Lisa Hills, InsightLA sangha member, writer, teacher, and parent, will post here every couple of weeks with her reflections on "the dragons in our lives." You can read her other posts here.
As I sat with closed eyes amidst 150 strangers in a conference room nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my anxiety – an anxiety that has been life-long and often paralyzing -- dissolved into a shifting mixture of anger, sadness and a desire to play. This revelatory experience occurred during a weeklong professional training for prospective teachers of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – a program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn at Massachusetts General Hospital and taught at InsightLA. In this training, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli help prospective MBSR teachers develop their own meditation practices. As they guided us through meditations and discussions, they repeatedly offered a simple choice: we could attend to our sensory experiences and learn from them, or believe our existing and often erroneous ideas about these experiences. I discovered that even the most unpleasant sensations are wiser and more fun than my ideas about them.
But I was nervous about bedtime. To fall asleep, I read until I doze off. Teachers on silent retreats generally instruct participants not to read. Jon and Saki emphasized the importance of this instruction. Each retreat, I prepare for this instruction, as a smoker would listen to a non-smoking policy: I look for ways around it. This time, I had downloaded an audio version of Jon’s Full Catastrophe Living onto my iPod.
Armed with my escape plan, I decided to treat my nervous bedtime thoughts as I had been treating all my thoughts during the past four days. As they arose, I gently told myself to pay attention to the sensations underneath the words, the feelings that words couldn’t capture. When worries about falling asleep appeared, I reminded myself that I didn’t know what would happen when I got into bed. I did know, however, that this imagined future state would spring from how I treated this present moment. So I turned my attention to how nervousness felt in my chest, my belly, and my feet; how my limbs tingled with energy; how my rib cage and abdomen expanded and deflated with each breathe. I spent the day focusing on the sensations that made up my experiences. My mind wandered. I brought it back to my body.
When we gathered for the last sit of the day, I felt relaxed and confident. Then my throat clenched, my chest tightened. “No! Not now!” I protested with increasing panic, “This is the last sit. I won’t be able to ask Jon or Saki for help. They’ll be too tired. I’ll be alone with this overwhelming anxiety. I can’t do this. I don’t know how.”
Then an internal, calm voice suggested, “What if you just let it be? You’re calling these sensations anxiety, but you don’t know what they are. Could you let them be as big as they want to be?” The audaciousness of this suggestion silenced my alarmed thoughts. Why not? I knew I was physically safe. I also knew that Jon and Saki had decades of retreat experience; surely they could handle an anxiety attack, even a huge one. So I put my hand on my chest and let the feelings rip.
Almost immediately, a huge dragon, like the ones you see in a Chinese New Year parade, unfurled itself from my heart and roared fire on all the other meditators. “Wow, rage,” I thought, “I didn’t know I was so angry.” After exhaling all its fire, the dragon turned into a young girl, about four or five years old. She lay on the floor, kicking her black patent leather Mary Jane-clad feet against a white wall. When her thrashing suddenly stopped, she started crying. “Stop pressuring me,” she whispered between sobs. “Why won’t you let me play? I just want to play.” My heart opened to and held this little girl.
When the sit finished, I felt calmly exhilarated. Before crawling into bed, I lay on my bed, like that little girl, with my legs up the wall, and did some relaxing yoga poses. And then I curled up, listening to the night’s noises, and went to sleep.
The next day, I looked for opportunities to play. I climbed a tree and swung upside down on a jungle gym. I promised to listen to the impulses that lay underneath what I used to call my anxiety. Now, as with all promises made on retreat, I need to keep remembering.
In addition to being a meditator, Lisa Hills, Ph.D. is a writer, teacher and parent. She has been practicing meditation with the support of Trudy Goodman, InsightLA and her kalyana mitta (spiritual friendship) group for seven years. Since the birth of her son, Owen, two years ago and the completion of her English Ph.D. at UCLA, Lisa has focused on parenting and writing plays and personal essays. She currently teaches a mindfulness and writing workshop for parents with Tandy Parks in Santa Monica.