When what seemed scary, frustrating, or hurtful to you ends, you will soon return home to the beautiful green meadow that has always been there, even if it was hidden for a while by the mists and shadows of an unsteady mind . This is who you most essentially are, which is both inspiring and relieving to know.
By the time this is published I will be on a two month retreat on the Gower Peninsula in South West Wales. About thirty of us, all members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, will live and practice together, mostly in silence. As I prepare to leave my everyday life, I become aware of certain recurring feelings and thoughts. Mostly, I'm looking forward to this opportunity to deepen my practice in the company of spiritual friends, but there's also a slight apprehension: will I remember to take everything with me? Can I run out of insulin or other essentials? Will my room be warm/spacious/quiet enough? How will my digestive system handle retirement food? Will I get along with my fellow retreatants? What kind of work will I be able to do with my current elbow injury? How will my knees hold up to hours of sitting meditation? Will I feel bored or alone in the silence, or reluctant to follow a program? And so on. I suppose such thoughts may be familiar to others who are about to embark on a retreat or any type of journey into the unknown. That is to say every moment, when I think about it! And you might find it interesting to know what kinds of approaches and practices are making a tangible difference for me, helping me stay focused, confident and relaxed.
As you may recall from my previous article, I explored “Taking the Good,” loosely following neuropsychologist and Dharma practitioner Rick Hanson’s suggestions on how to balance the brain’s negativity biases. I found it equally instructive to examine the three modes of operation of the nervous system: avoiding harm, approaching rewards, and attaching to others. You can also call them the wire, conduct, and connect systems, all linked to different areas of the brain, some ancient, some more recently evolved, and they have different sets of activating hormones and neurotransmitters. We all know the adrenaline rush of almost being run over by a car, for example, the threat system that kicks in, preparing us for fight/flight/freeze. These systems can either be in a red zone alarm state or a green zone basic wellness state. It's natural to sometimes be in a red, reactive state, but, unlike other animals, we often stay there too long and promote chronic stress. By considering the good, we encourage these modes to be in the green, responsive zone more often, which is the default setting for a healthy nervous system.
I've been curious to know which of these three systems my various mental predilections relate to and how I can directly address them and bring them back into the green zone. The first step is to recognize the signs and see them for what they are. I've noticed that as my departure time approaches, I feel more agitated in meditation, to-do lists repeatedly come to the surface. There is a vibrating urgency, my legs and my arms want doing things, not just stand there. This is the dopamine-fueled drive system in full swing, I tell myself, fine-tuned by millennia of foraging and hunting activities of my human and animal ancestors, creating and maintaining vital environments, discovering medicines or creating art. This comes with a feeling of eagerness and enthusiasm, as well as a certain tension: these projects can be successes or failures. Rather than fighting this energy, I celebrate it for what it is: an expression of life and creativity and allow myself to savor the thrill of anticipation of going on a two-month retreat.
The state that this operating mode ultimate goals could be described as satisfaction – the state of fulfillment, completion and contentment we feel when a project comes to fruition. I will probably feel this to some extent as I begin my retirement journey; everything I needed packed in my suitcases, the desk cleared of paperwork, the refrigerator cleaned, the watering of the plants organized, the email vacation notice implemented, and the friends hugged and informed an emergency telephone number. But what if I allowed myself to tap into this state of fulfillment right now, while meditating? And almost instantly, I feel more at ease, in a rich, grateful way. Connecting with contentment as the underlying need of Driving Mode works surprisingly well. It makes such a difference to treat our so-called obstacles or objections with respect, as indicators of what we really want. I feel restless – and I long for contentment, for fulfillment – of course!
“But is it wise to abandon agitation, when things doing what we should do,” says a worried inner voice. “If you already feel satisfied, why do anything? » “Good point,” I said to that part of me. “Thanks for pointing this out, and I really appreciate you wanting me to be efficient. Would you be willing to step back and observe what happens after experiencing a prolonged period of satisfaction in meditation, whether this increases or decreases my effectiveness in preparing for the retreat? For example, did you notice that while preparing for my departure, I got rid of this big pile of papers that has been bothering us for years? This way of working is inspired by IFS (Internal Family Systems) and is an excellent path to inner peace and integration.
Hanson suggests that what we might want to offer ourselves regarding the approach system is encouragement. (Hanson 36) Provisionally, meditating or going on retreat are demanding projects that benefit from encouragement and strengthening of our confidence. So I sit in a posture that expresses confidence, tall and open-chested.
Let's see how some of my other recurring thoughts about going into long retirement can be understood in terms of these three modes of operation. Clearly, there is a common thread around safety: accommodation, food, physical health, sense of agency or control. Again, these thoughts are more prominent each time I sit down to meditate and there is some resistance to feeling the subtle feelings of insecurity and fear that accompany them. I don't want to feel the tension of heading into the unknown. And again, once I study what is happening with interest and curiosity, these apparent obstacles turn into a boon. Clearly, what I need, consistent with the very purpose of the threat system, is security, ease and relaxation. And so I listen to these qualities and also offer myself a little comfort.
Finally, apprehensions about how I will get along with a group of partly unknown others, living in close proximity for two months, are clearly a concern of the matchmaking system. The main question is whether there will be an atmosphere of mutual love, respect and care. And it’s obvious what I can offer myself to soothe fears related to belonging and acceptance: love and warmth, and letting that oxytocin flow through the body. I was listening to my Spotify playlist of favorite songs while mending a fingerless glove to take with me, and just as my husband walked into the room, the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love” came on. I put down the needle and thread and we danced to the music with enthusiastic abandon. Moreover, he is doing the same retreat, which should help a lot to maintain the attachment system in the green zone.
I find this wonderfully effective, drawing from these three pools of positive qualities in times of need: feeling safe, fulfilled, and loved. What makes them so immediately beneficial, especially in combination with each other, is the fact that they affect all parts of the body, from the most primitive part of the brain to the most advanced. And we don’t need to wait until we are in a particular spiritual environment. They are the original state of our being; Do you recognize them right now, these intersecting pools of inner calm, contentment and love?
Hanson, Rick. 2013. Wired happiness: The New Brain Science on Contentment, Calmness, and Confidence. New York: Harmony