Sampling the Self

by Janine Bloomfield

In these times of Zoom meditation gatherings, I am reminded of in-person teaching and want to share one such moment from past times when we were together. I’m looking forward to being together again and feeling the warmth and support of in-person learning, practicing, and connection.

The small meditation room at the Seattle Shambhala Center is an intimate space for an intimate activity. For some, it is their first chance to practice meditation in a group setting. For others, it may be their first experience of meditation altogether. And for some, it is a chance to ask questions on topics they’ve held deep inside and never had someone to talk to about.

Nine rectangular blue cushion blocks known as Gomdens are arranged in the small downstairs practice room in rows, staggered so that the meditators can see me, the teacher, in the front. Next to me is a brass gong in the shape of a round bowl and a round wooden mallet topped with russet brown felt, ready to strike the tone marking the opening and closing of the practice session.

After giving an introduction to meditation and leading a short practice session, I ask if there are any questions. After that moment when everyone looks around to see who is going to be brave enough to go first, a woman in her 20’s, wearing yoga pants and a loose black sweater, raises her hand.

“I really enjoyed the lesson, and I can meditate when I come here, but it’s really hard to do it on my own. Any suggestions? ”

This is a question I get, in one form or another, almost every time I teach meditation.  Sometimes people say they can’t meditate some days because when they begin to sit, they feel they are thinking too much, or their mind is racing; others say it’s just too painful.

I answer, “I get it. It’s hard to sit sometimes. All sorts of powerful emotions and feelings often arise when the mind is allowed to open up and not be focused on a particular task or activity.”

The group is listening, and I see some nods.

“But that’s actually one of the best and most helpful times to sit–when there is so much available to notice, in a nonjudgmental, unbiased view that we cultivate as part of the awareness element of meditation. When a thought, emotion or feeling arises, we remember: not good, not bad, it just is — and return to the breath.”

One of the teachers at Shambhala likes to call those kinds of thoughts and feelings the “juicy” ones. They are the ones that are rich with the experience of our lives. We can still apply the basic practice: to notice, hold off judgement, acknowledge them, then return to the original object of meditation — the breath. This is the way we as practitioners get to practice awareness over the whole range and gamut of our experience as human beings, not just the calm and relaxing moments. Those moments of anger, sadness, hope, boredom, hyper-racing thoughts, and dull, empty moments are our experience of life and so worthy of notice.

As a scientist by training, I often think of this as sampling my self. In Seattle, where many of our visitors come from the tech and science world themselves, it’s an analogy that really makes sense for many.

Here’s how it works. Say you are taking a survey or making observations in a natural area. You choose a certain number of samples to represent the larger population or the natural location you are trying to describe. You usually can’t measure everything or everyone; it’s too time consuming and generally just isn’t practical.

For example, let’s say you want to know how many people in a given neighborhood like milk. You will never realistically be able to ask everyone. But you could ask a representative subset – maybe 100 people in a neighborhood with a population of 10,000. To do it well, you would want to include children, adults, people of different races, different genders, and so on. If you only sampled 8-year-old kids you’d get one answer; if you only sampled 70-year-old lactose-intolerant retirees you’d get a very different one.

So, let’s take this analogy back to the cushion. Meditation helps us to be open and aware, whatever arises in our mental processes and physical sensations. If you only meditate at times when you are feeling calm and well rested, you might become very aware of what calmness and peacefulness feel like. But what about the more difficult times, when thoughts are racing, it hurts to sit, and life is tough?  Alternatively, if you only remember to meditate when you are feeling stuck or in pain, is there less chance of resting in ordinary joy?

By practicing every day, our sample is more likely to include all different kinds of moods and mental states. Tiredness, anger, joy, boredom, racing mind, empty mind, loneliness, and yes, calm. And we apply the same technique every time, like asking the same question to everyone, young and old: “Do you like milk?” But in this case, it’s not a question, it’s a mental stance. It’s the reminder we give ourselves to apply the basic technique of meditation. Notice, try not to decide if the thought or feeling or emotion is good or bad, right or wrong, interesting or boring. Then return to the feeling of the breath in the body, the feeling of being a human being, right now, the experience of being alive.

In this way, we are showing up for the richness and complexity and sadness and joyousness of life. Experiencing and bearing witness to all the moments of our lives is of great benefit to ourselves and the way we relate to others we encounter. The more we can notice, accept, and be open to how we are, the better we can notice and accept this in others. And the more we can see, for ourselves and others, what needs improvement, as well as comfort, for what is currently stuck and painful.

This is the beauty and the promise of meditation. This is the bounty that comes from sampling our self by meditating every day.

I look at the time.

“Is everyone ready to join the group upstairs for more sitting?”

A few more nods; the woman in the yoga pants looks thoughtful. Everyone gets up and files out of the room and up the stairs to the large practice room. Each of us finds a seat among the cushions or the chairs facing the shrine, the timekeeper, and the big glass windows with the cherry trees outside. Settling in for another sit. Another sample in the long experiment that is our life.

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