Life isn’t the problem, I discovered; trying to use a disoriented and disorganized brain to run a life is the problem.
When I woke up it was grey and raining. I had an appointment at 11:00 a.m. at a place called the Financial Empowerment Center deep in Bedstuy in Brooklyn. I went to this appointment and it was exactly like it sounds. The FEC is a state run program that helps people like me, with a trainwreck of a financial history, to try and get a handle. Well, at least lay it all out there, which was about all that the very sweet young woman at the center could do for me.
I have been sort of protecting my conscious awareness from the reality of my financial situation, mainly because I had to survive. It’s a tiny bit like genocide victims in camps; there are photos of them walking down filthy streets and just not looking at the corpses on the side of the road. Although somewhere inside they know the bodies exist and mean something profound, right now they are just walking down the street, right? That’s survival.
Okay, I’m dramatic and not always so tactful. But you get my point.
I have been using my meager earnings in this economic state of absurdity to pay the most necessary things. It does not escape me that my financial mentality is precisely the one that has gotten us where we are as a nation. I’m not proud of it.
But, what am I supposed to do about it now?
It’s hard to act right with money when describing $20 as a ‘drop in the bucket’ seems like a laughable understatement. It’s more like a speck in the solar system. Again, you get what I’m saying. Is it not better spent on a pair of warm shoes or even my nasty coffee habit?
Anyway the consensus was that my debts, all told, are astronomical and it’s no laughing matter; it only spells bankruptcy. I knew this, but I had been looking away from the bodies and just walking down the street. I clearly can’t do that anymore.
It was good to get the truth and the figures and stop hiding. It was hard to hear that I might not be able to go to grad school for a few years. It was even harder to hear that I should apply for food stamps, Medicaid and bankruptcy. A dumbfounded voice in my head coming from the department of ego, was stuttering, wait…what? I’m sorry, what did she just say? Food what? The rest of my intellect was shuddering quietly in the corner.
It’s a very, very good thing that I just gotten back from my Ashram adventure. I probably would have jumped right off the Williamsburg Bridge otherwise. I took all of the serenity that I had cultivated over those few weeks and used every bit of it on the sobering and dreary walk through the heart of Brooklyn back to the train.
The Ashram experience was invaluable; it served as a reset button. I went out there exhausted and worn from the year in the city, the winter, and the forever battle with my body (which I’m sadly still fighting). It was a strip down and suck-it-up experience. I lived in a cottage for three weeks with two resident women in their fifties and sixties who were unbearably quiet. I got up at 5:00 a.m. for morning meditation, worked a few hours every day cleaning the shrine room and kitchens, ate exclusively rice and vegetables, had another meditation at 6:00 p.m. and was literally in bed by 8:30 p.m. every night. God as my witness—well, actually, in fact.
It felt insane. Or very sane, I can’t really tell yet.
It was quiet and when I say quiet I mean there were days in the beginning where I didn’t utter a word to anyone nor did anyone speak a word to me. I remember during the first week when I actually noticed the incessant rhetoric in my head. That stream of dialogue that just wouldn’t shut up. I remember being on a walk out in the field around the cottage and listening to my own thoughts. They were ludicrous.
My mind was just droning on and on about loneliness and weight and feeling lost and inadequate and then coming up with these pathetic and desperate hack solutions. Imagine, this babbling on without even the need to stop for a breath!
I had to break the silence during that week by pacing frantically around the property trying to find enough cell phone signal to call my poor mother and sister and best friend daily…okay, multiple times daily. Just so I could talk about the long hours of nothing that I was doing and question them persistently about what has been happening in their regular lives. Thank you to my ever so patient friends and family.
It felt like I needed a line into the real world, but it did eventually get easier to be with myself in solitude. I began to just observe my thoughts and recognize them as a faulty mechanism trying to find a solution to an unsolvable problem. Life isn’t the problem, I discovered; trying to use a disoriented and disorganized brain to run a life is the problem.
The meditations were tricky for me; two full hours every day was a lot for a bartender from the city. During the second week I noticed I was getting a little more clarity during the meditations. In the beginning, the hour jerked and stumbled by full of bumps and noise and a trembling mentality trying to hang on to anything for any length of time. But after about seven days I found that I could set an intention and try to make some ground toward it.
The thing is I did a lot of reading on a lot of different methods of meditation during my time there. So what ended up happening was that I had all of this information and images floating around in my psyche as I’m trying to quiet it. In all truth a lot of these suggested images were incredibly complicated and required way too many layers of visualization for a beginner like myself.
Sitting in my own personal, silent battle with my brain one morning, just as I was about to give up, I remembered that one author recommended visualizing a lotus flower that was glowing in the center symbolizing a divine presence.
I let out a determined breath and thought okay this is it. I set to focus on that for the rest of the meditation. As other thoughts started to file in like little soldiers distracting me from my path to lotus-realization I found myself searching for the image furiously. I was seeing a painting of a lotus, then a cartoon of lotus, then a photograph of a lotus that morphed into photos of orchids. Nothing stuck. I actually felt a light sweat break on my forehead sitting cross-legged in the quiet shrine room in the cool, early morning light searching for my lotus.
Eventually I noticed my mind reprimanding itself (an interesting thing in its own right) saying, No! A real glowing lotus! You need to see a real glowing lotus! I let out a tiny chuckle at myself as I was trying to determine exactly which voice I was listening to. I quickly tried to turn the giggle into a little cough so as not to seem like I’d completely lost my mind to the other people in the room, although I doubt they heard me. They were all pretty deep in it and I, as usual, stuck out like a sore thumb.
I continued on my journey. That phrase became my mantra of sorts. Even after I ended my sitting and bowed in reverence to the shrine and slipped out into the morning and to the rest of my day I kept hearing my mind obediently repeating, It’s a real glowing lotus. Of course, complete mental control was not mine from that moment on but I did feel like I had broken through a ceiling that I didn’t even really know was there.
I found that with even just a few hours of meditation for a few weeks my whole process of thought became more pointed and less fragmented. 5:00 a.m. became my friend and not my enemy. My body got rid of booze and most chemicals. I eventually stopped reaching for a remote control to a TV that didn’t exist and found myself reading for three and four hour stretches like it was nothing. I learned how to cook and dress like an Indian man. It was great.
The truth is that I still battle. I still feel taken apart and I still feel fat. I still wake up and wish there was more sun and less grime. I still wish I had a sense of fashion or an ear for great new music or some organic coolness or any of the other ‘I wish’ contestants that my mind keeps listing for me. But, it’s now something I can sit back and observe instead of being hopelessly trapped in. I feel better and more able to take it.
It’s a fortunate thing too because life wasted no time in throwing it.
I guess I expected nothing less.
After my experience in Bedstuy this morning I feel a little empowerment in that at least I know what I have to do. I know I can’t bury my head in the sand of higher education without first coming to grips with the fact that the choices I made in my twenties are not going to just disappear because I was, well, in my twenties.
It seems I have to man up to them and work it out. I need to carve out a solution to these pressing issues of life and love and happiness using a mildly more ordered and centered head with a moderately more stable and presentable spiritual body. One that I have dusted off and uncovered in the most rudimentary of ways while sitting in a series of quiet, daybreak hours with just my own company holed up in an unassuming monastery in upstate New York.
It’s a start.
Lana Seiler is a yoga teacher and grad student in Delray Beach, FL. Terminally loyal, tragically romantic, sometimes manipulative, usually charming, has been gullible to the point of absurdity (most often involving love), deeply passionate, intense, and okay sometimes funny.
Editor: Jennifer Townsend