teaching from my teacher JunPo Dennis Kelly Roshi, I have come to see that my thoughts are in fact weightless and illusory.

As substantial and meaningful as they may seem, when I look at them from a distance, they are mostly revealed to be misleading, trivial or even ridiculous!

I have come to welcome these thought-mines, for each of these intrusions is a gift. I am continuously offered the opportunity to listen, acknowledge, and explore my mind, and then to choose to loop back to the body/place where I am sitting.

When I return, it’s important that I am nice to myself.

For much of my life, my failure resilience was negligible: each new stumble and fall was simply more evidence of my long demonstrated inherent sucky-ness. My inner voice was a bully, haranguing me for my missteps and mistakes, and providing ever more fuel for the shame-machine.

Thanks to steady practice and lots of emotional work and attention, I have gradually shifted that voice to one that is gentle, loving, and amused. After a reverie into the future or the past, I now wake up, grin, and whisper to myself:

“Oh Dave, you sweet silly man, welcome home!!! The fire is lit, there’s food on the stove, and how ‘bout a nice hot cup of tea?”

I find myself smiling broadly as my old judgment of “failure” shifts, yet again, to “human-ness” or “presence” or simply “being alive.”

I worry about the many people I love that still speak to themselves with a harsh and unforgiving voice. Sometimes I will actually hear it out loud, as a friend scolds himself for a mistake.

Hearing this, I can’t help but butt in: “Hey please don’t be mean to you! You are a good friend of mine, and I stand up for my friends!” They usually smile and pause and smile again, sheepishly. Sometimes I don’t think they knew they were saying it at all.

So to all you wonderful PDs out there: I invite you: Bee gentle with yourselves. Bee loving and kind. Bee here now.

Smile, and welcome yourself home!

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