February 07, 2013

Meditation Month, Day 7: Thanking my Suffering

This past weekend, I told my friends when it was over, will hereby be known as The Weekend of the Unfortunate Decisions. It was a series of choices so emotionally masochistic that they deserve to be capitalized, bolded, and forever flagged in my memory's archives as "Things I Should Never, Ever Do Again."

The emotional stress of this behavior led to a low but persistent hum of anxiety that vibrated through my body without rest for days. Because I was anxious, I forgot to eat. I couldn't sleep. Meanwhile, I was exercising like mad in a misguided effort to purge the tension from my system. So I can hardly claim surprise when my body shut down on me on Sunday night, and I was left, anxiety-ridden and sleep-deprived, to deal with a very bad case of low blood sugar, a fever, and a panic attack entirely of my own making.

Needless to say, I dropped the ball on the meditation challenge this weekend. Practicing self-care just isn't part of the equation when you're off being an emotional train wreck.

And yet, hitting bottom is not without its own strange blessings. The Weekend of the Unfortunate Decisions, though unfortunate, was also a loud wake-up call. I moved into this week with a dogged determination to take care of myself. That meant sticking to the meditation challenge. (And eating my vitamins. Oh, and making better general life choices.)

Outside of the challenge, I do have a habitual yoga and meditation practice that I'm fairly good about honoring. I've been at it for a few years now, so it was jarring for me to realize that judging by the events of this weekend, there's a very large and—until now—unacknowledged gap between what I'm doing on the cushion and what I'm doing off of it. What's the point in spending hours developing concentration, resting in awareness, and extending metta to all sentient beings if none of the lessons I'm learning are being brought into my daily life in any genuine way?

Monday and Tuesday, as I practiced, I was mentally sucker-punched by doubts.  I could still feel the effects, emotionally and physically, of my disastrous weekend. I was alarmed that the choices I had made had happened at all. I began to doubt myself. I began to doubt the practice. What kind of meditator am I, anyway? Have I not made any progress at all? Wait…have I been meditating wrong this whole time?

Yesterday I found myself back on the cushion and back with the doubt. But by then I had had enough. Yes, I had suffered. So what? It was just the first noble truth manifesting. And yes, my emotions had snowballed until they turned into a veritable avalanche of bad decisions. It's okay—just the law of cause and effect in action. This is life. This is what happens. I don't have to extend my suffering when the suffering is done.

So I sat and I watched my doubt and my judgment as they diminished, quieted, faded. And I found, when they had lain down for the night, that I could thank my suffering for the unshakeable conviction that yes—I really need to practice.

—Emma Varvaloucas, Associate Editor

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Hanny2's picture

during times such as you describe, i find it helpful to bring to mind advice i give to my dog timmy. sit. and stay.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Haha, excellent advice, thanks!

skwood1234's picture

Thanks for this. We all mess up, and one of my trials is returning to the sanity of practice. It happens with my meditation practice, my tai chi practice, and my healthy living/weight loss practices. I'll be going along on a skillful course, then, BOOM, a series of unfortunate decisions... My challenge is getting back to center. Sometimes I just abandon ship. "Oh, I have messed up. Guess that's just not for me." Your post reminds me that it's good to notice, consider, and yes, return to the practice.

When I do that, I feel a lot better. Inside and out.


Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi skwood, thanks for your comment. It's sort of the meta version of returning to the breath, isn't it? While you practice, you return to the breath again and again. And in life, you return to the practice again and again too. We're exercising our "getting back to center" muscles, if you will. Thinking about it that way makes me less hard of myself when I do mess up. Good to know I'm not alone :)

DharmaHero's picture

Emma thanks for sharing all that, your emotional upheavals, your doubt and your frustration. As someone who's very recent life choices make him more akin to Chögyam Trungpa (and I 'd rather not be a buddhist than emulate this guy) than to the Buddha, I can relate to hitting bottoms and hearing alarm calls. I am taking heed of them and continuing with more resolve down the path and through it all. You also seem to be a perfectionist like myself (but I could be wrong)... and boy what a bummer this is.... one tries to be perfect at even being imperfect... All the best. DH.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi DharmaHero, thank you for sharing, too. It's very helpful to hear from other Buddhists who relate to this. Now that you mention it, I did feel a bit like Chogyam Trungpa that past weekend, and not in a good crazy wisdom sort of way... :)
And yeah, you've got me. I admit it, I'm a perfectionist! Just another something to take heed of and let go.
May you be well.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Don't stress, Emma. Such is the practice of life, and enjoying each and every moment of it no matter what happens!

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Thanks, Dominic! I'll try to remember that.

fightclubbuddha's picture

You state that "hitting bottom is not without its own strange blessings." That's true, if you really have hit bottom.

"Hitting bottom isn't a weekend retreat. It's not a seminar. You have to forget everything you know, everything you think you know ... about life, about friendship ... Stop trying to control everything and just let go." Tyler Durden

That is the essence of letting go. That is Practice.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hm, I'm not sure if I hit bottom according to Tyler Durden's standards, but let's admit it: he's much more of a badass than I'll ever be. I'll try to keep that quote in mind, thanks.
P.S. You must really love Fight Club! Good book/movie.

fightclubbuddha's picture

Well, I "studied" Zen for many years. I read Alan Watts and Suzuki and others, and I told myself that I was a Buddhist, that Buddhist beliefs were my beliefs. But I was really just spinning my wheels. Watts and Suzuki only got me to study Zen. It was Tyler Durden who got me to practice.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi Nancy,
Thank you for your kind words. It's comforting to hear that others have gone through similar things. In times like these I like to remember the tenth-century monk Hakuin, who said that there were three essential aspects to the practice of zazen: great faith, great doubt, and great resolve. At least we've nailed one!
With metta,

Indigo44's picture


I certainly do relate to what you have written. Yes, been there and done that as well. Doubting myself, doubting the practice, doubting everything. Things are much better now that the doubt has faded. Your practice of yoga and of meditation will help you through the phase of doubt, this is also what I practice. It has helped me.

With Kind Regards