A Beautiful Tangle: Sitting with Confusion August 5, 2020 15:18
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We are living in a time when we have have many opportunities to explore our relationship with confusion. We're navigating the uncertainties of our own daily lives in the middle of a global pandemic. Some of us are working from home, some are seeking new employment, some are struggling to keep food on the table or to pay bills, and we're all trying to stay safe and healthy during this challenging time.
We're also dealing with the upheaval of social protests and finally facing the consequences of systemic racism in order to move toward necessary and meaningful change.
We're gearing up for a pivotal election in November. It's certainly been a long 3 ½ years, and unfortunately, our struggles are far from over.
Confusion gives us the space to explore, to experiment with different solutions, to ask questions, and to research. Sitting with confusion is not always easy or comfortable, but it is imperative to novel discovery and learning.
Sitting with confusion requires patience, like untangling a massive knot. Confusion IS a beautiful tangle. When you have the courage to sit with it, without expectation, without judgment, it can lead to surprising revelations and profound wisdom.
Over the past several months, I have immersed myself in studying the Tibetan language. Progress is painstakingly slow, but learning new things is great for the brain. It broadens viewpoints and perspectives; it fosters creativity and curiosity; and it has given me many opportunities to practice with confusion.
* The Importance of Feeling Stupid
Early on in my studies, I was working with two Tibetan tutors online, additional materials from the Tibetan Language Institute based in Montana, The Manual of Standard Tibetan, and a variety of YouTube videos. Inevitably, I found conflicting information, especially regarding pronunciation (there are 220 Tibetan dialects). In the beginning, having too many sources was overwhelming for me, and it just made me feel incredibly stupid and inept. Navigating contradictory information created massive confusion and self-doubt. However, I found that by sticking with my tutors until I mastered the alphabet and basic sentence structure helped me negotiate the rough waters of hopeless confusion.
Curiosity is a motivator, and it is often driven by productive confusion. This curiosity led me to ask questions, to take my time practicing and writing out each letter, to make flash cards of simple words, numbers, and phrases. It also helped me weave my way out of self-doubt and discouragement, to seek understanding while simultaneously moving beyond the realm of the familiar.
I found out the hard way that I need to study in small bursts of time rather than in lengthy marathon sessions.
A few weeks ago, one of my sessions with a tutor went way over time (over 2 hours), and by the end of the session, I was discouraged, frustrated, angry, and more confused at the end than I was at the start.
Hour-long sessions are ideal for me. I can deal with 90 minute sessions, too, but anything beyond that is too much. Setting clear boundaries with my tutor regarding time limits proved to be very helpful.
Even when I study on my own, I find that daily sessions of 15-30 minutes is just right. Finding that tipping point where productive confusion slips into hopeless confusion was useful for me. It helped me to stay focused and engaged, and it helped to avoid sabotaging my own practice.
*The Importance of Rest
Taking breaks and resting between sessions is also crucial to learning anything new and managing the discomfort of confusion.
I already understood this from a somatic perspective. In Feldenkrais lessons, we move slowly and repeat movements with thoughtful, mindful attention. Between movements, or before layering movements with variations on a theme, we rest.
The rests function as points of integration. These necessary pauses allow the nervous system to process information.
It's the same with learning a language, or anything new, really. I found that if I spent a few minutes reviewing words on flash cards, then took a break to read, go for a walk, wash dishes, or nap--when I returned to review the same set of cards, my accuracy, speed, and retention were much improved.
*Letting Go of Expectation
The most important aspect of managing confusion while learning is to let go of expectations and judgments. This is also much easier said than done :).
Putting too much pressure on myself when I'm learning something new only invites the inner critic to tear my enthusiasm and self-esteem to shreds. Sessions that don't have an agenda or specific expectation (I'm going to memorize all the vegetables in Tibetan in 15 minutes) allow me to enjoy the exploration and discovery process. These sessions are more playful and relaxed compared to pressure-cooker sessions where I'm striving, pushing, or rushing myself. There is more ease in the effort, and the cognitive connections are stronger and more relevant.
In addition to learning something new, I'm also reinforcing the importance of being patient and compassionate with myself. And, in turn, this carries over to being more patient and compassionate with others, as well.
* What the Heck Does This Have to Do with Meditation and Japa Practice?
Well, pretty much everything! When we come to the cushion to sit or practice japa, we learn something new about ourselves or how to relate to others in the world.
The same tips above apply to maintaining a healthy meditation practice. Confusion surfaces regularly during sessions--maybe not in the same way as they do in learning a new language. Confusion appears in finding difficulty settling in to practice. Distractions arise--both internal and external (discursive thoughts, memories, random song lyrics or commercial jingles, a ringing phone, the sound of a television in another room, your partner or spouse talking to you while you're trying to practice: "It smells like you're burning underwear").
So, things will come up during meditation. Don't let that discourage you. Instead, find time every day to practice, even if it's ten minutes.
Every meditation session will be different, so don't micromanage or squelch your practice with a specific expectation or agenda. Instead, have the courage to explore whatever arises at that time, and in that moment.
Take breaks between sessions if you meditate more than once a day. Ideally, I like to practice three times a day. I have a short sadhana session in the morning, a japa practice in the afternoon, and then a longer sadhana session in the evening.
Remember that productive confusion is a necessary part of the learning process. It stimulates curiosity, it encourages inquiry, and it opens new doorways to awareness and understanding.
Be curious, be open, and give yourself permission to sit with confusion in your practice. Invite it to tea without an ulterior motive. Follow its loops, twists, arcs, and jagged edges to see where it might lead you.
Happy practicing and learning, everyone!
By the way, I've added several new mala designs to the MMM website recently, so if you haven't visited in a while, I invite you to view the online collection at middlemoonmalas.com.