For better or worse—and more often, worse—expectations are built into our practice. We will become more competent and ethical people, kinder and more compassionate; we’ll achieve a balance and will sail through our toughest days with poise and grace. And maybe we’ll even get enlightened. So it’s often an unpleasant shock when we discover that in some ways we haven’t changed much at all, or at least that those glitches we thought we’d worked through have simply lain dormant, ready to ambush us when we least expect it, exposing our imagined progress for mere conceit. We’re not where we thought we were on the path; worse, we’re not even who we thought we were.
In this issue’s “How Meditation Failed Me,” psychotherapist and author Mark Epstein discovers just this. As a child he’d been largely successful concealing a stammer, learning various strategies for making it to the end of a sentence smoothly. But preparing to read for the audio version of one of his books, he finds that the old ghosts have returned. He’s stuck, unable to utter the first word. “As an author,” he writes, “and especially as a Buddhist psychiatrist, I wished to appear relaxed, open, flexible, friendly, competent, and smart.” Tongue-tied, he exhausts all the old strategies, including meditation, to no avail. “It’s as if,” he laments, “I were back in the second grade.”
Practice is a path, not a formula. Nothing can prepare us for what we haven’t experienced, and in each moment we must learn anew. Practice can, though, bring about a spiritual fitness that makes it likelier that we’ll find our way. “Being open to any given moment is more important than knowing what to do,” a Tibetan teacher recently said to his students. “Sometimes what you know can be your problem.”
For Epstein, a mind full of notions of who he was, or should be—or how he thought he ought to appear—stood in the way of the words that eventually flowed.
Daily life is full of such obstacles, yet for the practitioner, however painful, they can be opportunities for insight and growth. It’s another matter altogether, though, when what we’re ultimately practicing for comes to pass. In her thirties and full of life, Teri Dillion learned one spring day that she had ALS, a degenerative disease that causes progressive paralysis and ends in death within a few years of diagnosis. On the advice of her teacher, she decides to double down on her practice—until day two: “Something in me knew that my belief in earnest striving had been irrevocably punctured,” Dillion writes. “Pushing for realization now seemed useless. In some respects, I suspected my journey of waking up had only begun.”
Like Epstein, Dillion exhausts regimens both spiritual and physical to no avail. Maybe, she concludes, recovery isn’t the right goal for her anymore. “Not that I didn’t deserve it,” she muses, “but maybe I deserved the lessons that come from surrender and grace even more.” (See “Making Our Own Jewels.”)
I can’t count the number of articles we’ve run—or the teachings I’ve heard—on letting go. And I think for maybe a month Frozen’s theme song took up residence in my mind like an earworm, which is ironically apt: anyone who has suffered such a visitation knows that “letting go” is out of the question; it occurs to you that letting go isn’t something you do. It’s at times like this that complete defeat is the best teaching: stripping us of exaggerated notions of agency, it can invite humility, an acceptance of our own very human frailty. For Mark Epstein, the poignant humor of his condition brought with it the sort of recognition and self-acceptance that was in part the fruit of his practice. For Teri Dillion, the stakes much higher, it was opening to her lot that allowed her to embrace with some joy what life she had left. “Despite the people who claimed they would rather die than experience my fate,” she writes, “my life still had value. It was still, to me, a life worth living.”
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