The secret to happiness is caring about others. Simple. Yet, my mind has an addiction to being self-centered. I learned this important lesson again recently at a community sit.
I was three weeks into being a Modern Monk at Center for Mindful Learning (CML). I was not sure what to expect coming here. But I am surprised at how happy and liberating I am now. While I plan on returning to urban life, I could train at CML for a year or more.
So, three weeks in, I went to Burlington Quaker House. CML does a weekly Sunday talk and guided meditations. It may of been my first time outside of the monastery. I am excited to get out again.
Soryu, our teacher, is giving the talk and guided practice. He introduces a guided listening meditation to note each sound as pleasant or unpleasant. Noting sounds as neutral is not an option.
And I hate this place. The chair hurts my ass. It’s impossible to sit straight in it. A family of mosquitoes swarm and bite me. People are talking outside like right by the window. Car horns are blaring. Folks keep entering and leaving the room. I miss the monastery. My lovely cushion. The silence and stillness. The beautiful windows displaying nature. No one moving or leaving the room.
I’m noting every single sound as unpleasant. Unpleasant is a weak description. Offensive fits. Even the chirping birds feel like an attack against my peace. The mental dialogue I’m having about the experience is itself annoying.
Reminder: I’m not looking for meditation advice. I’ve practiced meditation for a decade. I know how to calm myself down. But I told myself I would just do the practice of noting pleasant or unpleasant sounds. I wouldn’t do self-motivation talk, therapy, or change my technique. Every single second is just noting a sound and its flavor.
So, I’m sitting in my torture chair noting frustration and tension at every sound. Both the sounds from outside and the mental dialogue inside are just pain and suffering.
Then this magical moment happens.
I don’t cause it to happen. I wasn’t looking for it. It just happened outside myself. It was like one of those Zen stories. A woman is walking down a path with a glass jar of water. The jar slips and shatters on the ground. The jarring sound causes a sudden awakening for the woman.
Likewise, this moment was a doorway to infinite love and easy, deep concentration. And it all came from an ordinary, everyday experience.
The woman sitting in front of me sneezes.
That’s it. She sneezed.
At first, I note the sound of the sneeze and am halfway through noting unpleasantness of sound. But I notice that doesn’t actually feel true. I’m puzzled. This is different. What changed? I realize that in the moment right after she sneezed, I was actually concerned about her. I wanted to say god bless you. I am outside of myself. These thoughts and realizations happen in a micro second.
This simple insight is so clear in my direct experience. I already know it; I’ve already experienced it before. But I need constant reminders. My suffering stops when my attention gets directed at caring for others or even myself. My meditation session immediately changes like a light switch.
It’s no longer a struggle to sit still and relax. Every sound is loving and pleasant. Even the sound of someone on the roof banging away reminds me that someone cares about this place to fix it up. The flushing toilet makes me grateful that we live in a country that has clean sanitation.
This moment is the great fruit of meditation. When everything is the same yet my experience transforms out of nowhere. My consciousness breaks free from its self-centered delusion to a wider, truer reality. Everyone experiences this phenomenon in sports, love, and any flow state. But meditation makes it so, so crystal clear. Joy is not about the outside world. Being able to transcend and embody every moment is not about what I’m doing, how I feel, or what I believe. It’s just my orientation, my attitude to experiencing the world. Whether I am experiencing from a closed, self-centered perspective or an open, inclusive viewpoint.
Pay attention next time someone sneezes. Hear, see, & feel what is