My wife recently officiated a wedding and the couple, knowing we have a young son, gave us tickets to Disneyland as a thank you.
It was my son’s first time at the theme park, so we planned fairly meticulously. I knew it would be a long hot day, full of people, noise, rushing, and discovery for the little man. I didn’t expect to learn a few lessons myself.
As a kid I always had a very sensitive stomach and theme parks were a tricky proposition. Sure, the elaborate, immaculate theme parks, the toys, the characters, and the spectacle was fun. On the other hand, fast rides always made me feel sick, but there was significant family pressure to ride them.
It seemed like someone saying “C’mon, why don’t you want to take this pill? You’ll be really nauseous right away. It’ll be great! What’s wrong with you?” Jeering from brothers. Silent judgment from parents.
Strangely, as an adult, it wasn’t just time or age that eliminated the problem, but instead a lot of it had to do with contemplative practice. How so? Several contemplative practices involve drawing attention to the inner body, and developing an ever subtler inner awareness of inner processes.
My transition to Centering Prayer, for example, involves focusing two inches below the navel for two breaths, then on the space between the nose and upper lip for two breaths, then two inches behind the eyes for two breaths. It’s a simple and effective way to transition into a contemplative space. A side benefit is a greater awareness of these inner processes.
On the very first ride with my son at the theme park, the dreaded familiar feeling came up around the curves. Drawing attention inward, I realized I was tensing my stomach muscles tightly at all times, and even more so around the curves. The force of the curve against my inner resistance was bringing about the nausea.
This is in part a normal process of subtle adjustment we do all the time. But my body was resisting the process. I quickly developed a rhythm of inner release of breath and release before the next curve, had no problems, and could enjoy the ride.
Now, maybe this is what every eight-year-old learns to do naturally and I was a little slow on the uptake. Or maybe additional sensitivity requires additional adjustment.
But the lesson for the inner life is pretty straightforward. Resistance creates suffering. Resistance can come from fear or conditioning or lack of awareness. But beyond the situations we find ourselves in, the inner resistance creates an additional field of dissonance, and we both create and extend our suffering this way.
After a week of travel, flights, hotels, and poor sleep I looked for a coffee and a snack. The line was long but my need was great. This, too, is part of the theme park experience: standing in line. Just like waiting is part of our human experience.
Behind me in line were two guys who complained about every aspect of the wait. The people shouldn’t be looking at menus. This was the slowest coffee shop they’d ever been in. The waits were longer than at the rides. Why didn’t people eat breakfast to their hotel. Maybe Disneyland should outsource their barista training. Hurry up already. It was a mutually reinforcing negativity spiral. This too is resistance energy.
Their posture did nothing to change the situation, it just made it unpleasant. At a slower pace of awareness and expectation, even waiting in line can be a pleasant experience. It’s an opportunity to slow down and take in the sights and sounds and subtle natural and human interactions all around us. That’s one way in which the practice can broaden the field of perception. In our default unconsciousness, we usually only enjoy the things that narrowly benefit us in the short term. Everything else is uninteresting.
As we walked along the faux Main Streets, the difference between the idyllic fantasyland and the streets outside is striking. There’s no litter anywhere. The grounds are kept immaculate, in spite of the thousands of people frantically hurrying from place to place with popcorn, ice cream, wrappers, strollers, and so on.
There’s an attention to detail here. Each section staffed with custodians quick to clean up the spill or litter or whatever. There’s an analogy to the inner life here, too. This is what the practice prepares you for.
To recognize the litter of our mental landscape – the judgments, complaints, resentments, and attachments – to become aware of their presence, and to let them go. The more practiced we become at this, the purer our inner landscape. The difference is, at the theme park, the purpose is to maintain a fantasy, and in our inner life, it’s to be able to see as clearly as possible without our inner distortions.
Sure, such theme parks can be symbols of our artifice, overconsumption, and our overstimulated culture. It can also be a good bit of family fun. But even here, among the facades and cotton candy, we can bring a greater degree of awareness and learn something about the inner life.