*off duty, temporarily relieved from one’s work.
Three weeks ago yesterday, I started a meditation class. I had begun practicing hatha yoga regularly again, and after some events, both personal and communal, that brought me a good deal of sorrow, I thought it would be a good time to take some steps to take better care of myself.
One of the first things mentioned in the practice of mindfulness is that most of the time we are asleep in our lives. We are physically awake, but we are asleep to the present moment. We function in auto-pilot. We operate from knee-jerk conditioned responses. We often don’t take the time to consider what is happening to us, what sensations are rising within us. And because of this, we are off duty, off duty to our true selves. We are relieved of the work of being mindful—by succumbing to distraction, by judging others and ourselves, by being unable to step outside and observe ourselves for a moment.
I have been thinking of the ways in which I feel dutiful. When I think of the word duty, it feels synonymous with obligations. I have certain duties: to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good teacher, and the list goes on. But the truth is that I have a larger duty, and that is to be a compassionate human being. I think of how often in being on duty to our commitments, we are off duty to our present selves, to our real needs.
Maybe I am running late to meet a friend for coffee, and when the light turns green and the person in front of me doesn’t immediately drive, I hold down the horn. Or maybe I don’t even honk, but I yell at him from inside my car. I have this reaction because he is a barrier, he is in the way of me fulfilling my current duty. What I do not realize is that he is also my duty because, in that very moment, it is my job to drive my car and to have an attitude of civility and patience to those on the road with me. But since I am already steps ahead, thinking about my friend sitting at the table alone and about my own judgment of myself for being late, I am unable to be present to the driver. And in honking my horn or yelling at him, I am also causing my own suffering.
Mindfulness is not easy. I am used to planning ahead. I am used to the frenzy that comes with checking off my to-dos. And when I’m not working, I have a habit of procrastinating, which is the opposite of mindfulness. In this action, I am not enjoying whatever I am doing—reading, surfing the web, watching t.v.—because I am trying to pretend that I am not avoiding my work. With this too comes suffering.
The first week of meditation, I found myself feeling so happy about it, a feeling, I would later come to recognize as ego. Look at me, I’m taking steps to be more healthy. I’m meditating. Yeah, it’s hard but I totally have this. And once I hit the first bump, which for me was our teacher saying we had to meditate daily for longer than I felt ready for, I instantly became resistant and even hostile. I kept doing my daily meditation, but the first few minutes were spent with me thinking of how I didn’t want to be sitting for as long as we were supposed to. Some mornings, I even gritted my teeth as I said the morning gatha—which, by the way, was: As I wake up this morning, I smile. A brand new day is before me. I aspire to live fully in each moment and to see all beings with the eyes of compassion. I mean, what is more lovely than that? But for some reason, I just could not accept it.
I see similarities between the arising of resistance in meditation and the arising of it in my writing life. When I have resistance in my writing (oh, no, I can’t write about that, it’s too imperfect, it’s too raw, it makes me too vulnerable), I know that whatever I am resisting is exactly what I need to write into. In meditation, the resistance itself seems to be the affirmation that I need to continue doing it. I believe what I am resisting is not the meditation itself but the change, even if it is good, to old behaviors and old ways of seeing. To be engaged in mindfulness in one’s daily life is to commit not only to living in the present but to being completely honest with oneself. See how I defensively switched to “one” there? To be engaged in mindfulness in my life is to commit not only to living in the present but to being completely honest with myself. That sort of bareness sometimes feels daunting.
This week has been easier. By easier, I don’t mean that I always want to sit or that I always handle situations, meditation or otherwise, with grace. However, I think I am becoming more aware of the overall benefit of being more mindful and this allows me to have more acceptance of the discomfort that can arise. Because ultimately, I want to be on duty to the things that matter in my life. I want to be loving and kind to myself. I want to be loving and kind to those around me, both those known and unknown to me. I want to be present to the subtleties that life presents me with.
I’ll leave you with this quote by Buddhist monk, teacher, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh:
Meditation is not to escape from society,
but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on.
Once there is seeing, there must be acting.
With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.
*[du·ty \ˈdü-tē also ˈdyü-\ n. [pl. DUTIES (-tiz)], [ME, dute, deute; OFr. Duete, what is due (owing); see DUE & – TY], 1. conduct owed to one’s parents, older people, etc.; behavior showing a proper regard or sense of obligation; obedience; respect. 2. any action necessary in or appropriate to one’s occupation or position. 3. conduct resulting from a sense of justice, morality, etc. 4. a sense of reeling of obligation: as duty calls. 5. a payment due to the government, especially a tax imposed on imports, exports, or manufactured goods. 6. [British], the performance of a machine as measured by the output of work per unit of fuel. 7. the amount of work that a machine is meant to do: as, a heavy-duty tractor. 8. in agriculture, the amount of water needed for irrigation per acre per crop: also duty of water.]