Sitting with Annoyance: The Process of Transformation April 28, 2022 10:09
(Image: wind on water with reflections of prayer flags, the lotus pond at TMBCC in Bloomington)
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Recently, I traveled to Bloomington to listen to a Dharma talk. It was a beautiful spring day, and the teaching was both compelling and profound. Even though the content was philosophical in nature and a bit intellectually challenging, I was able to understand the gist of it. The talk was both meaningful and wonderful, as usual.
Typically, at the end of each Dharma talk, Geshe Kunga asks for questions and follow-up comments. One student followed up with a brief comment, which was relevant and useful.
However, another student, who has been absent from these weekly teachings for over two years, and who hasn't been following them online, interrupted Geshe Kunga's response to the first student's comment in order to make her random, disorganized, rambling comment--or question--or challenge to the first student's comment (I couldn't tell which). Her interruption went on for several minutes, and I could feel the irritation and frustration rising in my body.
Kudos to Geshe Kunga--he took the time to listen patiently and respond politely to this student's word vomit; however, I was quietly fuming.
The contrast between a clear commentary about an incredibly complex philosophical subject (by the way, we are reading and discussing the tail end of Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun by Nam-Kha Pel) and a rambling refutation laced with unrelated metaphors and, what seemed to me to be a self-indulgent cry for attention, was too much for me.
This student (who I will refer to as A.D.S.--annoying Dharma student), from my vantage point, seemed to be needy, grippy, clingy, and desperate to make up for lost time and missed classes.
I'm not gonna lie--this individual pushes my buttons. Not only is she loud and aggressive, she's quick to anger, and she's prone to bullying. She tends to twist and distort the words of others to serve herself, and she's pushy, domineering, and very, very annoying to me.
Consequently, her long-winded, convoluted, needy-baby-greedy-baby rant pushed my patience to the limit.
After the dedication and closing prayers, several students and I helped clean up the temple (while A.D.S. continued to elaborate and justify her comments with the first student--again--loudly enough for the entire temple to hear).
I didn't stay to chat with others, like usual--instead, I left abruptly (I'm not even going to go on about how she didn't bother to help put away cushions and chairs after class, which is a pet peeve of mine, especially for experienced students who attend teachings regularly and who know where these things go--don't even get me started--that's another blog for another time :).
Instead of focusing on the profound and meaningful teaching on my drive home, my amygdala had been hijacked, and I was laser-focused on my frustration with A.D.S.
By the time I arrived home, I decided to embark upon an experiment. I was motivated to sit with this annoying situation in meditation sessions for the rest of the week. It was the perfect opportunity to apply the teachings, and I was curious about what the end result would be.
I committed to sit for at least thirty minutes each day to think about this triggering situation and my reactions to A.D.S, to observe the thoughts and feelings that would unfold over the course of the week, and to take a little time to write about and reflect on any observations. Here are the results of this experiment:
* I know what it's like to feel out of place, but also desperately wanting to belong or to be accepted. I know what it's like to say ANYTHING, even if it doesn't make sense--or it is too raw, harsh, insensitive, or unsophisticated. I know what it's like to say ANYTHING in the hopes of fitting in--even if it risks pushing everyone away.
* I know what it's like to be in a place that makes me feel safe--but that I don't feel worthy enough to be there. So, to compensate, I come to that space radiating insecurity, awkwardness, and uncertainty, which is often off-putting.
* I know what it's like to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and uncertain when coming back to a place that was important to me--a place that I had left for a time, but then returned. I know how it feels to have missed out on important conversations and events--to have missed out on the natural evolutions and changes that participants experienced--to feel left out of the loop and disconnected. I know how it feels to doubt how I will be received when returning to these places.
* I know what it's like to act like a cringeworthy fool--not to be foolish or funny--but to seek attention in an obnoxious, juvenile way--because it was the only way I knew how to express my need for attention.
* I know what it's like to feel nervous, and, as a result, overshare or spew incoherent, repetitive nonsense. What's worse--I know what it's like to be aware that I'm doing this, but can't seem to stop the flow of the word vomit.
Reflecting on times when I behaved in the same ways that I perceived A.D.S. to have behaved helped soften the frustration and anger. Empathy was paving the way for compassion.
Tuesday: The Willingness to Listen
Knowing when to speak and when to listen are powerful forms of discernment.
Hold space for the brash, loud voice. Let it quiver and cackle and crack until it winds down to a hoarse whisper--and finally, to a rumbling, sputtering, awkward silence.
Are you moving away from self-grasping, or are you hurtling toward it?
Listen to the ache of wanting to belong--the desire to take without the wish to give back.
Hold space for the broken, the desperate, the fundamentally confused.
Even when you're tired, filled with heavy thoughts and future obligations...
Hold space and listen.
Drift toward silent compassion--the willingness to embrace and accept undisciplined ramblings for what they are...without expectation, without the hope of resolution, without judgement and cruel critique.
Just listen... and hold space. This, too, is meaningful service.
Wednesday: Physical Symptoms
As this week-long analytical experiment progressed, I started to notice some interesting physical symptoms occurring in my body.
* During the day of the teaching and the subsequent "annoyance," my left eye would not stop watering. It came and went for a few days afterwards. Warm compresses and eye drops brought some relief, but it would flare up from time to time--like during this evening's session.
* Stuffiness--and a persistent ringing in both ears.
* Left arm pain--weakness and sharp, intermittent pain shooting from the left bicep all the way down to the wrist and hand. I have been dealing with a "frozen shoulder" for several months, and I have noticed that stress exacerbates the pain and discomfort.
* Two painful blisters had erupted on the skin above my left collar bone. These were most likely caused by kinesiology tape that my PT placed on my shoulder a few days days prior. I had removed the tape earlier, but the blisters began to sting and itch during the meditation session.
* I experienced a sharp, stabbing sensation on the my right shoulder blade--similar to a burning sensation just underneath the skin. This was a new sensation--there's nothing wrong with my right shoulder.
All of these physical symptoms occurred during the meditation session. Some of the symptoms were connected to sensory organs (the left eye, the ears). This could represent a resistance to looking at and listening to what was coming up in the session, or the initial annoyance. The left side of the body represents the feminine aspect--it also symbolizes the ability to receive. Blisters... unexpressed anger. Shoulder and arm discomfort... carrying the weight of a burden. Sensitive nerves...agitation and frustration getting under the skin.
My body was communicating to me clearly, and by taking the time to sit with this physical discomfort, to acknowledge these sensations without judgment, concern, or panic, I was able to receive the wisdom and to let go of the physical and metaphorical anger, frustration, and distress until these pesky symptoms eventually subsided. And they did--after just a few minutes.
Thursday: Evidence of Transformation
Over the course of the past two years, I have deepened my Buddhist practice. I attended online teachings during the lockdown, and when the temple eventually reopened, I made the hour-long commute every Sunday.
My practice has been a life raft for me during the pandemic, and continues to be an important part of my life. The temple feels like home now. When I first started to attend the teachings, I felt like a visitor--a welcome one--but a visitor, nonetheless.
Now, I feel a sense of meaningful connection--a sense of belonging. I don't have to try too hard or go out of my way to feel a sense of affinity. I no longer feel anxious or afraid that I would say something dumb or do something that would inadvertently offend someone.
I am more calm and at ease when I am in this place, and I want others to feel this way when they come here, too.
The essence of Dharma practice is to transform the mind. To transform it from a state of ignorance, anger, and attachment to a state that is calm and cares about others.
This situation has turned out to be a karmic quiz for me--to assess how far I've come in my own practice--and where I want to go.
Friday: Reflect and Rejoice
After several days of sitting and allowing thoughts and feelings to rise, fall, and drift, I have come to a few interesting conclusions:
* Even though, in the grand scheme of things, this annoyance was extremely minor, it's amazing how small, unexpected things can trigger strong reactions.
* My reaction to this situation has absolutely nothing to do with A.D.S. However, it has everything to do with me and my own state of mind. The good news is, my state of mind is fluid and capable of positive change and transformation.
* Sitting with an annoyance like this gives me opportunities to practice patience and to generate genuine compassion for myself and others.
* This week-long process helped me clearly realize how intricately connected the physical body is to emotions. My mind and my body were processing this situation, and, by the end of the week, both were calmer and steadier as a result of this experiment.
* Having the courage to embark on this experiment and then write this article is not only an example of sacred action, but it is also a reason to rejoice. It's evidence that my meditation practice is working--it's fostering positive growth and compassion, it's a catalyst for healing, and it's an indication of spiritual maturity. These are all reasons to celebrate.
* I am grateful to A.D.S. for giving me the opportunity to practice and engage in this analytical experiment.
There is a very good chance that I will see A.D.S. in the next couple of days when I return to Bloomington for the next Dharma teaching. She may even read or listen to this article.
I'm not anxious about either of these possibilities--nor am I dreading them. I feel open-hearted and receptive. I'm looking forward to learning more, and I'm confident enough to face whatever thoughts and emotions may surface. I know that, if needed, I can sit with them, too--and respond appropriately.
Thank you for taking the time to read or listen to this month's blog post. I hope it was helpful, and I hope it encourages you to continue to learn and grow as you embark on your own meditation experiments and practices.
While you're here, please check out the current MMM collection of hand-knotted malas. Several new designs have been added recently: middlemoonmalas.com.