By Lisa Ernst
When I was in my late teens and early 20’s I suffered from agoraphobia, which literally translates into “fear of the marketplace.” This is an apt description; I had arranged my life so that I would have no need to interact with humans in any way, shape or form, except for one thing – I had to go to the grocery store. Encountering grocery store clerks at the check out line was usually very painful for me as I was convinced they were judging me, laughing at me and talking about me after I left. These encounters would linger or “stick” to me for days as I replayed them again and again, ingraining more deeply my own misguided perceptions of how the world saw me.
Obviously I had emotional and psychological issues that I needed to address, but most of us experience some version of this on a regular basis – encounters with others that stick to us long after they’re over. If we’re not mindful of what we’re doing, we end up trading our equanimity for replaying these situations again and again, until they become fixed in our minds as reality. There is an enduringly popular Zen parable that points to this kind of “stickiness”:
Two traveling monks reached a river where they met a beautiful woman. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitated, but the other quickly picked her up onto his shoulders, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other bank. She thanked him and departed.
As the monks continued on their way, the one was brooding and preoccupied. Unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!”
“Brother,” the second monk replied, “I set her down on the other side, while you are still carrying her.”
Meditation and mindfulness practice offer us a great opportunity to assess how often human encounters “stick” to us after the actual moment of interaction has passed. Through meditation and mindfulness, we can awaken to the amount of time we invest in rehashing past events while deepening grievances and other emotions at the expense of living in the present moment.
I began reflecting on this one day when I received an upsetting rejection letter from a gallery owner in New York. Two weeks earlier she had emailed me personally, saying she had found my website, was impressed with the quality of my art, and she invited me to submit my portfolio for an upcoming show. I was busy working on a commission at the time but I squeezed in several hours to prepare and send a portfolio. I enjoy visiting New York City so I was excited about the opportunity.
Two weeks later, I received a boilerplate rejection letter without even the gallery owner’s signature, saying “your work is not the right fit for our gallery.” I was insulted at the impersonal nature of this letter considering her initial solicitation, not to mention the time I invested in preparing a nice portfolio for her. It felt like a slap in the face.
Later that day I was running some errands when I realized that I was barely noticing my activities. I was lost in frustration at this woman. She was “sticking” to me and weighing me down as I carried her with me through my day. This moment of waking up, of seeing into my mind pattern, led me to look more closely and inquire into my heart as to what kept me holding on to her. This wasn’t an intellectual question, an attempt to figure it out mentally. The question was aimed at my present moment experience of entanglement. I could clearly see that I had been trapped in my outwardly directed grievance, attached to the idea that she should have responded differently. This insight enabled me to let the attachment go and open fully to my immediate experience, to feel my disappointment, to let it be “just like this.” My mind and heart softened into the present moment. As the knot of disappointment untangled, it was clear that no further thought or response was necessary, so I put her down and continued with my day.