Sharon Salzberg is one of my favorite meditation teachers. I mentioned her in a previous blog when I discussed metta or loving-kindness meditation and her approach to the practice resonates with me. She, along with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, is known for being one of the earliest teachers of meditation in the West. In her teaching, Sharon notes that it is natural to be distracted while practicing meditation – that’s why it’s called practice, and that the antidote to distraction is to notice when you get distracted (awareness), let it go (release), bring your focus back to your anchor (refocus), and simply begin again, even if you must do it hundreds or thousands of times. No thought, feeling, or sensation is permanent; every moment is an opportunity to begin again. It’s a simple concept that is hard to do, but one that is worth practicing, both on the meditation cushion and in our daily lives.
I’m a little over a month into my new job at Shepherd University and have noticed how easy it was for me to start to slip back into some old, unskillful habits. Despite having awareness of my traits and tendencies, and very clearly seeing this job as an opportunity for me to begin again, the pull of my habituated behaviors was and is very strong.
I arrived on campus a week before classes started, moved into my new place (a cute, “tiny house” in the woods about 10 miles from campus), and jumped right in to preparing for the semester. I penciled in “work prep” on my calendar every day on the week before the first day of school, made a to-do list, and was ready to go, go, go, until I had everything completed. I had six days. The clock was ticking. I participated in new faculty orientation, a department retreat, started to prepare my syllabi, gathered some repertoire ideas, wait, I haven’t filled out my paperwork yet, geez, I haven’t even HEARD a singer, where do you get a parking pass? I need an ID first, then I can get a parking pass. Ok, my keys don’t work. What is the copier code? I have so much to do…AARGH!
I can think of no fewer than three occasions in my distant past where I completely melted down before the start of my first semester in a new position. Privately, of course, because I couldn’t share with anyone that I may possibly be struggling. And I wouldn’t dream of using the “excuse” that I was hired two weeks before the start of classes. Instead, I became accustomed to either curling up in a ball or screaming into the void when I became stressed. The reasons – self-doubt, impostor syndrome, fear of the unknown — are a different issue, but upon reflection, I realized that at no time did this self-created anxiety, stress, and expectation of what I “should” be able to accomplish help me transition smoothly into a new position. On the drive to West Virginia, I thought about these times, and complemented myself for managing my stress and anxiety better during the transitions to my last two positions. Despite having this awareness, I got to campus, realized everything I had to do, and started going down the exact same path I explicitly vowed to avoid. My conditioned behavior was really that powerful and was strong enough to override the rational part of my brain.
But, this time, when my heart started beating faster and my breathing got shallower and I was sure every one of my new colleagues would see that I was a fraud, I stopped. I took a few deep breaths. I amended my to-do list, and I went home. I made myself a decent meal. I went to bed earlier. I needed to rest. I had just completed 20 hours of driving in two days! Rather than curling up in a ball and/or screaming into the void – I just took a break. The next day, I got up early, re-engaged with my daily routine, grabbed a campus map and walked around campus. I completed most of my administrative tasks on this walk, and experienced where things were located. I had never been on this campus before! I spent some time in the office. I asked for help when I couldn’t figure things out on my own. At lunch, I took a walk downtown; I got coffee, had some ice cream, and stopped into the town’s museum. I took some work home with me. And on Saturday, two days before the start of classes, instead of “work prep” I got in the car and visited some historical Civil War sites. I had never been to this part of the country before! I had energy on Sunday to continue my work, and, in fact, because I wasn’t spending time and energy worrying, because I made time for activities outside of work, because I prioritized self-care, I could do my work more efficiently. When Monday arrived, I was energetic, optimistic, and ready to go. Was my to-do list complete? No! Did it matter? Also, no! It all got done and people totally understood that I was doing the best I could. And it turns out, the best I can do is pretty darn good.
The Buddha taught the concept of no-self (in Sanskrit anatman), but in the context of secular mindfulness practice this is interpreted as no permanent self. Put another way, no matter who we think we are and no matter how many mistakes we’ve made in the past, we have the capacity to change, grow, and do things differently in the present moment. Begin again. We suffer and make ourselves miserable when we think we are fixed, unchangeable entities. Rather than ask, “Who am I?” ask, “Who am I right now?” or “Who do I want to be?” See how your life improves if possibility is your starting point. In my case, I don’t have to be “the guy that freaks out before he starts a new job” when I can be the “experienced, competent, professional, who welcomes new opportunities with curiosity, joy and openness.” Every moment is an opportunity to begin again.
Steve Grives, D.M.A., is a choral conductor, certified meditation teacher, and Visiting Professor of Music at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He can be reached with questions or comments through his email, . For further thoughts on mindfulness and some short, guided meditations listen to “Midweek Meditation” on “The Steve Grives Podcast” available on your preferred podcast platform or at https://anchor.fm/steve-grives
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