Removing the Cilice of the Mind

Removing the Cilice of the Mind


"If even once you can pause long enough to see how your mind causes you suffering, you can pause again, and then again."

Three years ago, I went on a five-day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society. This will be easy, I thought. After all, it was to be my fourth retreat. I know what’s going on inside my mind, I thought. Indeed. True, but not relevant, it turns out.

The silence began. My mind donned its familiar cilice, (a thorned hairshirt meant to cause pain with every move). Every one of my thoughts was followed by the sting of a harsh judgment.

Here’s an excerpt of my inner critic’s barbed commentary on retreat:

"So virtuous, the way he eats so slowly. Who does he think he’s fooling? How can you even think that? Just because you aren’t peaceful doesn’t mean other people aren’t. Stop criticizing. What kind of crappy person are you, judging him during a meditation retreat? This is exactly why you need this retreat and other people don’t. You are not a nice person. Am I supposed to be counting or saying the lovingkindness words?  What are they again? My back hurts so much. I have to move. I shouldn’t move. I’m supposed to explore the nature of the pain. Burning. Sharp..."

It was exhausting to sit with my mind’s ceaseless chatter. On the fourth day my mind removed its cilice. Just like that, my inner critic retracted her spikes and lowered the volume. I heard the unfamiliar, gentle voice of my inner angel. 

I was granted moments of clarity, of transcendence, even of bliss. I felt profound sadness for the pain my mind inflicts on me. For the first time, I understood at a cellular level the empathy that the dharma teachers talk about. 

Imagine your mind is a child. How would you treat a child filled with rage or sorrow? You would treat them with tenderness and love. As one teacher said, we aren’t here to flog our thoughts, to rip them violently from our minds, or to beat them into submission. All we need to do is notice them, say thank you, and let them pass away if they don’t serve us. Release the fist of your mind.  

For one breath here and another breath there, I glimpsed my path. And I was filled with a simultaneous sense of hopelessness and joy.        

It’s been three years since that retreat. I remember the clarity and sadness, as if it happened yesterday. I’m not a new person.  I’m also not quite my old self. Increasingly, I can counter my inner critic’s trash-talk with the kindness of the inner angel’s voice I heard for the first time on that retreat. She who sees my suffering and understands it’s self-inflicted. I don’t know if I can hang on to the angel’s voice. In fact, I know I have to loosen my grip. Invite her to stay, without begging. Let her be. 

The most spectacular triple-flip trick we undertake in meditation is this: to meditate without a particular ambition or goal. To meditate without intending an outcome. To meditate for its own sake. To notice.

The catch? In those tiny moments when we are able to let go of a desired result, those are the very moments we will feel the deepest effects of our practice. As every meditation teacher I’ve ever had says, if even once you can pause long enough to see how your mind causes you suffering, you can pause again, and then again. The pause is where we find the skill to think before we react. The pause is where we choose whether to listen to the critic, "you’re not a nice person!", or the angel, "You’re okay, maybe even fabulous!". 

In those moments of taffy-stretched-time, we find not only a brief reprieve from the emotional chaos of the world, but also the nourishment to engage with a fresher, lighter, more grounded spirit.  

Need help letting go? Read "Finding Rest in a World that Just Wants you to Keep Going" and "Strategies for Overcoming Resistance and Distractions in Meditation."

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