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Calming the Ocean

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“There are three integral factors in Buddhist meditation—morality, concentration and wisdom. Those three factors grow together as your practice deepens. Each one influences the other, so you cultivate the three of them together, not one at a time. When you have the wisdom to truly understand a situation, compassion towards all the parties involved is automatic, and compassion means that you automatically restrain yourself from any thought, word or deed that might harm yourself or others. Thus your behavior is automatically moral. It is only when you don’t understand things deeply that you create problems. If you fail to see the consequences of your own action, you will blunder. The fellow who waits to become totally moral before he begins to meditate is waiting for a ‘but’ that will never come. The ancient sages say that he is like a man waiting for the ocean to become calm so that he can go take a bath.”

This passage, from yesterday’s reading of Bhante Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English, all comes down to the “but” for me. Earlier this week I named that “but” “emotional resistance,” though no matter what it’s called it represents a barrier between here and there, doing and not doing. At times it can be small, while at others insurmountable.

This week I’ve been participating in a Motivational Interviewing training provided through my job. In a bit of homework a few days back, we traced a case study between a clinician and a client who just couldn’t turn a corner on exercising. They had no end to reasons why they should exercise, but they also had a “but”—a nebulous bit of emotional resistance that was getting in the way. My fellow trainee’s answers of how to guide the conversation were mixed and I don’t think my suggestions and prompts would have helped the would-be client. I wasn’t quite sure of how to guide the conversation forward.

For as long as I can remember I’ve considered myself a poor reader. I can recall back somewhere around junior high to a time where I lugged around a novel called The Death and Life of Superman. It lists at 527 pages, which isn’t unheard of for a novel, but I recall it taking me forever to get through. Not one or two months, even, but we’re talking the better part of a year.

It’s interesting to reflect on the stories I’ve written for myself, in my mind, and how they shape my viewpoint. When I think back to my childhood, then my teenage years—with regard to reading—what comes to mind is how slow I read, how many times I would have to retrace the words on a page after my mind slipped away into daydream, and how endless it all felt. I felt I was a poor reader and I felt inferior because of it. What’s bothersome is I value reading. I value what it leads to and I respect the practice. When I come to find out that someone is a practiced reader, I admire that quality in them, no matter what it is they read. That they regularly read books says something about them, and I appreciate it more—maybe—because I feel it’s something I lack. I’m about two-thirds done with grad school, have shelves upon shelves of books I haven’t read which I’ve told myself I want to read (William Miller and Stephen Rollnick’s Motivational Interviewing textbook being one of them), and still the “but” is strong; I usually convincing myself that the right blend of circumstances for me to read aren’t present before moving on to something else. Of course I don’t ever seem to get anywhere.

This past week I started logging my reading as part of the Nashville Public Library’s Summer Reading Challenge. Part of me was, and is, just curious to see if I can build a habit. I read every day for at least an hour (~427 minutes total), in that time covering 181 pages, which averages out to about 141 seconds per page. That might be slow, still, but it doesn’t exactly fall in line with the story I’ve told myself about what kind of reader I am. I’ve held that belief for a very long time.

As for any future prowess at Motivational Interviewing, that’s still a wait and see. But if it’s anything like reading, I’m probably capable of more than I tell myself I am. The ocean doesn’t need to settle, the winds don’t need to quit wailing, and the dog next door doesn’t need to be deep in slumber before I can take my first step with whatever it is I want to accomplish. More than likely, it’s just a matter of moving beyond the “but.”