A couple days ago I had an experience that happens all too often as a meditator (and writer who enjoys silence while ruminating) in NYC. I sit down on my cushion all ready to get my calm on when the jackhammers start right outside my window. Oh to live in Brooklyn in 2017 when everyone and their mother is gut renovating buildings or tearing them down to build overpriced condos. I’ve lived here for over four years and – I shit you not – there has been construction in close proximity to my building pretty much every single day. As a writer who works from home, I’ve had to make relative peace with this. I am now an expert in white noise sound mixing and, when that fails, I push in the earplugs. Sometimes I yell WHAT THE FUCK because, well, WTF?! Construction symphonies are an annoying soundtrack when you’re writing, to be sure, but they’re really REALLY crazy making when you’re trying to meditate. There’s a reason (most) monasteries are way up in the mountains, accessible only via dirt paths wide enough to let a yak through, and why writers fantasize about cottages at the end of the world to finish their novels in.
So here I am on my cushion and I have two choices: give up on sitting until much later or roll with it and hold my seat. Keep in mind that after sitting, I’ll have to start writing and, so, unless I’m going to pack up and go to a coffeehouse, there’s not a whole lot I can do to control this situation. If there’s one thing being a meditator has taught me, it’s learning to be in the present, to accept what is happening without allowing events to control my emotions or hijack what little chill I have. When we’re on the cushion, we practice this in various ways: instead of railing against my neighbor’s loud music or the jackhammers or the roar of loud trucks going up 20th, I try to just acknowledge what’s happening and return to focusing on my breath. If I feel annoyed, I sit with that feeling. I let the emotion be there, locating where it rests in my body (usually my chest and throat) and just ride it out–instead of letting the emotion ride me. In meditation, we call this “holding our seat.” It means that we don’t throw in the towel if a meditation session is uncomfortable. We stay even if the jackhammers start or we have an uncontrollable itch between our shoulder blades or we’re suddenly experiencing strong emotion. We stay on the cushion. We stay in the present. We don’t bail.
On this particular day, I held my seat. I accepted the situation as it was and by the time the gong rang on my meditation timer, it was all good. Sure, it would have been nice if the only sound was a bubbling brook and bees buzzing in warm sunshine, but I bet even then I would have found * something * to take issue with. And there’s this, too: we don’t judge our meditation sessions. If our minds were racing the whole time, okay. If we experienced enlightenment, okay. As it was, I opened my eyes more relaxed, centered, and grounded than when I sat on the cushion thirty minutes before, and I call that a win. I stood, stretched, then sat at my desk, opened Scrivener, and started writing from that place of relative balance. The jackhammers eventually stopped, but I didn’t. I wrote for hours.
Before I started meditating, I would have let my anger and frustration over that noise build. I would have abandoned my plans for meditation and gone into a whole inner rant about fuck this city and why can’t these rich assholes stop building condos and it’s impossible to live here as an artist, I can’t handle this noise and my apartment is too small and now I’ll never write another book and so I won’t be able to pay rent and I’ll be evicted…and…and…The incident might have ruined my whole day and certainly would have made it damn near impossible to focus on my book once I sat down to write. I would have worked myself into an emotional tizzy, allowing one jackhammer to instigate an existential crisis. But because I’m committed to my practice and because meditation is training for life, I was able to simply see those jackhammers as part of the landscape of Now. And, like it or not, I was in that landscape, too.
As so often happens, what I experience on the cushion has a ripple effect in my writing life. I’m working on a couple of books right now, both of which I love and both of which are complicated for very different reasons. In those moments when I’m staring at the screen and feeling that familiar tension and frustration arise (why can’t I figure this character / plot out?!), I have my training on the cushion to fall back on. I allow myself to feel that inner turmoil, locating it in my body and accepting it as part of the landscape. I don’t let it run me or turn into the spark for a wildfire of shame, anger, fear, comparison and the million other frustrations that can happen when we’re sitting in front of our screens. Just like when the jackhammers started when I was on the cushion, I accept what’s happening now–and what’s happening now is I have no idea what to write next. But because of my training on the cushion, I know that this snag is temporary because everything is impermanent: the good and the bad. I know this frustration won’t last because nothing lasts. I know, as when I sat on the cushion, that if I hold my seat and accept what’s happening, I will be the better for it.
And so will my writing.
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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