Sam’s Outlook
Editor Albany UU | Mar 25, 2020

Finding Inner Freedom While Outwardly Confined

Being confined to home and work at home may seem attractive at first – a chance to decompress from a stressful existence and have more family time together – but after a week or two of it, stress can build. The habits of our housemates that normally don’t bother us can cause aggravation when we are in close contact. The noise level with restless children complaining about nothing to do or boredom with what they have to do, worry about another housemate bringing the virus into the house, increased cooking, cleaning, and laundry, and not having enough physical separation space from each other can fray our nerves. It isn’t warm enough yet so we can get outside for longer periods and keep apart. Until the warmer days of spring arrive (and they are coming!) we’ll be dealing with the unhappiness of confinement.

This being closely confined with other people for longer than a week reminds me of being at a silent meditation retreat. At an insight-oriented retreat, as taught by the Insight Meditation Society, the participants sit close together in the meditation hall for an hour at a time. We are strongly urged not to move during that time. We do very slow walking meditation in confined spaces near each other, especially in cold or rainy weather. We wait in line to get our food from a buffet and eat together in a common dining hall. We keep silence and do not communicate in any way with the other participants. Our attention must always be watching what is happening in our own minds and attending to the present moment guided by our attention to the breath.

This can feel very confining and bring up awareness of a lot of stress. From the outside this may seem like a lot of self-punishment. In the first several days of the retreat as our bodies and minds slow down there can be a lot of unpleasantness. Yet by the fourth or fifth day, I’m feeling much better as my body relaxes and lets go of layer upon layer of muscle tension. Repeatedly coming back to the breath meditation gradually quiets the mind and the thinking process begins to get much slower and quieter. Towards the end of the retreat, my body is deeply rested and energized while my mind is peaceful, sharp and attentive to each moment.

Insight meditation teacher S.N. Goenka’s students have taken these methods of Buddhist meditation into prisons to teach these methods to inmates. They are even more restricted in their confinement, but they find they get great benefit like what I experience at a retreat too.

The diminishment of outer stimulation in these settings, especially by limiting speech and hearing of language, has the effect of amplifying inner awareness of our mental processes. Patterns of emotional reactivity to physical sensations, sights, sounds, and smells and the thoughts that appear in relation to them are much more noticeable. The process of reactivity becomes much more apparent. The sequence of sensation to feeling to thought becomes clearer. I notice the end process of being annoyed about something like Andrew leaving a dirty pan in the middle of the sink. My reactivity starts at the end of the chain of associations not the beginning. Becoming aware of the beginning of the chain and the patterns of emotional reactivity creates the freedom to choose a different response than yelling and screaming at him to clean up after himself for the 100th time.

The awakening process the Buddha advocated that reduces our stress and leads to greater wisdom, compassion and happiness, revolves around noticing the processes of the mind in response to the content of our senses and thoughts. Evolution has given us a good toolkit to survive through developing habitual responses to what our senses tell is us happening and our mind interprets. Evolution has also given us a super-power of being able to be aware of that process. Developing that awareness gives us conscious control of changing those habits.

But developing our awareness of mental processes is not enough. We also need to be wise in responding to what enters that field of awareness. That wisdom comes from our own experiences and from those who have traveled the paths of life ahead of us and left a record of what they discovered. There are some very wise souls who have left excellent guidance for us. Yet no one teaching or scripture is complete. And even if one was, the ability of people and text to transmit it is imperfect. And the flaws in the transmission of wisdom can be the difference between life and death.

We are extremely fortunate to live in a time when so much of that wisdom can be accessed online, in books, in music and the arts, and in person. We are also fortunate as Unitarian Universalists that we are open to a wide range of sources to guide our own development of wisdom. And we have each other as sources and guides in this process as well.

Each of us is responsible to find our own way. And we have each other for support as we find that way. As we do, as we learn to make wise choices and offer each other support, we walk the path of liberation for ourselves and for all beings. That is an enlightening path to happiness in this life … and what is beyond it.

Rev. Sam