The main things I feel when I meditate are bored, stiff and mildly irritated. I rarely have a peaceful moment, much less an experience of insight or a kundalini rising. I’d even take the unwelcome emotions I hear people talking about, like rage and despair. That at least sounds interesting.
Also, it gets harder the longer I sit there. I have often read in writings on meditation practice that you have to sit for a while for the “mind to settle” – after which, presumably, it is a little bit quieter. For me, there are a few initial moments of hum-drum quiet, a kind of spaced out pause, after which the mind starts spinning faster and faster. Usually, by the time the clock chimes six, marking the end of my sit, I am deep in a class plan or a worry or an imagined argument.
So why do I keep doing it? Mainly because I like people who meditate. Especially folks I meet in their fifties and beyond, who’ve had the chance to meditate consistently for a few decades or so. They are really nice to be around. In terms of sense of humor, resilience, and general attitude, they seem to be a notch or two ahead of those of the same generation who didn’t cultivate a lifetime meditation practice. I have to figure they are doing something right. So, even though I can’t yet put my finger on what it’s doing for me, I keep slogging along.
Students of mine, upon hearing that I have a meditation practice, often remark that they are “bad at meditation” because they can’t “quiet their mind.” This is a trap we all fall into. When they say this to me, I think of a question posed to Ajahn Pasanno at Abhayagiri monastery here in Northern California. When asked “How do I clear my mind?” he answered: “The only man with a clear and empty mind is a dead man.”
In my limited understanding, the point of meditation is not to clear out your thoughts, but to see them for what they are. Which is to say, not us. We are not our thoughts, thank god, but we often mistakenly think that is the case.
One technique that cultivates this ability is labeling. Once sitting, when a thought arises, you say to yourself: “thinking,” and then return to the object of concentration, whether that is the breath or the body or the world around you as it is now. Mind you, when I use this technique, my mind often sounds like this non-stop: “thinking…thinking…ah, thinking…and there’s some more thinking…”
However, I can think of one instance where this wasn’t true. It was beginner’s luck, or grace, and it was before I’d even committed to meditating regularly.
It was one of the most suffocating moments of my life – my father had just died, and I had flown back East to hold space for my mother’s crushing grief. We were expecting a visitor who my mother did not want to see, and she had retired to bed from sadness and fear. It was to be my job to navigate the course of this uncomfortable evening, and I was the only one steering the ship.
I went to the front walk to await this person’s arrival, sat down on a bench, and lowered my eyes. I saw a flower, and a bee. And I knew, in every cell of my body, that everything was already okay.
The feeling lasted for maybe five breaths. The evening was as uncomfortable and awkward and dreadfully human as I feared. But the muscle memory of that experience has stayed with me, and it gives me hope. It wasn’t even a formal sit – it was just a time I sat down and gave up. Every sit since then has had an element of bowing to that moment. For a few breaths, I relinquished the illusion of control. If I could release myself from the prison of anticipation and responsibility in that horrible moment, who is to say I couldn’t do that now, in this milder moment, this morning? Maybe this time?
So I continue to slog through the grey silt of my sits, emulating Ajahn Passano, and all my teachers who meditate. I am still only in my first decade. Maybe, with a lifetime of practice, I might be granted another breath or two of clarity, before I stop breathing entirely.