Monday, March 11, 2013

The 90-second Thing

"The only rule is to suffer the pain." --Rumi

I have been immersing myself in Pema Chodron lately. Taking the Leap is on my nightstand. The Three Commitments on my iPod. Pema's voice in my head when I sit down to meditate. (I have even been experimenting with an "eyes open" meditation technique, completely anathema to me in the past.)

One of the things I have learned - and am practicing - is what she calls "the 90-second thing."

This technique comes via Jill Bolte Taylor (whose brilliant TED talk "My Stroke of Insight" is in the top twenty of most-watched TED talks ever) a brain researcher who studied herself as she had a stroke. One of the things Dr. Jill observed was that her emotions, when not fueled by thoughts, lasted only about 90 seconds and then dissipated.

In The Three Commitments, Pema shares this discovery as a technique to use in your spiritual practice. As a way to train in being present, in resisting what she calls shenpa (attachment).

It is simple to learn - and unbelievably difficult to perfect - but well worth the effort.

Here it is in a nutshell: When an emotion comes up, instead of reacting to it with resistance or thinking, just sit with it. Feel it. Lean into it. And see how long it lasts. Or, how long you can last.

Maybe the first time you try it you can go only a few seconds without turning to your habitual pattern (whatever that may be). Maybe only one second. Keep trying.

As you progress, see if you can make it 90 seconds - or longer if necessary. See if you can make it to the other side.

I have tried this on a few occasions and have even made it to the other side once or twice. I'd like to tell you about one such experience. 

A few days ago my husband and I were out for a walk and he said something about me that stung. I reacted immediately and we fought.

The next morning I was still hurting and my mind got busy dredging up all sorts of thoughts about him from the past and the future, that showed just what kind of a horrible and hurtful person he is.

I was agitating the event like a washing machine, churning up a new piece of dirty laundry every few seconds, when my husband came home from a run, flushed and triumphant.

He came into the living room where I was reading and brooding and attempted to start a conversation. Immediately I added this transgression to the mix - He has to come in and interrupt me when I am reading. Doesn't he know this is MY TIME before the kids get up? - and kissed him perfunctorily before sending him on his way.

Everything all right? he asked, now suspicious and careful, looking at me like a bomb about to go off.

Fine, I grumbled, not looking up.

Okay, he said, backing away slowly.

After he left I immediately felt guilty. He didn't deserve that.

But...my hateful self interjected. But he HAD interrupted me. And he HAD gotten to go for a run while I stayed home with the kids. And he HAD insulted me last night. 

Then I remembered the 90-second thing and I decided to try it.

I sat quietly for a moment and remembered what he had said, and how it had felt to hear it and I just sat with the feelings. Sadness. Anger. Pain. Regret. Defensiveness. Fear.

Ah, fear. My old friend.

I have a lot of fear, but it is buried pretty deeply inside, usually under a whole heap of anger.

I started to count. 1-2-3-4-5-6...

I didn't make it to 90. Not even close. Somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds I realized that the fear was gone. It had been replaced by a clear and clean calm. It felt so good.

In this clear and clean calm I could see that what my husband said last night wasn't really about last night. It wasn't even about this morning.

It was about freedom and our lives and how we are both stuck in these roles right now - me as housewife and he as breadwinner - that sometimes feel like traps.

What he said last night made me feel trapped and reminded me of that feeling as did his nonchalantly going for a run and then coming home and taking a shower and leaving again without even a thought that someone has to take care of the kids, wake them up, get them breakfast, see them off to school.

And so I shoved my feeling trapped onto him, forgetting that he was heading out to work where he would sit at a desk and write reports and field questions and handle complaints all day long while I was free to go for a run or read a book or take in a movie (though also of course to scrub the toilets and wash the dishes and do sixteen loads of laundry).

What I couldn't see through my anger and my fear is that we are both trapped and we are both free. That we have both chosen - and are choosing every day - to be a little bit trapped by this life we have made together, but that given the choice, neither of us would choose any other life (and I know that we'd be crazy to) and that is a kind of freedom.

Moreover, it's a kind of freedom that 90% of the world just doesn't have.

I also learned that underneath all of my anger and all of my fear, is a beautiful and clear place of calm. And that I could get there in less than 90 seconds.

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