• Jeff Brenneman

This Is Ridiculous, But It's Real

Updated: Nov 3

So, today is the final post from the mindfulness retreat series. At the bottom, there's a picture of Dr. Caleb Reese, Dr. Ronda Reitz, and me from that retreat. Hope you've enjoyed the series.


Morning of the third day of retreat in Tucson. We had our coffee and brisk walk, and then the crash! Our first sitting meditation, “Sit facing the wall.”


I turned to the wall, arranged my cushion, sat down, focused on counting my breathing, and judgment wrapped around me and would not let go.


Before I go into the details of what happened, let me set the scene a bit. A little background will be helpful. You may end up coming up with times when something similar happened to you. All in all, it’s a rather silly example, and it was all too real and dominated me for most of a day. It all has to do with white socks.


All the way before we went silent, on the first afternoon, someone said, “and they wrote that we had to wear black, even socks.” At the time, that was just background chatter, someone talking in another part of the room I was in while I was trying to decide where to put my name tag, which cushion to adopt for 5 days.


I was in my room shortly after that and my brain said, "Wait, what? They said to wear black, even socks? How did I miss that?" I pulled up the email we got a couple weeks prior to the retreat, nothing.


And then, my brain started going to town. It wasn’t done there. My brain was searching for where that could have been that I missed and then it landed on the registration packet.


Now, you might wonder why didn’t I just say, “Oh well, I might have missed something?”


Because my brain does something in social situations in which I might stick out. It seems to go into a bit of panic mode. It tells me I must solve this problem right now. So, I pulled up the email where I sent in my registration, and there on the second page in bold it said to wear solid dark colors and black socks. Black socks. Black socks. It was in bold.


I did not pack ANY black socks. I had 3 pairs of white socks, 1 pair of red socks, and 1 pair of blue/gray socks. I read that thing a couple of months ago and did not pull the registration out again. Makes sense, right? I had registered. Then an email comes that says they are looking forward to us coming, blah blah blah, here’s the covid policy and here’s the agenda.


There was no solving this problem, I was stuck. I could not go anywhere to get black socks because I was on a silent retreat and I was going to follow the rules exactly. Well, except for the black socks thing, apparently. So, I told myself it would be fine and I went off to sleep.


Ok, so the stage is set and you have a little background.


Back to the morning meditation. There's a person who manages who goes to see the Roshi a this retreat. She says, "If you want to see the Roshi, please put your name tag out in front of your mat. I hesitate and then think, “well I kind of froze when I saw him yesterday and I certainly feel off right now, do something different and reach out.” So, I put my card out. Now to the meditation part.


This is where it got heavy. I sat there beginning to meditate and like an alarm going off in my head, the thoughts scream at me, “You are wearing white socks. Somebody probably thinks you are an *&^hole who doesn't care about the rules. Somebody else is thinking you are that new guy who screwed up and does not belong here.” Well, I’m practicing meditation, so I’m supposed to notice things and let them go. I’m sitting staring a a wall with a slightly blurry focus and not moving. So I keep coming back to my breathing, to where I’m sitting, and it’s still there. Those thoughts, and some others, pounding away.


It’s like a war between my head and my heart (I actually thought that, here’s my head and heart doing battle.) And it just keeps going. And it’s intense. Like shouting on one side, all of those judgments, and this like black jagged rock sitting in the middle of my chest on the other side. And I’m trying to pull my thoughts back to counting my breathing, and it’s just going on and on and on for what feels like forever. And then I cry, these little sobs that shake my body a little, but we’re all silent, so I do it as quietly as I can. Something broke a little and those tears and sobs came, like my brain and body could not keep up the battling, just too much and they had to let go a little. I think that was in the third meditation of the set. So, we’re talking probably 50 mins of this thing happening and then finally the tears.


I feel a little release, and it's really still there, and I don't really know what it is or what to do about it.


We go to lunch before I get to see the Roshi. Lunch is fine, and that stuff is still just nagging at me a bit, but it’s sitting off to the side periodically interjecting itself. I’m trying the whole time to just pay attention to what is right here right now. I mean, I’m on a mindfulness retreat, so I’m trying to pay attention to the moment. Then we have a rest period. I take a nap. I’m pretty tired from all this internal warring going on.


On to the next meditation period. I get tapped to go see the Roshi. I’m waiting to see him and breathing. I’m thinking through what I’m going to tell him and then breathing again. Then I’m wondering if this is worth bothering him with. Then I get to see him. He bows, I bow back. Then he says, “What’s on your mind?”

I say, “Lots of things.” A great non answer, huh. I feel the freezing start to happen and I make the decision that I’m going to move through it. So, I say that this meditating has been really uneven, that the previous night was this mountain top experience like he mentioned in his talk and this morning has been really tough. And he says that spiritual development is like that highs and crashes.

And then I decide to let him in and I say, “This is really ridiculous but it’s about my socks. I’m wearing white socks.” And I think I expected him to completely get it from me saying that. Of course, he did not.

He said, “So you’re wearing white socks, ok.” He says it in a matter of fact way and he seems compassionate, but confused.

And then I say, “But I’m the only one wearing white socks and in the registration packet it says, in bold, to wear solid dark colors and black socks. And I’m the only one wearing white socks. And I’m afraid that…” I don’t remember what else I said there because it was kind of a short ramble there and I realized the ramble and then I just stopped.


And he said, “Well, that sounds like shame, and it would be justified if there was a possibility that we would kick you out for wearing white socks. But it’s unjustified because that’s not the way this works. So, you need to stop battling and embrace the shame and feel where it is.” And then he referenced Thich Nat Hanh about inviting emotions in for tea, and he added, “but don’t let them stay for dinner.” And then he said that was a rule from the previous Roshi (the socks thing) who had led these retreats and he meant to take it out but had never gotten around to it.


And there it was, my ticket to freedom.


Invite the emotion in.


Something I have done with probably every client I’ve ever seen, assisted them to experience an emotion. And I could not do it without someone else suggesting what would be helpful.


Already I started to feel a little better and I knew there was work ahead. Understanding is not the same as experiencing, and I had to experience this. So, I set to breathing and fixing my gaze and sitting. And I had to get in touch with that jagged black rock sitting in the center of my chest. I got curious, I wonder what this thing is. I started to really pay attention to the feeling and how it was different in the dead center from a few inches to the side. And as I got in touch and really paid attention to all the unpleasant sensation, something began to soften about the jagged edges and the center didn’t feel quite so black. I have no idea how long it took. Felt like a really long time, and probably was not. The war stopped, and peace flowed in. I was comfortable. I mean, my leg was asleep and my back hurt some, and I was at peace with all of it. At peace with everyone in the room. At peace with everything. And then the sitting ended and it was time to walk and I just walked.


I realized as I was writing this that there was a common reaction that I did not have. When the Roshi said that he had forgotten to change the rule I could have gotten angry with him because he caused this suffering I was going through. That would have actually gotten in the way of what needed to happen. And it would not be true. The suffering I was going through was due to things in my past which were presenting themselves in the present in the form of this struggle. I had to go through the struggle to get to that peace. If he had changed the registration form, it simply would have delayed this process inside me. So, really, by him not changing the form, he did me a favor. It’s a couple days past that experience at the moment and I am grateful for the experience and the freedom it has provided. I don’t think I’m done with that struggle. It will come up again. And I know now what to do with it and I also have people to reach out to when I get stuck with it again.


www.lifeworkstl.com

All of the pictures used in the series were taken by Dr. Caleb Reese or Jeff Brenneman, except for this one. And we don't remember who took this one. Oops.

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