“Our breathing is a stable solid ground that we can take refuge in. Regardless of our internal weather — our thoughts, emotions and perceptions- our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. Whenever we feel carried away, or sunken in a deep emotion, or scattered in worries and projects, we return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.” Thich Nhat Hahn
My friend Ruth asked me the other evening — as she does from time to time – why I thought it was that she doesn’t like to meditate. “I guess my answer is a question really: why do I meditate?” I told her, considering a number of activities that might look far more seductive and entertaining than sitting with my eyes closed for say twenty minutes.
And then I was reminded of the first person I ever saw meditate, my roommate on my trip to Israel when I was 15. I remember as I watched her her sit cross legged practicing Transcendental Meditation, on her unmade bed in our tiny room made dark by closed blinds, this amorphous yearning stirring inside…
Two decades passed before I found myself at a retreat on Kibbutz Harel with “some Vietnamese monk from France.” And this time, watching the Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn and the monks and nuns from his entourage sit in meditation, walk and even just carefully arrange their robes, I felt that same yearning welling up; and then an aspiration seeded itself inside me to learn more, and to bring meditation into my life.
It took a couple of years and another retreat for that seed to sprout. In the beginning, I felt more amused than anything by my ability to sit still with my eyes closed for more than five minutes. Gradually, I sat longer and longer until I was maintaining a fairly regular practice of anywhere from 20-40 minutes a sit, and I began to experience what Thay describes as: “real silence… the cessation of talking—of both the mouth and of the mind… not the kind of silence that oppresses us… but a very elegant kind of silence, a very powerful kind of silence… that heals and nourishes us.” And I recalled the countless hours I had spent as a child perched on a boulder on the shore of Lake Michigan mesmerized and engulfed by the waves crashing up against the rocks.
The honeymoon’s over
So then I, like many first-time practitioners I have met, went through what I call the honeymoon phase of meditation, that is discovering this wonderfully still island of escape from the chaos of the external world. But often sooner than later, just when we find ourselves open, trusting and vulnerable – an army of disconcerting thoughts and uncomfortable to very painful feelings march in: fear, anger, loneliness, sadness, frustration, doubt, and very often, boredom. The initial reaction is: It’s not working any more. I need to find, do something else, more, different — just to get back that feeling of serenity.
The students of the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa once complained to him: “We’re completely dedicated to the path,” they said, “but there are so many things getting in the way.”
“They’re not getting in the way,” he told them, “They are the way.”
And so I took the advice of another great teacher, Pema Chodron, and just sat and sat and sat, letting in whatever wanted to join my meditation, and then letting go of the thoughts again and again and again. I learned to observe the difficult emotions as they lodged themselves and resonated in my body, breathing into the nodes of tension. I let tears flow. And I felt the relief of not struggling to avoid painful feelings or thoughts. And then, then I came to understand that these “mental formations” were not soldiers, but messengers bearing revealing information, that could help me become more awake, wiser and with a greater sense of well-being.
Thay says, “Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” So began my real relationship with sitting meditation, one which has waxed and waned over the years. I have had periods of greater consistency and dedication, and others in which I am more drawn into those powerful habit energies of distraction, in which several days of missed practice can become weeks. Becoming a regular member of my Jerusalem sangha has kept sitting meditation a deep, rich and integral part of my life – both through the support of my “friends on the path” and as a weekly practice session. And so far, through all the ebbs and flows, I stay with it and these are some of the reasons:
1. Enhancing aliveness in everyday life
Sitting meditation is not meant to be a blissful escape from the external world but a preparation for it. When we meditate, we develop and strengthen the qualities we want to embody as we move through the moments of our day. Thay provides us with a classic meditation in which we see ourselves as a flower, a mountain, a lake, and the sky: The flower represents freshness, the mountain solidity, the lake clarity, and the sky spaciousness. When I am fresh, I feel friendly, curious and joyful. When I am solid, the potentially stressful stimuli in my environment are less compelling. The trivial pitfalls of daily life trip me up less. I am less reactive. When I am clear, I am lucid, sharp, present, awake and even insightful. And when I am spacious, I am acting out of choice not compulsion; I feel the expansiveness of the universe in me. The stronger my practice is, and the more it is part of my routine, the more its echo continues to reverberate throughout my day.
2. Smrti, Prajna, Samadhi — Mindfulness, Concentration, Insight
Thay teaches us: “The energy of mindfulness carries within it the energy of concentration. When you are aware of something, such as a flower, and can maintain that awareness, we say that you are concentrated on the flower. When your mindfulness becomes powerful, your concentration becomes powerful, and when you are fully concentrated, you have a chance to make a breakthrough, to achieve insight.”
While this may seem meant only for practitioners on the brink of enlightenment (whom I have yet to meet), actually it is quite simple and practical. Through meditation we develop a different kind of thinking, one that cuts through the churning analytical mind. Sometimes “understanding means throwing away your knowledge.” But how? In meditation we are devoted to being fully present, uniting mind and body, which leads to concentration. The more present we are, the less effort it takes to focus on our breath. As concentration deepens and strengthens, our mind becomes like a muddy lake in which the mud gradually sinks to the bottom, and the lake becomes clear. And from that clear lake, arises insight. Seeing things as they are, we suddenly have more understanding and compassion, we have more information on how to act, what to decision to make.
3. I am not separate
As we become increasingly skilled at “seeing things as they are,” we become aware of all the causes and conditions that have contributed to any given situation. I am never just me – I am my mother, my children, human kind, the water I drink, that once fell from the sky etc. I am a member of a huge extended family of all that exists in nature. I am never separate. I am never alone.
Perhaps the most important point in all of this is that meditation is not a chore. In fact, Thay’s axiom is, if you’re not enjoying it, you’re not doing it right: “The in-breath can be a celebration of the fact that you are alive, so it can be very joyful… your breathing can be a celebration of life.”
Recently it occurred to me that meditation reminds me of a musical concert. Initially, you settle down in your seat with a sense of anticipation. But as you begin to listen to the music, you soon find yourself alternately drifting off into thoughts and daydreams, and then coming back to the music. During the concert, returning to the music is a pleasant sensation, a nearly imperceptible transition. And as thoughts and feelings arise and drop into the music, little by little, it becomes more present than the drifting — until there is no seam between you and the music.
I sit on my meditation bench with a sense of anticipation. Then I begin to settle in. Usually, when I drift off, I catch myself, with a response ranging from mild annoyance to great distress: “There you go again, not concentrating…” or some such thought. But today, I am noticing how each breath has its own melodic quality, longer-shorter deeper-shallower, easy or labored. So I let (not instruct) myself to come back to the “music,” rediscovering those next measures in my next in breath. And little by little I notice that as thoughts and feelings arrive, I can let them drop into the breathing. I am more present than drifting, more engaged than absent and with more moments in which the breathing and I are one. This is the music that returns me home.
“Your body is your first home. Breathing in, I arrive in my body. Breathing out, I am home.”