They say everything happens for a reason. I say they’re wrong. Prolonged chronic pain, for instance, can cause immense suffering with no redeeming trade-off.
But sometimes a door does close in a way that allows another door to open.
I’ve recently begun taking a medication which serves its purpose but has a yucky side effect: I feel more agitated than usual and, as a result, am more tempted to act out.
The other day, I was disconnected four times from various well-meaning AT&T reps in the course of a simple inquiry. As I waited on hold for a fifth rep from this “phone company,” I could feel the bile coming up. When I realized that the new customer service person had a very thick accent and a poor command of the English language, I noticed with chagrin that I was significantly angrier and less tolerant than I would have been sans medication. It took a real -- and not altogether successful -- effort not to take my frustration out on her.
What had happened, I wondered, to the compassionate, nonjudgmental, peaceful soul my meditation practice was supposedly helping to foster?
The next few times I sat, I couldn’t shake the voice in my head telling me I should stop the meds and thus return to my “old, true self.” But over the course of several days, I came to understand more clearly than ever that there was no old self and no new self. Rather, there’s an ever-changing set of sensations and thoughts which arise unbidden out of our moment-to-moment experience. These, in turn, reflect the whole of our environment, most definitely including all the chemicals we ingest.
We boomers who find ourselves older and more preoccupied with doctors and pills than we ever imagined have no choice but to try to cope with this. In the case of the medicine, sure, I can choose to lose it. But I can do that later. For now, I’m going to go stay with it and keep close tabs on benefits versus difficulties, a strategy endorsed by my doctor.
Vipassana practice, as I understand it, teaches that we endeavor to embrace the inevitable fluidity of life. Not with a deluded Pollyannish optimism, but rather with the idea that full awareness of each moment -- no matter how tough-- is the best chance we’ve got to minimize the extra suffering that too often accompanies our very real, unavoidable pain.
I’m also learning -- in a way no book can teach -- that judging myself harshly for being more aggressive isn’t the only way to look at this change in my experience. As one who has aimed to please all my life, often at my own peril, mixing it up with bureaucrats can be quite self-affirming, as long as I can steer clear of meanness. Mindfulness plays an invaluable role here. When I succeed in catching the bare sensation of anger welling up, I identify it as coming straight from a pill -- not from my “character” -- and try to act with a healthier balance of self-regard and compassion for others.
In my day-to-day practice, meanwhile, I’m more tuned in than ever to body sensations. When my stomach begins to get worked up about the unconscionable outrageousness of the handyman I’ve never met who’s stood me up for the third time, I suffer a little less. If I’m lucky, I can even laugh at myself.
Every couple of weeks we feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire. To read Michael's other dharmablog posts, go here.
Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company. He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint. He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond. Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.