An Example of Insight Practice in Daily Life

June 28, 2009

YESTERDAY I was sitting in a restaurant in Cambridge waiting for my food. As I was waiting I was people watching. A woman two tables down from mine turned toward me, noticed me looking at her, screwed up her face into (what appeared to be) an expression of disgust, and turned away.

(In reality, I don’t know that she was reacting to me. Perhaps she had an attack of indigestion at the moment that she looked in my direction. Or maybe she has a facial tic that causes her to look disgusted. . .But, for purposes of this example, the important thing is that I perceived her to be shooting me a disapproving look.)

My first reaction was to laugh. My next reaction was, “What’s wrong with her ?” I noticed that some part of me felt insulted and rebuffed and was reacting. Even as I was aware of this, she and her boyfriend had finished eating and were leaving. And as she walked out that reactive aspect of my self was silently sending her the thought: “Don’t think so highly of yourself ! You’re not all that !” I noticed that some part of my mind had not wanted to immediately let go of its feeling of justified anger, but had spun out that last thought, as she left.

I could, at that point, have tried to substitute a positive thought or wish toward her. But that didn’t seem like the way I needed to go at that point. I did not actually harbor any continuing ill will toward her. It was more like a momentary disturbance on the surface of the water rather than a big rock that had sunk to the bottom of the pond. It was clear that the issue was not so much about her, as about recognizing that the habit of feeling vulnerable to a perceived slight is very persistent, and a very common human tendency. It seemed more important to clearly look at the tendency, rather than to cover it over by focusing on generating a “good” loving thought toward this woman, to replace the “bad” critical thought. It really was not about her. It was about the reflex to feel vulnerable to judgment and then to immediately turn that around and deflect it back onto the other person.

My feeling is that, each time that I look directly at that pattern (perceived vulnerability, followed by attack) and see it clearly, it gets a bit weaker. This woman was my friend, in a way, for pointing out to me this continuing pattern, which I share with most people. Thoughts about her fell away, except for thinking that I should remember to write this up for the blog — it would make a good example. This is how we can work with the mind in daily life. This is one way we integrate meditation with our everday life. Our mind is apparently calm. We notice a disturbance. We begin to chase the disturbance outward toward the apparent outward “cause,” then we remember to look inward and see what disturbing emotion has arisen.

Chagdud Tulku used to say, “When we look at the world we think we are looking through a window, but actually we are looking in a mirror.” The world is full of little alarm clocks to wake us up from our sleep.

This does not mean that we do not take appropriate action to defend ourselves or other people, when necessary. But there is a difference between appropriate action and the extra layer of emotional reaction that comes from a mistaken understanding of things. For example, I would call the police to arrest someone if they were trying to break into my house. But I don’t have indulge in indignation over, “How dare THEY break into **MY** house!!” The main focus does not have to be on “MY.” The main focus can be that burglary is harmful and unsafe for the community at large (other people’s houses, as well as my own) and for the person that is breaking in. . . I might also wonder what it is that leads a person to being willing to break into people’s homes. And what happens to such people after they are caught. . .I might also buy better locks or start a neighborhood watch. . .Or I might not. . .I might also decide to meditate more and to be kinder to those I meet. . . I might realize that I take so much for granted (that my house is safe, that my things will be there when I get home). . .I might be thankful, and more fully appreciate the moments of my life, not taking them for granted. . .I might realize that any of my things can be stolen or destroyed or lost at any moment, and start thinking about what it is that truly nourishes me, beyond my things.

Here’s the important point in my example above: in reality, there was no problem. The negative thought that arose toward that woman was the playing out of an automatic reaction arising from deeply held beliefs about my self image. In reality there was never any threat, any offense, or anything to defend. The whole thing was unnecessary and unreal — like an illusion or a mirage, in a way — and yet, it played itself out. Shortly after the moment of becoming aware of it, and in no longer identifying with it, it dissipated almost as quickly as it had arisen.

~ * ~

There are infinite gates to the study and practice of meditative awareness. The common pathway is shamatha (collecting the mind) and vipassana (resting in awareness). But there are infinite methods and modifications, at least one or more of which will suited to each type of person.

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