A re-phrasing of something can often make all the difference. The other day I was wrestling with the concept of “turning towards” experience. This had up until then been such a useful way for me of describing how in every moment we have the choice whether to fully be with our experience or to turn away from it and was a key cornerstone of my practice encouraging in me an attitude of courage. Like when you stop fleeing and turn to face what’s coming after you. There’s a warrior-like quality to it, though it can be something much softer, like when you turn towards a loved one and really take them in fully.
However, on this particular day, it felt like I needed to re-frame this attitude. Sometimes in our practice we need to refresh the way we see things. “Turning towards” experience had come to feel like it was all about me and my awareness. Part of me was rebelling and saying, no I don’t want to turn towards these feelings of anger, my irritation at that person, my fears and tendencies or whatever it might be at the time.
What then popped into my mind was something more like “meeting” my experience. This might seem like a very small adjustment but this simple shift has had a strong effect on my practice both on and off the cushion. There’s still a certain courage needed to meet my experience more fully, but it has a gentler, more enquiring quality to it. There’s more of a sense of relationship between me and others, me and whatever is going on externally and internally. Meeting the moment means drinking it in, savouring it, or at least biding with it a little more when it’s something unpleasant that’s going on. I can be aware of how I am on my side, all the physical sensations linked to feelings and thoughts, emotions in the heart area or wherever they’re manifesting and also more aware of others, even without words there can be a sense of relationship and dialogue, warmly questioning what’s going on.
In this I’m reminded of a suggestion made by my meditation teacher, Lama Shenpen Hookham, when working with thoughts in meditation. She recommended relating to thoughts as like guests at a party which you are hosting. You greet them, exchange some words and then like a good hostess, move on to the next guest who’s just arrived. I like this because it encourages an attitude of warmth but also the discriminating ability to retain an overall sense of what’s going on in our awareness. Then again, her advice also has echoes of Rumi’s much-loved poem – The Guest House – here it is:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
“Turning towards our experience” is still a wonderful phrase for capturing this almost bodily sense of opening to whatever is coming up in our day to day lives or in our meditation practice. A revolutionary departure from either pushing away or grabbing onto our experience. However, as the year draws to a close and I greet the start of a new year which will bring all kinds of things – some hoped for, some not, some unexpected – I think that meeting each moment with patience and kindly interest will be the way of being I’ll try and embody, even while I’m bound often to still pretend I’m not indoors when the unpleasant or challenging comes knocking, or sometimes rudely shut the door in that particular guest’s face. In this regard here’s Amy Newell’s wonderful poem On Hospitality: A Reply to Rumi with which I’ll conclude.
Welcome all the visitors, you say.
Do not put bars on the windows
or locks on the doors. Do not close up
the chimney flue. Duct tape and plastic
sheeting will not keep visitors at bay.
They’ll pound on the doors, they’ll break
your windows, they’ll breach the barricades
they’ll storm the beach, swarm in like ants
through cracks. They’ll leak like water through
the walls, and creep like mice, and curl like smoke
and crack like ice against the window glass.
Keep them out? It can’t be done, don’t try.
Welcome all the visitors.
Fine. There’s all kinds
of welcoming, however.
I do not have to throw a house party.
I will not post flyers.
There will be no open bar.
No one will get drunk
and lock themselves in the bathroom.
No one will break furniture, grind chips
into the rug, throw anyone else in the pool
or lose an earring in the couch.
I do not have to run a guest house, either.
There will be no crackling fire
and no easy chairs. I will not serve
tea to the visitors. I will not dispense
ginger snaps and ask my guests
“Did my mother send you?”
“Why must you plague me?”
“Why not stay awhile longer?”
“Who are you, really?”
If I must welcome – and I am convinced I must –
Let me build a great hall to receive my guests.
Like a Greek temple, let it be open on all sides.
Let it be wide, and bright, and empty.
Let it have a marble floor:
Beautiful – and cold, and hard.
Let there be no sofas, no benches, no dark corners,
no anterooms and no coat closets.
No walls, not even a ledge to lean against.
I’ll welcome anyone who comes,
I’ll show them my enormous empty hall.
Come in, come in, I’ll say. I’ll even smile,
perhaps make a conversation for awhile.
And if someone settles on the floor, as if to stay,
or circles round and round, as if they’ve lost their way
I’ll be kind, extend my hand,
and gently show them out again.