The Shape of Things: Lessons Learned from Digging

This is a story about the shape of things, and how the shape of things changes, shifts, as they are dug into more deeply. The inspiration came from digging a hole, and the lesson applies to understanding the true nature of our emotions.

It sprang out of a need to compost. At that point, we had not subscribed to a composting service yet, and there was little time to set up a composting bin. The short term solution, I decided, would be to dig a large hole in the back of the house for food scraps until we could think of a better way. That's how, on a hot summer day, I trudged out to the yard with a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and some heavy duty gloves, ready to do something I had not engaged with earnestly in years: digging.

I began by spearing the ground with the shovel repeatedly to carve out the excavation area—a three-foot wide circle. It had been a while since I had needed to use my whole body to dig. As I listened to blade crunching through grass and soil, I tried to think of other times I had dug holes. The instances that came to mind—making small pits in the soil when repotting house plants, unearthing a few inches of dirt for planting herbs—seemed meager compared to what I was currently undertaking.

The ground was filled with rocks. Whenever the shovel hit one, I could feel the impact of metal and stone echoing through my body, causing the beads of sweat to drip a little further down my face and neck. I tossed the rocks into the wheelbarrow, and soon there was a hefty pile of them. The rocks became bigger as I dug deeper. Most of them were about the size of my fist, but I was soon picking up ones the size of my shoe.

The hole was about halfway done when my shovel hit yet another rock. I tried to dig around it but could not find an end to it. It dawned on me that I had just stumbled upon a sizable rock and found myself quite curious to see just how large it was. A wave of energy overtook over me, and I began to dig faster in all directions, flinging up dirt left and right.

At last, I found an edge. To my surprise, the side ending up curving outwards, indicating that the rock was actually much larger than I had thought. Sweat was dripping furiously down my back now, but I could not stop. Part of me wanted to call it a day, exclaiming that the hole was already big enough, but the momentum of my curiosity was too strong. I had to know what it looked like. When I finished uncovering all the sides, my shirt was drenched in sweat, and I was standing up to my thighs inside the hole. I breathed heavily, exhausted and exhilarated as I gazed down at my newfound treasure—an oblong-shaped boulder roughly the size of my torso.

Unlike the previous rocks, it was not a simple matter of picking it up and chucking it into the wheelbarrow. I could not budge it from the ground no matter hard I pushed with the shovel, so I had to see what other tools were available in the shed. I settled with a digging bar, a large, heavy, six-foot metal spear that must have been half my weight. Walking back through the yard with this weapon in hand, I chuckled at the absurdity of the situation.

It took several attempts from different sides and angles, but at last, I was able to flip the rock onto its side using some brute strength and a brief recollection of what I had learned about simple machines from high school physics. When the rock finally rolled over, I gasped at the sheer size of it. Not only was it was much thicker than I had imagined, it had beautiful grains glistening along the side that had been facing the Earth.

After taking a few moments to catch my breath, I quickly finished digging the rest of the hole. Once I was done, I dumped the smaller rocks to a corner of the yard and carried the massive one towards the back patio. I then rinsed and scrubbed it to let the grain stand out even more. Finally, I stood it upright at a place where it could be easily seen from inside the house. I felt such a sense of completion knowing that this was the rock in its entirety. There was nothing left hidden, no more secrets to uncover. Now, I could rest, look at my trophy, and remember what it taught me.

The process of uncovering that rock—the initial challenge, following curiosity, persistence, discovery, and ultimate insight—applies just as well to my experience of meditating and reflecting on my emotions. As a Vipassana meditator, I practice by observing body sensations, which are the roots of emotions. Vipassana is called insight meditation because it is not just about concentrating on what is happening, it is also integrating wisdom and understanding that all things are impermanent. Therefore, when I sit, I am paying just as much attention to body sensations as I am to their changing nature (that’s the goal at least, I am not always there). What starts out as one emotion, then, often gives way to another. Early on in my clinical training, I learned that anger and sadness often mask each other, and I have found this to be true based on my experience on the cushion.

Once, I sat down to meditate because I was overrun with anger. When I closed my eyes and started to observe my body sensations, I felt such an intense burning and tightness in the chest that there seemed to be no end to it. As difficult as it was to stay with the feeling, I could not give up. I knew that if I ran away from the anger, it would remain there to haunt me. So I kept looking, kept digging, kept sitting with the sensation until I could find an edge. Once there, I followed the curve and watched as the anger transformed into a different sensation, a heavy, dull sinking in my chest which I immediately recognized as sorrow. I continued to watch the sorrow until it, too, dissolved into something else, which then shifted into something else again. This process continued until I had uncovered all the sides to that emotional storm. Once I was able to do that, the storm passed.

My experience with digging that hole taught me that emotions are very similar to rocks. Like rocks, emotions are three-dimensional, have their own shapes, and look different depending on the perspective. The shape of things will shift as you dig deeper into and around them. Like rocks, it is important to explore emotions fully in order to really uproot them. Otherwise they will stay covered, and you will run into them again and again.

Digging is not easy. Like rocks, some emotions are smaller and can be easily chucked into the wheelbarrow. Others are much larger and will require more effort to dig up. It can take several attempts, especially if the emotion is very strong and complex. It might be sweaty, hard work too. In fact, during my first meditation retreat, I was literally sweating from the immense anger that I felt.

In doing this work, you might have to take a break to breath, to leave and come back, or to call upon different tools. Yet, no matter how you approach it, it will always be worth the effort. When all has been brought to light, you can rest in celebration of your work. What you have uncovered, you can keep with you as insight. It is now unshakable evidence of what had been lying underneath, what was behind it all, what is no longer there. In the space of what has been dug out, there is now room for growth to happen.

Some questions for reflection:

  • When was the last time you dug into something? What did you discover?

  • What objects do you have that are evidence of insights you gained?

  • The next time you experience a strong emotion, try to stay with it a little longer. Do you notice any changes?

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All words, images, and sounds © 2020 My Ngoc To