For anybody I haven’t met, I’m Gayle and this is a student talk. My understanding of these talks is that we are supposed to talk about our own experience of practice and Barry told me a hundred times it’s not a dharma talk, so that’s good. I’m off the hook in that regard. I’ll also just acknowledge that I’m very nervous even though I did every possible thing to prepare for this talk, but I still feel like I’m going to throw up so bear with me.
I told Barry the two themes that I was considering for this talk: one of them was different flavors of giving up, and the other one was successfully being myself, and you probably can guess, his response was, Well, that’s the same talk. To which my response was, Well, all talks are the same talk in the end. So today I’m going to talk about two different flavors of giving up in my life and hopefully weave in successfully being myself by the end.
All my life a certain kind of giving up has been a refuge for me. When I’m in the midst of something difficult, I can think that later I’ll be able to go home, eat something, watch some TV, get in my bed, and just the thought of it would bring this whole wash of relief and relaxation to me. It’s the idea that I can go home, pull the blinds, turn off the phone, and just completely power down and hide out for a little while until I have the strength to go out and do it all again.
When I first started meditation, it was through retreats, Vipassana retreats at places like Spirit Rock and IMS. As soon as I got to the campus of those places, I would feel that same wash of relief come over me. I didn’t have to go on any bad dates on a retreat. I didn’t have to go to the gym or not go to the gym. I didn’t have to make any good or bad decisions about what I was going to eat. Being on those retreats for me mimicked the kind of giving up and crawling in my bed and turning off the phone experience that I loved.
No one would even look at me on retreat. The eyes downcast rule on retreat is a great safety feature. People would say to me, my friends would marvel: I can’t believe you can do it! How can you go sit there all day in silence? And I would say, That’s not hard. I love it! That’s my preferred state. No one talks to me, Don't look at me. And I would just sit there hour after hour. On those retreats, which were long, between one and three weeks, there would always be opening remarks by one of the teachers, and it would always be some variation of “It’s okay.” You’re okay,” and I remember one in particular where the teacher said, If you’re black or white, if you’re straight or gay, if you're tall or short, if you're fat or skinny, or if you’re proud of yourself or ashamed of yourself – whatever you have or haven’t done in your life, you’re welcome here. It really was just exhale, feel safe.
We talked about this a couple of weeks ago in a discussion group. I needed somebody else to say that. It can’t be just me telling myself. It has to come from somebody else. And that was a very powerful support in my first practice, but it wasn’t practice. It was hiding in a way.
For years on those retreats, and also practicing in the city, first with the Vipassana group and then here at OMZ, I never felt a single breath. I know that that’s true because I remember when I did feel it, and it was many years in and I was on one of those IMS retreats, and I felt an inhale. I was able to keep my attention on my breath for an inhale, and I was so excited and I couldn't wait to go to the interview, go to the teacher and tell her I felt the inhale. And to her credit, she was happy for me and encouraging.
After that, after I felt my first inhale, for years until now, when somebody tells me in a yoga class or meditation or whatever, feel your breath, put your attention on your breath, my reflexive response is, Nope. And when I’m in the yoga class on Zoom in my living room, I’ll say that out loud. Put your attention on your breath. Nope. And it’s because I think I feel my breath most prominently in my chest, and it’s in my chest where all my vulnerability seems to live, all of my sadness, disappointments, grief, excitement, love. It all seems to live in my chest. It’s not a refuge in there, not at all. There are wonderful things about putting my attention there, but it’s not hiding out.
The experience that I have over time, when I allow myself to do it, is an experience of understanding. This is my life! The life that I’m leading, this is my actual life! It’s a wonderful life but it’s not a scripted life, it’s not following any of the guidelines that I was told about how it was going to go, and sometimes I feel like I’m just out here making it up and there’s no net, and that’s what I can access if I allow myself to put my attention on my breath. I should also say that I can never do it directly. I always have to take a back road into feeling my breath in my chest, so I have to put my attention on my hands, anywhere but on my chest. It’s as if by accident, I might end up feeling my breath in my chest.
So this is another kind of giving up, this allowing myself to pay attention to the breath in my chest, and I know it’s a good kind of giving up because it allows me to do brave things. A couple of brave things that I have done over the past five years are that I stopped dating on the internet and I stopped eating the chocolate that was giving me reflux. For each of these things, they were accompanied by this powerful wave, not the same as the wave of I’m going to get in my bed. It’s a wave that this is the way it is for you, this shit is not working, and it’s very painful. Why it’s so painful to give up dating on the internet, I can’t tell you, but it’s like I’m giving up on all the accompanying fantasies of what was going to come from my dating on the internet, and giving up chocolate. If you don’t think that’s courageous, I don’t know what to tell you.
Some of you know that I am writing a dissertation now, and it’s awful and it’s excruciating. It’s everything I’ve avoided for my entire life and I’m constantly being confronted with the fact that I’m wrong about pretty much everything. I have to receive constructive feedback, which is the worst, because it’s like insults, and you have to smile and say Thank you for them. I can’t quit. I have to finish it. I’m way more anxious than I’ve been in my life. One of the things I think everyone will agree on is that being a student of Barry’s for a long time, he’s always in your ear. Do what makes you anxious! Don’t do what makes you depressed.! I know it’s good that I’m doing this and I know that sitting practice with all of you and with him as a teacher, is what gives me the courage to do it.
I think that this is such a good example of practice, because I never wanted to write a dissertation. I still don’t want to write a dissertation. I don’t care if I have a doctorate. Writing the dissertation isn’t going to get me any of the things that I wanted. It’s like I have to do it not as a means to anything, but because it’s where I find myself. It’s my life. I got myself into a doctoral program. I have to write a dissertation. I can’t wriggle out the back door. That’s what practice is enabling me to do. It’s enabling me to do something that I don’t want to do. I just think it's such a kind of counter-example of whatever all my curative fantasies are about and what I thought practice was going to do for me. It's going to help me write a dissertation. That’s what it’s going to do for me, and I don’t even get to eat any chocolate while I’m writing my dissertation.
These are my two flavors of giving up that I’m referring to: One of them is hiding and trying to wait out my life, and the other one is feeling my breath in my chest and staying in my own life. The second one, feeling the breath in my chest, is the only way for me to successfully be myself, and to not always be tiptoeing out the back door, so I want to make two points about successfully being myself. The first is, we’re all perfect as we are, you know, but there's the successful version of me and the unsuccessful version of me, and the one is genuinely preferable to the other. The one where I get up, get out of the apartment, interact with other human beings, do my life, is preferable to the one where I stay in my bed.
The other point I want to make is, like Barry says, you can’t be yourself by yourself, and yes, that's true, but I would also say I can’t successfully be myself by myself. I’m a very diminished version of myself when I’m in bed. It’s practice and sitting with sangha that makes the difference. I want to give a shout-out to the morning Zoom crew for all these great years of practice together, a shout-out to Chris for holding us down morning and evening every day. That’s what enables me to be the successful version of myself. As I was sitting right before this talk, I was thinking that another theme of this talk is like a trajectory from being depressed to being anxious. That’s the other title that I could have given, further proof that all talks are the same talk.
Recently in a discussion group, somebody was questioning that zazen is useless, and I was thinking zazen is useless to help me live somebody else’s life, but it’s very useful to help me with my own life. I think I’ll stop there. Thanks everyone for listening.