Day four on the cushion. My thoughts are all over the place. What has to be done today in the office? Is it going to snow this weekend? How will I be OK when my parents die? I probably haven’t learned a thing about meditation in all these years. But one thought that I had was a real pick-me-up: I was thinking about, well—don’t let this creep you out—I was thinking about you. Usually sitting with my coworkers just makes me feel grateful that I have a job where office meditation is encouraged (and, in this case, not only encouraged but required!)—I see us as a little sangha. But today I imagined you and everybody else out there taking part in the challenge with us this month. My sense of sangha widened out to wherever you find yourself sitting today. This isn’t just something nice to say; you can see the widening circle when you drop by the book club.

After describing a horrific event witnessed a few years ago, where a gunman entered a church and shot a number of people in the congregation, one participant writes:

i completely stopped formal practice because every time i sat, i felt panicked and trapped and couldn’t, or didn’t, make myself sit with it. i’ve watched my behaviors become much less skillful over time and my level of compassion drop. i’m home-bound due to impairments and it all became such a marvelous excuse to get sloppy and stop practicing metta as well. so this seems like the perfect opportunity to challenge myself again; to give myself back the gift of practice that i let slip away.

Sharon responds:

What a terrible event. I remember when it happened. It always strikes me as such a huge violation when violence happens in the very places we choose for closeness and safety—a relationship, a church. It seems almost inevitable that after a trauma, when one gets quiet, powerful and painful emotions and memories (as well as body memories) will surface. One of the skills of meditation practice, as you allude to, is learning how to be with them in a healthy way, so we don’t panic at their appearance, and also don’t get submerged in them. This is true, of course, for far more than traumatic responses. One of the keys is knowing we can titrate the experience… we can feel empowered to move our attention to something easier to be with, like listening to sounds, or a relaxed, easy place in the body. Or opening our eyes. Or lovingkindness for ourselves. It’s an experiment. We’re looking for a sense of balance in relationship to our experience, not for a breakthrough. Of course we’d all love a breakthrough, to be able to say “At noon i finally loved myself completely,” or “This afternoon I vanquished that pattern of fear.” But the reality of our work is that it is based on the idea that healing comes from balance, insight comes from balance. So even as you are resuming a meditation practice, know that within any one session, it is fine (and indeed appropriate) to keep remembering balance—to feel free to shift your focus, to be kind to yourself.

So on day four of this challenge I’d like to say thank you to everybody for enriching my practice and welcome you to our little hodgepodge office sangha. There’s Phil sitting zazen, James doing vipassana, Monty visualizing an ornate Tibetan deity, and Rachel trying to keep her attention on the breath. I’m not sure if William, one of our interns, has a regular practice, but he is sitting with us too. And there you are, wherever you are, sitting with us in the variety of different ways that you practice. As for me, who knows what I’m doing. Thinking about snow and samsara. Oh, and you. I’m thinking about snow and samsara and you.

Join the challenge here.

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