Have you ever seen a songbird trapped in a house? It’s flown in through an open window or door and is panicked, slamming itself into walls and window coverings in an effort to escape. In my experience, it’s not until the bird has stunned itself after a headlong flight into another hard surface that I can gently catch it and carry it outside. Setting the bird down in a safe place, I will retreat and let it gently recover it’s equilibrium before it flies off again into the open sky.
We can be like the trapped bird. Life has somehow boxed us in and we throw ourselves bravely and valiantly against the barriers keeping us from freedom. If we are unable to escape we are often stunned senseless, and often we continue to participate in deadening our senses. All sorts of distractions and addictions are at our fingertips.
There are a million and one ways to be trapped. This isn’t about those people who are culturally or politically dominated and imprisoned, but about those of us with the blessings of personal freedom who find ourselves trapped in the box between our own ears.
I’ve been fortunate to learn that my thoughts determine my happiness. That doesn’t mean I’m super good at being happy all of the time, I still get tired, frustrated, anxious, etc. But now, when I notice that unhappiness is dominating my feelings, I make an effort to step into a neutral place. I aim for a neutral place first, because sometimes, jumping to extreme positivity doesn’t seem the right and real response. And at other times, I’m just not ready to let go of my unhappiness.
How strange is that? Realizing that I am holding onto unhappiness when I don’t have to has been sobering. The first time I became viscerally aware of this truth was during a meditation retreat. Though I’m not Buddhist, I admire the compassion and kindness espoused by the Dalai Lama and other prominent Buddhists, so I was open to attending a Vipassana meditation retreat opportunity about four years ago. I didn’t investigate it fully and was rather surprised to arrive and realize that I had signed up for 100 hours of sitting meditation over 10 days, along with a vow of silence that included minimal eye contact, no touching, journaling or listening to music.
I was there and my schedule was clear, so I decided to stay at the meditation retreat as long as I didn’t discover I was been brainwashed into a cult. I wasn’t brainwashed. It wasn’t a cult. The retreat didn’t involve dogma or much of anything except instructions and the environment necessary to sit with my eyes closed while concentrating on my breathing and the physical sensations I perceived while mentally “flowing” my attention up and down my still figure. That was it. Ten hours per day of sitting still with my eyes shut.
It was tedious. It was boring. It was difficult. It was a lot of things that for me, were challenging. And it was illuminating. Gloriously, painfully illuminating. During that retreat pain surfaced from the layers of past suffering and broke to the surface of my consciousness, popping like huge bubbles of fetid sewer gas. For a few days I was a hot mess. I also learned that the up-side of silence and no eye contact or touch is that there is a particular kind of privacy and non-judgement that is possible among fifty strangers in a large room when one breaks into a sobbing, snot draining mess.
Where the pain had been, I had clarity. I realized in that moment that while I had been injured at the hands of others, the ignoring, suppressing, re-living and analyzing I had done to evade the psychic pain of those injuries had only increased my suffering. Like the bird trapped in the room, I had dulled my senses while wildly trying to evade the pain.
During the four years since that retreat, I often think about that moment and use it as a reminder to find my mental and emotional equilibrium as soon as I can when I am stressed. I open the door for the bird that is myself and I gently set it outside where it can take to the sky, unburdened and without self-imposed barriers.