Many of you know that I recently returned from a silent retreat in the beautiful mountains of Marin County, California. The center where I sat this retreat, Spirit Rock, is absolutely beautiful, both the facilities and the natural surroundings. It is operated by the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) founded in part by Jack Kornfield. The retreat was very powerful for me for many reasons. One day that stands out in particular was one of the many sunny, cool, dry, simply gorgeous days, and I was doing walking meditation on the outdoor patio of the architecturally lovely meditation hall. When we do walking meditation at Spirit Rock, we walk for 10-20 steps in one direction, turn around, and walk back the other way. We do this for 45 minutes at a time. It’s a practice of being fully present with our feet, legs, and the movement of our steps, and allows us to really drop into the experience of our bodies.
On this particular day, I was walking parallel to several other people, going back and forth in contemplative silence for about 30 minutes, when I heard a loud squawking and flapping of wings, and was suddenly pummeled by several rounds of wet, icky bird poop. I, with my lovely salmon-colored shawl was pooped on. I, walking like a Buddha in this beautiful valley. In one second, I went from peaceful and joyful to angry and embarrassed. I really did not want to be seen with poop on my shawl! I worried that the other, cleaner, yogis were thinking terrible (and humorous) thoughts about me as they continued to walk gracefully back and forth. This I who had been quiet during my walking, had leapt into action to protect my image of myself.
The irony of this story is that one of my intentions for my retreat and my practice is the awareness of how I always want to “look good,” and exploring the practice of humility. One of my teachers in California, Mark Coleman, told us that he was doing walking meditation at a retreat, feeling very relaxed and at ease, and suddenly he had the thought “looking good, looking good….” This is so typical of our minds. Always trying to look good, even during meditation.
So what does it look like to practice humility? For me, humility is seeing when my I creates an image that I then need to live up to. I try to notice when I start thinking things like, “I am not a plastic bag user” or “I’m not the kind of person who gets poop on her shawl” or “I’m forgetful” or “I’m a yogini.” All of these thoughts are pieces of the structure that my I wants to create. And with all of these structures in place, I start to lose my freedom and my connection with others. I lose my freedom because I’m locked into an image that doesn’t allow me to learn, change, and grow. And I lose my connection with others because I always need to judge myself and others to be sure I’m keeping up my image. And then I suffer. Buddhists teach the value of keeping a “beginner’s mind,” which is a mind that allows for all possibilities. To have that kind of openness to life, we need to give up the structures that our I’s create for us.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he tells us that one of the main causes of our suffering is this sense of I. He describes asmita as the unifying self-sense that makes everything we experience feel like it is happening to us. When the bird pooped on me, it was a completely random act, but it felt like I had been singled out among all the participants for this embarrassment. When my kids have issues, or my husband is cranky, I feel like they’re doing something to me. The reality is that they are just having issues or being cranky, and when I can remember that, I suffer a lot less. It’s hard to accept that it’s not all about me.
I still find practicing humility a little tricky, because if we go too far in the other direction, we can create a different type of suffering. The kind where we think we aren’t worth anything at all. When we go there, we don’t acknowledge the reality that we are valuable simply because we exist. My mom would often say, “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.” So for me practicing humility means finding the middle path. No, I’m not the center of the universe, and I am just as likely to make mistakes, get pooped on, and cause suffering as the next person, and yet I also bring something unique into the world. An old Jewish proverb that I love says that we should always walk around with two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one paper it reads “For me the world was created.” The other one says, “I am but ashes and dust.”
So this is just something else to ponder during these coming weeks of summer vacation. Lying on the beach, hiking in the mountains, sitting in our homes, or in our yoga class, we can ask ourselves this question: How can we practice the middle way of humility? Our mats and sitting cushions are excellent laboratories for our humility practice. Do we get caught up in how we look in a pose? Do we take our challenges personally or see them as more opportunities to practice? Or do we feel that we aren’t worthy of a particular class or pose because we’ll never get it? And can we simply tolerate being fully connected to life, welcoming whatever comes our way? When we get pooped on, can we see that it’s not about us, and it happens to all of us in lots of different ways? We’re no different from everyone else. And actually, getting pooped on, literally or figuratively, is really no big deal. It can even be an inspiration to our practice because it brings us back to the reality that we are all on the same playing field. No matter who we are, where we are, or what we are.
After my incident, I walked slowly to the bathroom, rinsed off my shawl, and proceeded to a meeting with my teacher, Phillip Moffitt where we discussed the nature of humility and the reality that poop happens. I was well aware of my sensation of embarrassment, but also aware that although we may never be completely rid of our I, we can start to see through it once in a while.
with much love and gratitude for the chance to walk this path with you,