A Morning Meditation on the Value of Periodic, Non-Judgmental Self-Examination


Meditation Pose

Copyright © Denis Raev/iStockphoto

by Susan McCaslin

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato

I’ve found it helpful to do periodic, non-judgmental self-examinations. The sound of this phrase sits with my soul much more comfortably than the traditional term “confession,” although that term simply means “to speak or acknowledge something together.”

Gentle self-examination is certainly related to the confessional aspects of prayer, but it lacks the chest-beating, shame and blame aspects that confession can set off.  Such a loving spiritual practice is really searching of the heart, a “being known” and loved as referred to in Psalm 139 where the psalmist says, “You have searched me and known me.”

So here’s my most recent morning inquiry.

Lately, it has been brought to my attention that, sometimes when eager to share an idea or thought, I will interrupt the thought stream of another.

I acknowledge and wish to amend this behaviour, and would like to share some background about it (not an excuse!).

In my birth family, everyone “talked over” everyone else constantly. Interruption was the norm. Actually, the chief offender in this situation was my mom, who was a chatterbox. Mom felt absolutely compelled to fill every space with idle or hard-working chit-chat. Part of me loved her chatty voice, its humour and observant flow. But the consequence of all this was that as a child and young adult, even as a mature adult, I was seldom able to insert many words, much less a longer train of thought, into a conversation. In fact, in my family there was very little true conversation, which includes listening and reflecting back what others say. Listening was not modelled. If you wanted to be heard, you had to raise your voice and interject your idea, interrupting someone else who would then do the same to you.

The exception was my dad. When we were one-on-one, he would listen carefully, ask questions about what I had to express, and reflect back something appropriate. But when he was with my mother, he would get defensive and shout, or simply withdraw into silence.

I was a relatively quiet child, but I was able to develop a rich interior life through books, where real conversations happened all the time. Additionally, I related to the authors, who understood things I had felt and known but was unable to articulate. Books made space and time dialogic.

In school I was the shy one who sat at the back of the room, diligently taking notes, often admiring and respecting my teachers, working hard for them and for love of the subject. I hardly ever raised my hand to ask a question or to speak. In my interior world and in my essays, I could string words together, exploring a topic in a fairly nuanced way. Yet the mere thought of having to speak in class set my heart pounding and hands sweating.

This situation continued through university, graduate schools, and into the workplace, where during seminars and meetings I would compose something in my head, but couldn’t find a place in which to interpose it. By the time I screwed up my courage to speak, the conversation had moved on and I had missed my chance. When I did manage to start speaking, my thoughts would dissolve and I would feel inarticulate. I would stumble through a few primitive sentences and then drop out. Blushing happened.

Much of this changed through years of teaching. Facilitating discussion with a class gave me a forum for developing ideas and promoting attentive listening in myself and in my students. I learned to respond in a way that would encourage dialogue, the free exchange of ideas.

My husband and daughter have noticed that the old family pattern of talking over people returns mostly when I’m excited about an idea, and especially when I’m anxious.

I recall now that my usually quiet Dad had a habit of delivering what we called his “Saturday morning discourses” or “harangues.” He would get on a hobbyhorse and ride it into the ground. Now I notice myself doing the Saturday morning discourse, and more often since retirement, though it can arrive any day of the week.

My daughter will sometimes respond, “Okay Mom, we get it. Enough.” Ouch!!

So I take myself up, examine the behaviour without judgment, and try to be more mindful, more aware. Why am I going on? Why did I interrupt? Was I afraid if I didn’t say my word now it would fall into the abyss forever?

In my meditation the inner Voice sighs: Have compassion for the thoughtful child who had no forum for her thoughts. Have compassion for your anxious mother who filled her void with fearful words. Have compassion for the sensitive, thoughtful father whose frustration and anger built a fortress around him. Be thankful that, despite this wall, he truly listened to his daughter and supported her though her early life and adulthood, reading and commenting on both her Master’s and Doctoral dissertations.

So I’m working on being an attentive listener, to truly hear others. I hope to catch myself when I next become obsessed with a problem or idea and inflict my level of detail on others.

Today I’m thankful for the writing life and to poetry for bringing me to the great room of exchange where the commerce of the tongue is lovely.

…………………

Here I thought the meditation had ended but there was more.  That’s how it works with meditation.  Sometimes an afterthought flows in.

It occurs to me that in Roman Catholicism the process I’ve just described might take place during confession to a priest, and, despite its abuses, public confession has the potential to be healing, cathartic. The ideal in the Protestant tradition is that confession should take place in the sanctuary of the heart. Today when intimate friends get together, whether they consider themselves spiritual or not, public confession can happen in a spontaneous fashion, sometimes providing healing and release. Perhaps one of the most important things we can give one another is our attention.

Yet the inner Voice had two more phrases for me:

Self-examination is only the prelude to the deeper ranges of contemplation.

 Keep it short.

 These caveats are necessary because confession/self-examination is tied closely to the ego or constructed self, and the purpose of the deeper levels of contemplation is freedom from ego. Prolonged self-examination can be fruitless. Dwelling on one’s failings and mistakes too long can end in inaction, depression, and even self-hatred, just the opposite of Spirit’s desire for us.

Spirit urges brevity. Jesus got confession down to a single sentence in the prayer he taught his learners: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It seems that forgiving generates more and more forgiveness.

Our self-forgiveness and desire to pick ourselves up and try again is often enough. And there are also times when we need to acknowledge to another how we have trespassed or stepped over their boundaries, and then make active reparation, since doing is better than talking about doing. So these periodic interior searches are important because they keep our shadows from growing so long we can’t see them as shadows.

Remembering our finiteness and remaining in a state of open-hearted humility may just save us from painful and lengthy life reviews after passing to the next state of consciousness into which we may step at death. Tibetan Buddhists have practices for shortening our time in the Bardos or self-evaluative regions of the afterlife.

As the saints have said, better to “die before you die.” What they have in mind is a continuous dying to ego so that large annoying blockages won’t even get a chance to form.

I used to think traditional meditations on death, or the memento mori and ars moriendi traditions of the Middle Ages, were simply morbid;  now they seem a way of honouring the brevity of life. When Hamlet, for instance, cups in his palms the skull of Yorick, the court jester, ruminating on how all comes to dust, there is more than irony and sadness in his voice. He is also voicing a vast wonder at the mystery of our brief sojourn. His personal memento mori or remembrance of death gives him the energy to finally and fully embrace life.

Susan McCaslin is a prize-winning poet and author of eleven volumes of poetry. Susan is Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years. Her most recent volume of poetry, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011), has recently been named a finalist for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award). She lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Visit her website at www.susanmccaslin.ca.

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Categories: Daily Life, Family and Parenting, Featured, Healing and Wellness, Inspiration and Meditation, Self worth, Spiritual Growth, Susan McCaslin

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3 Comments on “A Morning Meditation on the Value of Periodic, Non-Judgmental Self-Examination”

  1. Donna
    January 31, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    Thanks Susan — what an honest and thoughtful reflection. I too was a shy young person — and now, in my elder years, with more self-confidence, have been known to rant freely. Your comments (for me) are a needed call to self-awareness.

  2. Jennifer McCaslin
    February 1, 2013 at 7:54 am #

    In your family we all still interrupt and talk over each other. It’s still the norm at home, and Dad told me this morning I’m a chatterbox that won’t let him have a word in edge wise. So these things continue. Your inner voice is still good. It doesn’t insult you.

    The person that you remember as your mother is not the same as the person I remember as Grandma. I saw her differently. She was always the one sitting on the couch with a Garfield T-shirt, watching TBN, bringing toys back from Fred Meyer for me to play with, and telling me that the Lord talked to her this morning. I never understood quite how Jesus was talking to her all the time. She always said, “The Lord told me this and that.” All I remember is the Jesus painting on the wall, the stuffed lamb, the giant lion painting on the wall, coloring books, plastic eggs, and having peanuts handed to me, with her saying, please feed the squirrel. And too many Hershey bars in the Kitchen. All sugar and TV dinners, cheap Saltines and jars of peanut butter in the house.

    “Here you go Jen, you need some protein to help you go to the bathroom. Have some peanut butter.”

    I don’t have so many memories of being angry with her, just mostly laughing at her. I apologize now for it, I had no idea the situation she was in.

    I remember having to give foot massages to Grandma with a tiny plastic roller skate for 50 cents. She is the one I remember put her hands on my head to bind the evil forces coming against me. To me, she was a different person. And I still wonder what evil forces she saw grabbing onto David’s head. What was she seeing that I didn’t see? Why was she waiving her hands in front of Davids head and yelling at some invisible “thing” to let go of him all the time?

    “Forgive me my debtors—— as I find a way to forgive my Student Loan Debt, and forgive the people that Indebted me. Forgive me my debt and make it go away…….”

  3. flouann
    February 4, 2013 at 4:49 am #

    RESPONSE TO SUSAN McCASLIN’S MORNING MEDITATION
    on the Value of Periodic, Non-Judgmental Self-Examination

    Susan, thank you for this—
    I am richer for it.
    I had some ‘monk’s moments’.

    (I love)
    idle or hard-working chit-chat;
    the inner Voice sighs:

    the great room of exchange
    where the commerce of the tongue
    is lovely

    Spirit urges brevity.
    forgiving generates
    more and more forgiveness

    periodic interior searches are important…
    they keep our shadows from growing so long
    we can’t see them as shadows

    a way of honouring the brevity of life;
    energy to finally and fully embrace life.
    (Of course, I found a poem in your prose.)

    Franci Louann flouann@telus.net January 31, 2013

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