Meditation and I have a long-term relationship fraught with resistance, discomfort, shame and guilt.
We’ve been tenuously held together by those moments when writhing gives way to awakenings of transcendent feelings, deep quiet calm, and penetrating insights. While I have not been issued my official flying lotus pedal with a one way ticket to Nirvana, taking my Western mind to task and disciplining the incessant chatter in my head has brought me freedom and peace otherwise unknown to me.
I write this because nobody ever gave me the dirt on learning meditation. I spent years needlessly feeling like an untransformed blob, when just some simple normalizing would have gone a long way to ease the suffering that comes with repeated failure.
When I started, I just went off of things I had heard or read somewhere. I’d get into lotus and be as still as I could for as long as I could. I tried to focus on the space between thoughts and resist my overwhelming urges to itch or adjust. It usually took all of about 2 minutes before I’d spring up from my zafu like someone lit a match under me.
I wasn’t conscious of it then, but I am certain now that I was deeply fearful—even terrified—of what feelings might catch up with me if I slowed down.
Feeling like an un-trainable monkey, I began to resent the practice of sitting mediation and abandoned it altogether. What I did not abandon was my curiosity about Eastern spiritual traditions and I found my way to Mark Epstein’s book, Thoughts Without a Thinker.
Convinced now that I could no longer avoid the sit, I came to the conclusion that only full immersion would work on a tough case like myself, and I signed up for a 10 day Vipassana retreat. As excited as I thought I was to go, I did nothing to prepare myself, naive to the emotional journey it would take me on.
I knew that I struggled to do it on my own but figured I’d be okay in the retreat’s structured setting, being guided and supported all the way. I didn’t fully consider that even in that nurturing environment it would be excruciatingly hard to sit with the endless forms of discomfort that could come up. I wasn’t willing to look at what difficulties I might face. I wanted to escape to somewhere that would fix me, because I believed I was broken.
I showed up enthusiastic, wearing yoga pants and a loose fitting top, donning the uniform of a meditating person—I’m ready, let’s do this! Yet from the first day of the retreat to the last, I anguished.
I was held there by fear of failure and the tiniest glimpses of what peace may be available if I could simply stop those damned thoughts, feelings, aches, and pains from coming. Every minute sitting felt endless. My anxiety would intensify with each session. As the days wore on I became less willing to be there.
I would do “walking meditation,” but not really. I would wander off into the woods with my thoughts and my illicit cell phone, feeling guilty for not doing what I was supposed to do. I felt I cheated myself and looked bad in front the real meditators and yogis. I just wanted to go back to being comfortable, back to sleep, back to unconsciousness.
Several years passed before I decided to give meditation another shot. I was studying to be a psychotherapist and knowing the potential value of meditation for my future patients, I felt ethically obligated to master this practice. Of course, I signed up of for another Vipassana retreat—three-and-a-half days this time, not 10!
About two weeks out from the retreat we were told we should be meditating for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. My nerves shot through the roof, I wasn’t doing 30 minutes a month! I asked Marv, our leader, whether I could change my mind and bow out of the deal.
He said “When you find yourself in trouble, do not try to get out of it.” A perfectly annoying non-answer, which pissed me off, but I got it.
Knowing that I wasn’t going to let myself wriggle out of it, I began with baby steps. I got my own zafu, sat down on it, found a comfortable position, set my watch for ten minutes. I closed my eyes, paid attention to my breath, and was conscious not to punish myself each time my mind wandered. Days passed until I had a breakthrough—I wanted to be doing this! It was no longer a chore! I knew then that I was ready to go on my retreat.
Every morning, Marv led meditation, guiding us through what it meant to sit and to have a courageous heart. The time to be courageous with my heart was right now! Or a safe, pain-free, perfect future will never come. I looked at what I was holding onto, what kept me from opening my heart and having the courage to be vulnerable.
The deeper I looked, the more I saw that it was my sense of inadequacy, my belief that I was unlovable. So that’s the crappy feeling I was running away from!
With each meditation, I let tears fall from my eyes, and with each teardrop a little more fear left my heart and a little more space was created for love to enter. I could feel my heart expanding to encompass more, I could feel it growing stronger on the inhale and softening on the exhale. I smiled inside at the mere possibility that I might be able to truly love someday.
I wanted to laugh at myself for waiting so long and wasting so much of my time believing that my self-hatred was justified and that nobody could ever love me.
At the same time, I knew it couldn’t have gone any other way.
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Asst. Ed: Moira Madden/Ed: Bryonie Wise