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The Way in is the Way out

 

An old friend told me he felt like something was missing in his life. He talked about filling a void. He took a new job thinking that would solve it. But the void was still there. He talked about his lack of mindfulness, his habit of over-eating, and the way he always feels like having the TV on to fill the silence.

I can relate to feeling like there is something missing. This is what led me to meditation. But what I've come to realize through the practice of meditation is that this feeling of emptiness, which we might refer to as a void, is not the problem.

We will always know a feeling of loneliness, a feeling of loss, a fear of the unknown. These feelings define the human condition, and if I want to be more human, more real, more at peace with my world, then I have to move towards this void, not try to escape from the discomfort.

Moving towards the void takes courage. The meditator walks straight into it. First we learn to be present with our breath and our thoughts. Later we may contemplate birth, death, the decisions we make, compassion. Sometimes we discover emptiness in concepts, like love. This can be uncomfortable or even painful, but by walking through the fire we develop courage and a greater capacity to see the world clearly.

I've heard this courageous step described in many different ways. I like, "the way in, is the way out." Pema Chodron says, "feel the feeling, drop the storyline."

These phrases remind us that when we feel discomfort, we need to investigate. Our natural reaction is to escape, so cultivating this curiosity takes practice. We turn on the TV, we look at our smartphones, we seek all kinds of entertaining things to distract ourselves from the painful realities of life.

My friend asked for advice on how to investigate his fear and discomfort. I suggested shamatha meditation, which he was open to, but he wanted practical advice on what to do when he eats too much and what he should do when he is lying awake in bed, unable to sleep.

My advice was to do things that make him aware of his body. I suggested breathing exercises for those sleepless nights, and I suggested that he punctuate the transitions in his day with moments of intentional awareness.

One way to do this is to take a moment when you are walking into a building or through a door. You can stand outside and run through three steps before you step inside:

  1. Stop - cut through whatever you are thinking and look around. 
  2. Breathe - take a deep breath
  3. Be - feel what it feels like to be in your body, with the air conditioning on your skin, the hunger in your belly, whatever you notice at that moment.

If you are practicing meditation or just trying to be more present throughout your day, it might help to know that feeling like you are inside your body is a clear indication that you are building your awareness. Meditation sitting practice is training for greater awareness. If we want to have big muscles we go to the gym. If we want to have big awareness, we practice sitting meditation.

Practicing meditation enhances my awareness. I'm more likely to notice when I'm about to eat too much, or when I'm anxious, or when I'm trying to escape from some discomfort. When I notice things I don't like, I try not to beat myself up. Sometimes I'll even just let it happen.

The noticing is what will create the change. The more I notice, the more I recognize what needs to happen in the future.

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