In August 2016, I was participating in my approximate 30th Zen meditation retreat. On the most basic level, the “simple” (i.e., incredibly challenging) directions of the particular retreats I attend is to be present to your breathe and bodily physical sensations. When thoughts arise, as they do without abandon, the practice is to bring your attention back to the body. Over the years, each retreat has varied in terms of the emotions, issues, challenges, delights, and physical experiences that occur. In this particular retreat, I was “gifted“ with a new physical sensation – a bona fide, menopausal hot flash! Now when I have hot flashes off of a meditation cushion, my response is fairly predictable: I start waving my hands like a madwoman to create a fan, pull my hair off my neck, look around for anyone present in which to lock eyes in order to give that demonic look, and wait for the sympathetic response. But, in a meditation retreat, when one of the cardinal rules is to try to stay as still as possible, avoid eye contact, and the only thing to look at is the white wall in front of you, these responses are not possible. I was, however, able to go off on a tirade of internal thoughts that went something like this: “Seriously! Now? WTF? I can’t move for at least 20 more minutes! really?“ and so on. After a minute or so of indulgence, I remembered what I was supposed to be doing while on the cushion which was to bring my attention back to the physical sensations in and around me.
So, I stopped the tirade of negative thoughts and brought my attention back to my breath and body. And, here’s what I noticed: I felt sensations of heat, I felt a trickle of sweat tickle my face as it slid down my cheek, and I felt cool as a breeze that came in through a window made contact with my damp skin. The whole experience – without the inner dialogue and drama – was a surge of brief, intense physical sensations and nothing more. The story I was indulging in my head and the dramatic actions I would have taken under ordinary circumstances were making it into this big, awful thing. When I refrained from this typical reaction, I was left with a bunch of temporary sensations and nothing more.
I welcomed this paradigm shift regarding menopause with glee. And if there was a defining moment when Embracing The Middle was born, it was that one. I decided at the moment to try to make every hot flash akin to a meditation bell which reminds to be present to my sensations and the moment – a MentalPause. In honesty, I only remember or choose to do this maybe 20% of the time I experience a hot flash. But, when I do, it becomes a gift of momentary presence. Try it sometime. You may be pleasantly surprised.