In my 20’s, I signed myself up for a week long silent meditation retreat at a Buddhist center deep in the woods of a tiny New England town. I was nervous. But not about maintaining silence. No, the real driver of my fears was the thought of being stranded in the middle of nowhere at the mercy of retreat center food, with no means to pop out for a bite of something better should a craving arise.
I’m a New Yorker; we’re used to being able to eat almost any kind of food at almost any time of day. There’s a freedom and a luxury to this that’s hard to give up. I packed a bag of miniature Snickers bars just in case I needed a special treat or started to lose my mind eating mung beans and brown rice day after day.
I unpacked my things and settled into my room but I kept my secret stash of candy at the bottom of my duffle bag in the back corner of the closet. It was like my own personal vending machine.
I would be sitting in the meditation hall in back to back meditation sessions, like a little boat drifting out to the part of the ocean where no land is visible any longer, and anytime the slow rising, internal panic of: oh my god how much longer I can’t sit here another minute started up I would picture my bag of Snickers and feel soothed.
I wasn’t drifting toward the middle of the ocean. I was deep breathing toward a finish line and the trophy was a bite-sized treat of cheap candy heaven, covered in a shiny wrapper, mine and only mine.
These were the kinds of mind games I had to play on myself back then: bribing my way to enlightenment. But when I reflect on it now, I understand that I was actually doing something much more profound. I was learning to re-parent myself.
I was raised under the philosophy of the old Nike campaign slogan: Just Do It.
“But why do I have to do it?”, I would moan.
“Because I said so,” was my mother’s eternal reply.
“But I don’t want to.”
“Life isn’t about what you want or don’t want. It’s about what has to be done.”
“Why do I have to do it when my sister doesn’t?”
“Stop talking back and do what you’re told to do or there will be consequences.”
This kind of conditioning breeds resentment in a child and encourages white knuckling. And the worst part of all is that it builds a bleak, magic-less understanding of life and how life works. The suffering of growing up this way was precisely what drove me toward the generous, transformative lap of the Buddha and all of his radical teachings on happiness in the first place. I didn't want to keep the lineage of misery going any longer. I wanted a new way of living and relating to life.
My bag of Snickers was a demonstration of self love. It was my way of comforting myself through a really tough, transformative, week-long mental work out.
A new inner mommy voice was emerging in me through the years of deeply compassionate Buddhist practice I’d taken on. I was no longer telling myself crap like: “You don’t wanna sit here? Tough. You bought the ticket, now you have to ride the ride, so stop complaining and focus for fuckssake.”
I was telling myself: “I know this is hard but there’s a treat waiting for you if you can pull through.”
When we identify what comforts us and weave it into the big, aspirational endeavors we want to accomplish for ourselves, we are much more highly motivated and likely to succeed than we are under the wicked mean threats of our super egos - which represent the internalized voice of the figures of authority we grew up with.
Figure out what needs to live in your own secret vending machine and remind yourself, anytime you’re working a difficult edge or pushing a little harder toward that next up-leveling in your life, that there’s a treat waiting for you.
Love yourself all the way toward the finish line instead of berating yourself. It’s kindness that transforms and heals us, not cruelty.
Till next time friends,