Imagine a room filled with people who have gathered for a dinner benefit. The room is aglow with soft lights, and music from a small orchestra can be heard playing from a far corner of the ballroom. There are tables arranged with crisp linens, polished silver and baskets filled with warm, freshly baked bread. Everyone is gathered for an inspiring night.
Now imagine just as everyone is circling the room to find a place to sit down, that a large, barreling elephant barges through the ballroom doors.
People instantly begin running for safety. Tables start rocking side by side as the elephant trots through the room. Glasses and plates crash to the ground as the elephant swings its trunk from side to side. What had begun as a joyful gathering of people has suddenly turned into quite the circus of destruction.
I've been told this is how the mind works.
We all have this roaming elephant that can come barging in when we least expect it. Somehow this pesky, bulky elephant can take a serene moment and turn you, an entire day, week, month, or year on its side. The elephant leaves us asking questions like, "How did I get here?" or "What could have possibly gone wrong?"
This week I want to talk about how the practice of mindfulness awareness meditation (and something called the Container Principle) helps us learn how to relate with this roaming elephant. Meditation invites us to explore the nature of our true mind, to discover whether this elephant exists in each of us, and if so, what are its shapes, sizes and habits. It also invites us to consider an absurd notion: that we are not at the mercy of this elephant.
Creating space for the elephant
It took me a really, really long time to notice my own pesky elephant(s). I kept doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results. In years past, my default reaction was to silence what I know now as the elephant. I would ignore it, dissociate from it or tackle it head on with some new self-improvement plan. These things didn't help. They made me agitated and weary.
With time, however, I learned to find traces of a neurotic breadcrumb trail that led to where the elephant went on its latest stampede.
It seemed to me that my next task was to learn to greet the elephant as soon as I was able, to listen and to discover what it needed so I could get to a better, healthier place.
Elephants and writers
My hunch is that writers are probably more familiar with their own stampeding elephants than most folks, if only because writing makes things so quiet. Whether the elephant shows up with a distraction, a debilitating assault on our self esteem or a relentless case of writer's block, the elephant is real. I've also noticed that the elephant seems to become very, very agreeable as long as I'm not trying to write.
The thing is, even when I think I can rest easy because I've appeased the elephant, it is actually still stewing, monching down on some neurotic breadcrumbs and just waiting to make another dinner-gone-crazy entrance.
I learned the hard way that ignoring the elephant is only a temporary solution.
What it actually needs is attention, gentleness, understanding and a reminder that it is welcome and that it is most definitely not in charge.
Elephants + the Container Principle
There are myriad ways that we can work with these elephants, whether they show up in our writing or in our daily lives. The main way I've found is through the practice of meditation.
Another way is by exploring an idea known as the Container Principle.
It was defined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (a Tibetan Buddhist master) as a way to describe one of the ways that we relate with the world around us:
What contains you has an effect on you, and at the very same time, you affect what contains you.
When I first considered this idea of containers, I thought of tangibles like a house, a bathroom or a car. The more I explored it, I saw that it can also apply to what contains our minds -- like our own self talk (Is it a nice voice?), the friends we choose to confide in (Are they discouraging or uplifting?) and how we treat ourselves (Do we wear quality clothes? Do we have proper hygiene? Do we feed ourselves good, nourishing food?).
As a writer, I've found these three areas to influence me the most:
the people around me
I discovered that the people in my life were either creating a pleasant container for my life or a very unpleasant one.
the voices in my head
The voices in my head also operate as an interesting container for my confidence as a writer; every time I engage in negative self-talk, I build a larger canyon for my self-esteem to fall into.
my schedule and lifestyle
My schedule and lifestyle were probably the trickiest to explore. Rather than embracing my inner-nerdy-writer woman, I realized I had been putting pressure on myself, more or less, to keep up with the efforts and activities of extroverted high school cheerleaders. (Hello, burnout.)
Exploring what contains you
It's important to know that every container in your life is specific to you. It's possible you might not respond the way I do to any of the things I've described above. But, if you're at all intrigued by the premise of the Container Principle, consider testing the idea in one of the following ways and see what you notice:
Take a look at your writing space and consider whether it is a tidy space that's relatively free of distractions. Tidy is not synonymous with clean as an ice cold museum. It means that, in general, everything has a place, and when you sit down to write there is visual and physical room to write comfortably (your elbows, arms and back are supported, for example; or your eyes have peaceful places to land when they rest from writing). What happens when you sit down to write in such a space, as opposed to a bustling coffee shop? The point here isn't to judge one space as better than another, but to notice how you feel inside different environments.
Make a list of the people you speak with on a regular basis (people you're in touch with every three days at a minimum, for the sake of this example). If you could create a scrolling list of "commonly used phrases" from each person, what would that list look like? What words or topics are most commonly coming out of that person when you spend time with him or her? The words they speak around you create a container for you. This point here isn't to judge people who are going through a hard time, but it is helpful to recognize that how people communicate (if they are gossiping or tend to be judgmental, for example) can have an impact on you.
Consider the quality of the foods you eat. "Quality" doesn't necessarily mean you only eat all organic food (although, that's perfectly fine if you do). Look at what you put in your body to nourish it. Are you giving your body leftovers from everybody else's plate? Are you eating foods that don't settle well on your stomach just because they're left over? This coming week, see what happens if you buy just one piece of the freshest possible fruit, vegetables, meat or bread. How does it feel to give your body this food?
Don't take my word for it
If this is the first time you've considered the idea of having a "roaming elephant" in your mind, it's so, so important that you don't take my word for it. Every mind is unique and only you can decide if you have an elephant or not -- perhaps you have a monkey, or nothing that closely resembles anything I've written in this blog.
Same thing goes for the Container Principle. The only person who knows if these things ring true for you is you. So no matter how much I share from a sincere place in my heart, that should never hold more weight than your own discernment and conscience. I know that you're incredibly capable of discovering everything for yourself. These are merely suggestions to explore and test for yourself.
I hope you'll let me know what you find.