I recently finished a ten-day meditation retreat, a deeply enriching experience and one full of all kinds of insights and breakthroughs. But of all the many things that struck me during those powerful days of silence and stillness, one in particular really hit home ... and left me privately chuckling behind my meditative mask. My mind is like my mother. Yes, it's true. But don't get me wrong; I'm not talking about Freud here. I don't mean that my mind is like my "superego," dictating shoulds and shouldn'ts like some disembodied parental authority in my head. No, I'm talking about something a little more mundane and yet more profound. What I mean is that the way my mind relates to the contents of my experience reminds me of the way that my mother relates to the contents of her life.
Let me explain.
When I was growing up, it was long into my adolescent years before I realized that my mother was an impressive lady. She was a smart, progressive, attractive woman, who loved life deeply and lived it fully. She was trained in the classics, Greek and Latin, taught college, raised five kids, and eventually became a clinical dietitian, pursuing a lifelong passion for understanding food and its impact on the body. And though she hid some of her talents behind a Midwestern veneer of Presbyterian plainness, I was always surprised at how deeply she seemed to understand people -- what made them tick. But it wasn't just that. At some point I remember realizing that my mother seemed to have a theory about everyone. She always had some story about why things were the way they were and more specifically, why people were the way they were. And let me tell you; her theories were deep, well thought out, and had psychological richness and spiritual context. They might touch on science or the latest research in all kinds of areas. And they often had a nutritional component as one casual factor. Were her stories always true? Well, let's just say they always had verve if not verity.
Time and age has not diminished my mother's capacity for storytelling. Even today, if I want to know, for example, why my nephews seem to be having such a harrowing time adjusting to the rigors and demands of young adulthood, I could call my brother for an explanation. Being a wise and sympathetic father, he'll no doubt give me a few words about adolescent rebellion, or the painful process of learning how to individuate and live apart from the parents. You know, basic stuff. True? Maybe ... but absolutely boring. Now if I call my mother, it's a whole different story. She'll take me on a journey. She'll explain to me the psychologies involved, include several generations of family for context, use developmental psychology, spiritual seeking, brain development, cultural theory, integral philosophy, and she'll usually throw in a nutritional component -- maybe lack of vitamin D or some such. True? I don't know, but it's damn interesting.
So what does all of this have to do with meditation? Well, at some point during the ten days of staring at the machinations of my mental processes, I realized: my mind is just like my mother. It has a story about everything.
What do I mean? The miraculous thing about doing essentially nothing for days on end is that you begin to actually see through the spell that the mind casts over the self, and recognize that so much of what goes on in our mental world is truly meaningless. For example, over and over again, I watched as my mind took the exact psycho-emotional state that I was in at any given moment and projected it into the future. It was as if the possibilities that seemed to be real in that state of consciousness -- the hopes, fears, dreams, ideas, etc. that were connected to that particular emotional milieu -- would define my life from here to eternity. My mind would spin a story about the future based almost entirely on how I felt in the present. Sometimes it was an enlightened story, sometimes a mundane story, and sometimes a downright frightening story. But it was just that -- a story. And it lasted about as long as the corresponding emotional state lasted, which varied greatly, but was always, I can confidently say, of finite term. Of course, if somewhere we believe that the story has power over us, then we're trapped. Then there's no way out. And that's one place where real spiritual victories are won -- in the willingness to persevere and do the work of freeing oneself from the shackles of that hall of mirrors, where the stories may be amusing, terrifying, or liberating, but they are not real. Like my mother, the mind is a wonderful storyteller. And believe me, that capacity is an important thing. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. But the moment we assume it's all true, we are caught, trapped in Samsara, condemned to live inside stories not of our own choosing.
"The mind is a berry patch," Andrew Cohen, my spiritual teacher, writes in his book Enlightenment Is a Secret. "Stop the habit of compulsively eating every berry that comes into your sight. Take the time and make the effort to see whether or not the berry that you happen to be staring at is sweet, rotten or sour. Never under any circumstances allow yourself to eat a sour or rotten berry. Eat only the sweet ones and have the sense to eat them only when you are hungry." It's timeless wisdom, the kind all mothers can definitely appreciate. Don't eat rotten berries! And remember, berries are not inherently bad. In fact, they're full of antioxidants. We should eat lots of them. At least that's the story my mother tells me. And that one, I believe!
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