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Mar 15
Opinion Pieces
The Waiting Game, Part Two

Learning to see an eye-drop treatment regimen as an opportunity to practice

by William Larsen 

As I relaxed my protest, I found I could drop much more quickly into a calm inner space, surrendering into the sofa, allowing the wetness of the eye drops to wash through me. Splash, two minutes, shift; splash, two more minutes. Two-hundred-and-forty seconds. Breathing, relaxing, feeling, I found that if I approached the activity with focused awareness, administering eye drops could take me deep in a short amount of time.

In fact, once I surrendered to waiting as Practice, I discovered options within options. The object of awareness could be the movement of breath, the sensation of liquid soaking into the eye, a familiar mantra. Or simple gratitude that I was fortunate enough to receive vision-saving treatment. But I found the most useful focus to be impatience itself.

It was such rich ground to explore. Impatience, where was its substance? How was my body creating the sensation? Was there any compelling, real-life reason for “it”? Or was impatience simply a product of mental conditioning, habit? There wasn’t time to contemplate all this, so I simply let the felt experience permeate my awareness, observing how impatience formed in my mind and body. Maybe it was knowing how brief the timed interval was, but once I shifted into “drop time,” resistance quickly dissolved. I might have been doing paper work, weeding the garden, or getting ready for a therapy client, but as soon as the drop splashed in, my mind went straight to the object of choice.

Waiting was no longer an issue. In fact, as I popped in and out of my five minute retreats, it seemed more that the silence was waiting for me. A calm self-abiding stillness that was always present, as I came and went. Silent and clear.

The experience was like zafu sitting, but also it wasn’t. The settling-in period dissolved much quicker, and my monkey mind didn’t get nearly as hooked. Ironically (given my issue with time) the space seemed timeless, without thought, meaning or self-reflection. Devoid even of Buddhist connotation.

As the weeks progressed, I began to see how modern life presents many similar opportunities for mindful practice throughout the day. I remembered Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion to let the phone ring three times, taking slow mindful breaths before answering. I also remembered Pema Chodron’s “on the spot” teaching:  going immediately to somatic self-awareness when a painful situation or emotion (shenpa) appears. But we don’t have to be caught in afflictive emotion to practice this way. Our lives are continuously interrupted by situations that test our patience and create ripe opportunities for deepening consciousness.

How many times a day do we wait for the computer to boot up or change screens? How many minutes stuck at traffic signs or lights? Waiting in lines? Waiting for someone to show up? Waiting for water to boil, food to be served, purchases to be sacked or wrapped? How many times have we waited for a minute (or two, or three) tangled in a phone tree waiting to be transferred to the next automated voice? Waiting, waiting, waiting, but for what?

Actually, the Pac-Man analogy does fit if I take a pass on these calls to Practice. I now realize that when I ignore such opportunities, I’m indulging Buddhism’s third poison: stupidity, or ignorance. It’s a choice. Staying present, or reacting, when challenges arise truly does have significant consequences for my mental and emotional acuity. Seeing interruptions in this manner doesn’t make my day easier, but it certainly provides opportunities for challenging my impatience, and for working with the second Noble Truth (the cause of suffering) in small but meaningful ways.

For now, savoring those intrusive little breaks has become a pleasure as I near the end of my  eye drop regimen. That seems enough.

So, my dilemma with eye drops is ending harmoniously. I’m no longer troubled by the inevitability of these intrusions or the grumbling of my zafu demanding a more perfect practice. In retrospect, it seems this entire experiment has been an exercise in encountering the demon of perfectionism. Accepting myself (and life) as is. Toward this end, my mind goes back to a college art instructor who said, “Art is not about making a perfect vase. Art is about making a vase every day.” And many times throughout the day, I might add.

That’s where I’m at now, looking forward to using life’s messy intrusions to deepen my awareness as I continue down the path. I still sit in the mornings, but it’s the challenge of meeting daily life in a more expansive manner that has me hooked. In fact, I can hardly wait.

For Part One of this article, please click here.

William Larsen is a longtime practitioner and psychotherapist who lives with his wife in Nevada City, California. He has been a practicing psychotherapist for over forty-five years, and has specialized in utilizing a mindfulness-based approach to the  treatment of trauma.

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