Devan Rhodes was meditating, or more specifically, she was trying to meditate. However, her mind kept taking her away from a focus on the present. She wasn’t happy about this, and this lost her even further in the world of thoughts. She realized her judgment about her thoughts was inhibiting her from letting them go, and this frustrated her further. ‘How many layers,’ she wondered, ‘does this onion have?’
Outside, construction noise hammered into the building. The room felt hot and sticky. Devan could hear the clogged nostrils of the man next to her whooshing. Gravity itself seemed to want to tip her over, or bend her back uncomfortably. The world seemed to conspire against her meditation.
Devan sat cross-legged in the small common room at the Awakened Mind Meditation Center in Colombia Heights with twelve other practitioners. At the front of the room, a balding grey-haired man named Grant Howley guided the students through their meditation.
“If you notice yourself drifting off into the past or identifying with thoughts about the future,” Grant said, his voice calm and soothing, “just acknowledge them and come back to the present.” Devan shifted her lotus position, trying to settle back into mental balance.
“Your mind is the movie screen on which thoughts are projected,” Grant said slowly. “You can no more control your thoughts than you can choose to stop hearing sound or feeling warmth. But you can choose not to identify with them. Watch them and let them go without judgement.”
Devan felt herself sinking back into her meditation. She visualized her mind as a matte black palate across which a stream of thoughts projected themselves. She let them dance and play, coming into and out of her mind effortlessly. Devan felt the mental energy coming in from the earth and out through her head, and she watched it. She found her flow and just sat. Breathing. Present.
The construction noise faded away, the nostrils stopped whooshing and she sat with her spine perfectly erect. The world around her calmed to stillness.
After a few minutes of peace, Grant rang a Tingsha chime to signal the meditation was coming to a close. He paused a moment, then rang it again. “When you’re ready,” he said, “slowly and on your own time, let yourself return your awareness to the room.” Grant waited as one by one, the students opened their eyes.
Twice Devan opened her eyes to see Grant smiling at her gently. She had never seen the man not smile. It was always a range between a slight grin and the billowing laughter that frequently erupted. Never less.
“I want to thank you for coming today and making the effort to open your hearts to compassion,” Grant said,pressing his palms together just under his chin. “The light in me bows to the light in you.” Grant bent forward slightly, his palms dipping to each of the students. “Namaste.”
“Namaste,” the class said in unison, returning the gesture of mutual respect.
In the hallway, Devan waited patiently for Grant Howley to finish answering questions as the students put on their shoes, collected their belongings and left into the evening. When the last student departed, Howley came into the hallway and gave Devan a polite but warm hug.
“Devan, it’s so good to see you as always,” he said, smiling broadly. “Why don’t you join me in my office for tea?”
“Thanks Grant, I’ve been wanting to talk to you.” Devan followed Howley around the corner into the small room where he kept his files. There was barely room for two chairs on either side of the old metal desk. Howley turned on an electric hot pot and served them green tea in small Chinese cups.
“So how have you been Devan? Are you coping well with single life?”
“I think I’ve been hanging in there,” Devan said. “When Trey broke up with me to join the Army I was pretty distraught, even though we’d only been dating for six months. I was sure he was going to die.”
“Now, I realize it was just an infatuation, and I probably…well, I know I have loss issues because of my parents and Michael’s deaths. I latched on to him and when he wanted to leave, I dug in harder.”
“These are valuable insights about yourself,” Howley said. “I hope you treasure them.”
“I do. I haven’t spoken with him since about two weeks after he got to Kandahar. I think I’m over it now. I just hope he’s ok.”
“It’s such an unusual environment for a human being to be in. I’m sure he confronts extremes of boredom and outright terror. I’ve been seeing far too many young men and women in my practice.”
“You counsel a lot of veterans?”
“Many. And lately quite a few civilians returning from the wars. It takes time and effort but most make a full recovery…” Howley smiled and paused, “…just like yourself.”
“Well, I don’t know that I’ll be fully recovered until I’m off my meds,” Devan said.
“You may have to take them the remainder of your life,” Howley cautioned. “Some of us just have different brain chemistry than others. Have you experienced any challenges lately?”
“I’ve had some negative feelings about death and loss.”
“Tell me about them.”
“I guess it just feels unfair. Life was going so well for me back in 2000. I didn’t have any of the angst most teenagers have to cope with, I had a great group of friends who I loved and loved me back, I was dating a boy I thought I wanted to be with forever, I was applying to Ivy League schools and my parents just seemed happier than they’d ever been.”
“And then what happened?” Howley asked.
“The boy — Clint Jacobs — cheated on me with one of my soccer team-mates. I was just devastated. Everyone at school found out and it fed the gossip mill all through the next summer. The next year at school, everything just felt different. Friends moved away and everything just felt more uncomfortable.”
“And then your parents passed?”
“Yes, in the summer of 2001. My life was just destroyed. They were my best friends and then a freak car accident just deleted them out of my life. After we buried them, I had to move to Wisconsin, live with my aunt and leave my whole life behind.”
“You buried them on 9/11 right?”
“Yes…” Devan was lost in thought.
“It’s a safe space Devan,” Howley said in a reassuring tone. She looked at him through her watery eyes, still grinning slightly, but the rest of his face was framed with compassion. She knew she could trust him, she just had to overcome her fears. Grant Howley was as close to a father figure as she had.
“It’s really hard to say it, but in some ways it was easier to mourn them because of 9/11. It felt like the whole country — the whole world — was mourning them along with me. We were all suffering together.” Devan’s eyes welled over and tears wet her cheeks.
“Oh Devan I’m so sorry.” Howley put out his arms and pulled her close for a fatherly hug. “You must feel terrible guilt for having such thoughts.”
“I do,” she said, her cheek in his chest. “At the time I just felt so connected.” Howley pulled back but left his arms on her shoulders.
“Devan, it’s perfectly natural to feel better when others are sharing our experience.”
“I know, but then Michael was killed in 2008 and it was like a replay. It took me years to get over. And I think when Trey said he was going to Afghanistan and didn’t want to date long distance, it just felt like it’s going to happen again.”
“But this time you realized you were slipping into a place of attachment and grief.”
“Yes, and I’ve been working on it. But the thoughts keep coming up. And I feel myself lonely, clinging, grasping — even for a relationship with Trey, even though I know he’s not right for me.”
“Well Devan, the first step in overcoming anything — a bad habit, a negative thought pattern, a repeating cycle of relationship issues — is an awareness of what triggers it and when it’s happening. Without that you can’t hope to move beyond them.”
“But these feelings and thoughts — I just don’t want them. They’re not me.”
“All of your thoughts have some validity to them. But you know you’re generating your own suffering by taking what is and being upset because it isn’t something else.”
“I know that but it’s hard to practice. I don’t really want to talk about them or even to acknowledge them,” she said. “I know they’re just negative thoughts which aren’t productive. I try not to pay attention to them or focus on them. But they keep coming up and I feel bad because I can’t make them go away.” Devan looked irritated as wrinkles crept into her forehead.
Howley smiled broadly. “Devan, we all have voices in our heads and parts of ourselves that we don’t like. We can relate to them with judgment and push them away, or we can welcome them compassionately.”
“Are you saying I should like the grasping parts of myself? And the part of me that gets angry at myself for being clingy?”
“You don’t have to like them,” Howley said, “any more than you have to like it if a child behaved angrily. Like or dislike isn’t the issue. Its whether you relate to those parts of you with love and acceptance, or with anger and rejection.”
“So when I have the sad voice telling me to avoid all loss, or the angry voice inside me ranting about something, I should do what?”
“I’d say just recognize that voice is a part of you, but is not all of you, and let it be. Reach out to it with love and ask it what it wants from you, or how it wants the world to be. Then you can choose whether to identify with those thoughts and desires or take the other route of knowing that you don’t have to be tied into any particular negative emotion or thought.”
“I guess all this time I was just trying to use meditation to calm myself,” Devan said.
“Calmness is a goal of meditation, but only because that calmness allows us to see our own thoughts and reality more clearly,” Howley said. “But the trick is not to be able to generate states of calm. Those states are transient and life is going to throw conditions at you that disrupt your calmness. The real goal is not to generate calm, but to let go of the identification with all the thoughts and feelings that changing conditions generate.”
“I guess I’m not that enlightened yet,” Devan said. “I’ve been trying to evict those thoughts from my brain.”
“What you resist, persists,” Howley said. “It is important to tend to our mental garden. Negative concepts are like weeds and we provide them water and nourishment with our thoughts. You can shrivel them by not feeding them, but you’ll never remove them completely.”
“So I can feel angry, which I can’t control, but I don’t have to act angry?”
“Correct,” Howley said. “This reminds me of something Rumi wrote. Let me see if I have it.” Howley rose and perused his bookshelf. He pulled a well worn leather-bound tome from the shelf. “Here it is.” Howley sat down and delicately thumbed through the book.
“This is from Rumi. He said: ‘
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 honorably.
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.’”
Devan smiled and sipped her tea. “So you think these angry thoughts are guiding me and clearing me for some new delight?”
“Perhaps,” Howley said, “even if it’s not true, it’s a powerful way to think. And we have very little idea what’s really true or not. So choosing powerful ways to think are often our best option.”
“I’ll try to be…no, I’ll be more loving and compassionate in my guest house,” she said. “And if difficult visitors come then I’ll welcome them with a laugh.” Devan grinned. “This should be interesting.”
“My dear,” Howley said as he poured more tea, “life always is.”