April 30, 2013

Where do you go to Meditate?

Chidambaram Temple, (photo Jack Van Wyk)

Where do you go to meditate?

I am not asking where you physically situate yourself because if we waited until we were in the perfect place and at the perfect moment, we wouldn’t be meditating very often. When we most need meditation is generally when the circumstances are the least amenable to it. The question is where do you go inside yourself?

I first began my meditation practice in high school when I found yoga. I loved it, but as a teen with other interests and distractions, fell in and out of the practice as most people do. I left yoga behind to dance for a while, which was a different sort of meditation, and then gradually wove my way back home via tai chi, the gym, and the absolute necessity of finding a place of tranquility in the midst of the stresses of the New York City art world.

I’ve meditated in so many ways and in so many places-in groups and in private, on mountain tops and in classrooms, on my apartment floor and in crowded South Indian temples. Sometimes I want the simple vastness of focusing on the breath. Other times I want a more elaborately ornamented practice. I use mantra daily: at home, on the subway, while my students are in savasana or while drawing in my studio, out loud or in silence, listening as the mantra chants itself back to me.

I meditate with my eyes open as well as with my eyes closed, and I return in quiet to certain specific images that hold the space of meditation for me like an inner bookmark. Inseparable from each image is a particular feeling or tone and a powerful association that offers a point of access to a greater thing behind it.

Here are some of the places where I go when I meditate:

1.  There is a crescent-shaped mound of plants, bushes, and in the spring, daffodils, on the small hill behind the house where I grew up. Along the side of the hill are thick green patches of clover that in late summer would be taken over by tenacious dandelions that shifted from exuberant yellow to gauzy fragile puffs of seed. But just before the dandelions came everything was richly green and I would stretch out in the soft sweet-smelling clover. Image: a variegated green patch of lush clover viewed so closely that I can see the curls of the individual stems and the veins of the precise round leaves. This meditation is gently precise and focused.

Market Nataraja, (photo SHR.com)

2.  I stand crammed in tightly with a hundred or so other people on the hot stone steps in front of Nataraja in Chidambaram temple in darkness. We are in the midst of a sudden blackout, which heightens the intensity of the experience tenfold. All of us lean toward center, curving our bodies onto other bodies to catch a glimpse of Nataraja glowing in the golden light of ghee lamps. Image: the layers of dazzling golden filigree cradled in the heated darkness of the stones. This feels like peering through the layers of my own body to arrive at my heart.

3.  A collection of rooms that I furnish myself according to my needs. The rooms are fairly constant, but I shift their contents around. Sometimes one of them is an all-white drawing studio whose walls I cover with line and color. Another room morphs from a puja room into mossy earth and then the ocean. Image: the wide-planked wooden floors that lead into each room, and in each room, its shifting contents. Here I can sort my thoughts, wander into corners of my subconscious, and be actively creative in my practice.

Bay of Bengal (photo SHR.com)

4.  The ocean-simple but true. The sound of the waves, the feeling of salt coating my skin and hair, the sharp clear smell, and the overt sense of merging with immensity. It is usually the New England ocean of my childhood-cold and salty with driftwood, gulls, and nearly empty beaches. Image: a rectangular slice of ocean resting between sky and sand like an undulating three-colored Rothko painting.

And this brings me to the question I asked as the title of this piece:

Where do you go to meditate?

Try this:

Close your eyes. Invite yourself to a place of inner ease, spaciousness, intensity or beauty. Does any particular place arise naturally? Do you visualize any place or detail of a place that evokes a particular moment?  Take note of it.

The next time you meditate, try visiting that place. See if reconnecting with the place connects you to the same sensation that brought you there initially. This place can become one of the many doorways into your meditation practice. Play with it. Get to know it. Then try accessing it at unexpected moments in your day, and see what arises.



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