Recently, on a Buddhist-based news feed I follow, where people diss each other to an alarming degree, someone complained about the “I’m better than you because I’m so spiritual” vibe prevalent in some circles. Then the complaint came closer to home: A friend told me she found me to be “too Buddhist and aloof.” The proximity of these two events gave me food for thought: Has mindfulness made me a bitch?
“Bitch” is a very popular word in our colloquial lexicon these days. I’ve seen it applied both positively and negatively to men, women, ideas, events, and even motorbikes. In this case I’m using it in two ways. First, to get your attention—did it work?—and second, to describe what I consider a gender-neutral manifestation of the ego: the know-it-all.
Before I started practicing meditation, I didn’t know if I was coming or going. Multiple answers came and went, but the question of what life was all about kept rolling around like a loose marble on my hamster wheel of a mind. I actively sought guidance.
My quest for wisdom began with an audience with a famous Hindu teacher. The room was packed and people were chanting. I was told that when the swami touched my head with a peacock feather, I would receive clarity. It was difficult not to admire his followers. They were all smiling brightly and looked like they had “the answer.” I stood in line, offered some fruit, got bopped with the feather, and it was immediately crystal clear: I was, indeed, confused.
So how did all this lead to bitchiness? Well, let’s start with a process, a from-here-to-there, a classic Zen teaching on the path to awakening: Before enlightenment, the mountains are mountains. Then as one seeks, the mountains are not mountains. And after enlightenment, the mountains are mountains. Only my version is: “First there is confusion, then there is a smug bitch—and then there is nothing.” Stay with me.
I brought that full dump-truck load of confusion to the meditation cushion when I finally found an environment sufficiently compelling to get me to stop, sit, and look at my mind. My very first introduction to meditation was offered by an extremely pregnant, good-humored young woman. No fanfare. No fruit. I was one of a bunch of beginners, and the teaching was straightforward and down-to-earth. I was all in.
We were told to sit in a comfortable, alert posture and follow the breath. Whenever a thought arose, we were to notice it, label it “thinking,” and gently return our awareness to our breathing, with particular attention on the out breath. Easy peasy! A gong was struck to begin each session, and when the sound faded, we were left to our own experience.
Once I entered the practice, I had very little awareness of anything else. Easy vanished after the first 10 minutes, and I was overwhelmed by a tsunami of self-created nightmares, looping desires, and unbridled ambitions, and an ocean of sadness that rose and fell, and rose and fell, ad nauseam. If you have never been there, if you didn’t experience a meltdown during the early stages of meditation practice, then maybe you were picking flowers. I found myself digging down into the grubby, murky convolutions of memory and impulse—the manure, so to speak, that flowery little everyday thoughts grow on top of. Just the sheer number of thoughts was alarming! I had a manic mind of thoughts, and it took hours, weeks, months of sitting meditation to settle even just a bit.
Thankfully there was consistent guidance at this stage. I was assigned a personal meditation instructor I could meet with regularly to talk about my experiences. No matter what came up, I was frequently and kindly reminded to return to my breath, again and again and again. When I finally lifted my head out of the cesspool of swirling light and dark, so many things had happened. I’d looked into forbidden corners, and I’d brought myself back from the endlessly twining entrails of my imagination. Thoughts had been released and emotions had dissolved. The process was visceral: great heart swells, deep sighs, tears, pain, and surprising spaces in between. I felt like a tiny shoot struggling out of the earth into the air for the first time. It was a moment accompanied by a distinct flash of joy.
The bitchiness started when I began to think I was onto something.
In his Essentials of Mahamudra Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche wrote, “To think that shamatha—the simple peaceful state of the mind at rest—is the mind’s way of being . . . is a mistake.”
In other words, quieting the mind is only the beginning of the path. What I experienced—that brief respite from the onslaught of thinking; that attractive, effervescent bubbling of relief—was just the start of a much longer process that could literally take lifetimes. In my naïveté, I thought I had seen the light and all I had to do was poke my little finger into it to make it bigger.
That momentary experience became the touchstone for my meditation. “Bad” meditation was when my mind was lost in thought, and “good” meditation was when my mind was happy and controlled.
As a result, my bitchiness took on some very specific forms. Armed with the bits of new clarity that naturally come with tranquility meditation, I became ambitious. “Ambition to convey the truth is basically good,” the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa wrote in a manual for shamatha instructors, “but at the same time one’s ego could tend to become tightened and hardened.” He could have been reading my mind. What I really wanted was to be one of those smiley bright types with the answer. Over time I became extremely good at ritual practices and managing tasks around the sangha, and through mastery of those things I developed a slightly superior demeanor. I made slow, deliberate movements choreographed to display my thoroughly mindful attention to details. I softened my face, intensified my eye contact, and perfected my holier-than-thou, never-get-perturbed look.
It wasn’t just me and my mind on the cushion anymore. It was me and my mind plotting and planning and judging others. The practice itself became an opportunity to snap up an experience and turn it into a sound bite for my imagined acolytes. I seduced, I faked, I finagled. And now I was ready to teach others. How hard could that be?
Looking back, I realize I jumped into the credentialized version of bestowing my “knowledge” on others long before I understood where the complete path was headed. I was on a fast track to climb the ropes and become important. I’m embarrassed to admit that after years of suffering in confusion, I was looking for a win, not enlightenment. That could take eons! I didn’t really understand nonexistence and egolessness, even though I could talk about them. Now, thanks to the ups and downs of the path of practice, I see that these truths are at the core of Buddhism.
But I wasn’t conscious of that at the time. I was self-conscious. I was doing everything I had always done to preserve my self. Ego is not a habit that can be easily broken at a month-long, all-inclusive meditation/yoga/ayahuasca retreat. Ego is the addictive game we’ve all played since childhood, maybe since the beginning of time. We so want to exist. We so want to be something. Something that works for us. Something that gets us attention and guarantees the safety of an identity in this crazy, complicated, overwhelming world. We want to be solid, not empty. We want to be in control. That’s the truth of suffering.
Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is the driver’s manual for what I experienced at this stage in my practice. “When we have learned all the tricks and answers of the spiritual game,” he wrote, “we automatically try to imitate spirituality, since real involvement would require the complete elimination of ego, and actually the last thing we want to do is to give up the ego completely.”
Our ego, the same ego we’ve lugged around all our lifetimes, embraces the spiritual path as its new breeding ground, and we mistake that for progress. As Trungpa observed, “Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality.” The irony is that meditation is a gentle practice that opens us up to the realization that our very identity is a sham, and that’s a bit of a whammy. It’s natural to want to run away.
I have grown to see this as a very tender point of transition. When you begin to get a real taste of the teachings, glimpse egolessness, and can finally look up from your own suffering to see the suffering of others, it’s time to talk about compassion.
Egolessness and compassion have to be deeply experienced and understood. That takes a lot of practice and study. People on a fast track who convince themselves they’ve “got it” before they do inevitably end up crumpled on the road, victims of their own game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve been there more than once. Having my tail between my legs is sad, painful, and a relief. Right there, that moment, with the ego shattered on the ground, is the prime time to see the mind as it really is: utterly empty and filled with compassion.
Thank heaven and earth there are genuine teachers who have mapped this process. Without them I would have quit a long time ago. Tenacity, driven by a certain desperation, may be my only spiritual virtue. I’ve often felt my sense of progress oscillating, but now, after many years of returning to my breath, I can honestly say I feel less at the mercy of a whole range of emotions that once had control over my actions, reactions, and interactions.
So no, mindfulness did not make me a bitch: I’ve been one all along! I just wrapped my habitual bitchiness up in new clothes. Mindfulness helps me by highlighting my ego when it arises and reminding me to add a little kindness to the mix.
How fast one moves along the path is very personal, but the traditionally suggested rate is the walk of an elephant. I have taken that to heart. I’ve seen too many people ruin their meditation by becoming experts, teachers, or self-proclaimed leaders. I may be a beginner all my life, and that’s a good place to be. If I come across as aloof, well, it’s because I’m still learning how to hone that sharpness with compassion.
In the meantime my mantra is: Sit, sit, sit.
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