121) When you feel you’ve been turned into a newt

“Waking up this morning, I smile;
24 brand new hours lay before me;
I vow to live fully each moment,
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
— morning gatha; Thich Nhat Hanh

* * * * *

So, I started this practice about 20 years ago, after reading one of TNH’s books.  

The very, very first time I did it (I used to talk about this in pos psych, for those who may remember), it was extremely disheartening.  There I lay in my bed, shortly after coming to wakefulness.  I adopted the “meditative stance” in my mind, “trying” to be grounded, centered, authentic-with-myself (but in reality merely grasping onto a projection of spirituality as “pure”, which was really my own shadow self, my Inner Critic, manifesting in spiritual practice as a feeling of how I “should” be).

I whispered, “Waking up this morning, I smile.”  The corners of my mouth stretched, effortfully, upwards into a smile.  The rest of my face did not follow.  My heart did not follow.  The inauthenticity of my smile was so jarring, I said, out loud, “Yeah, fuck this.”  I figured, well, maybe this works for some people, but as with everything designed to make people well, “not for me”.  And that was the end of my mantra practice.    
For a couple of years.  Now and again, in fits and starts of inspiration, I would try again, following Rumi’s wonderful advice: 

“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.”

And, like the peasant, formerly-newt, in Monty Python, “I got better.”  There were mornings when the smile did not feel so forced and empty.  There were mornings when the vow did not feel like a reminder of failure but rather, a gentle encouragement from the heart.  There were mornings when after this gatha, I actually did feel more compassionate, and it usually started with the always-shocking realization that, *gasp*, I am included in the category of “all beings”, at whom I will look with compassion.  

As life proceeded with its ups and downs, this gatha would recede and reappear.  I always pushed it away when my Inner Critic was running the show, but eventually returned to it when suffering was sufficient to drag me back towards awakening, despite my best efforts at a-sleep-ening.

Now, two decades of unstable practice later, I actually do wake up and smile, naturally, at least a fair chunk of the time.  Not that life is any less uncertain and potentially stressful.  In fact, right now it is more uncertain than it has been for most of the past 20 years.  But “stress” is a subjective response to one’s “external” circumstances; it is not inherent in those circumstances themselves.  And at least part of the magic of Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha is that, as you continue to practice allowing your innate compassion into the foreground of your consciousness, the difficulties of life become less like difficulties and more like fertilizer, nourishing the flourishing of your adaptive Life energy.  

In looking at all beings with compassion, you realize, you are ok.  Even if your “external” circumstances are not so “ok”, you can move through them gracefully, gently, and still-attuned to your heart.  Your attempts to “improve” or “get better” do not have to be thought of as “shoulds”; they could, instead, be thought of as your natural, beautiful, innate inclination towards growth.  Spiritual practice is you simply responding to Life, like a plant growing towards the Sun. 

After all, the Inner Critic is not an asshole.  It is trying to protect you.  It always has been.  What it needs is simply to know that you are taking care of yourself, that you are now aware enough that it can relax and direct its energies towards loving nurturance, rather than protection.  

The Inner Critic doesn’t actually want to be a critic; it’s just scared.  It wants to be a cheerleader, a coach, a teammate, a guide.

Good job, Inner Critic.  As I look at you with eyes of compassion, I whisper, “Your services are no longer needed; now, you get a promotion.  Congratulations, Coach.”

Now, I am learning how to turn myself into a newt, and back.

* * * * *

Waking up this morning, I smiled.

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