Meditation 101, Part 1

I would never claim to be an expert on meditation and my journey into the practice is one of novice ponderer.  Plus, I am one of those people that must examine all aspects of a new concept before I am truly comfortable with it.  It takes even more contemplation and examination of that new concept before I feel myself qualified to teach it…so far as meditation goes…not there yet.

My initial impression regarding meditation was that it was about stopping the brain from thinking.  Wow was I wrong…and that’s only one of my many, many misconceptions about the practice.  The first lightbulb of understanding went off early in my initial yoga teacher training.  It wasn’t simply the message that made the impact; it was the messenger.  He was my age, he was incredibly calm and soft spoken, there a was an air of mischief about him and he didn’t present his ideas as facts.  He merely presented what he himself had experienced and what he had observed of the world around him.  Here’s what he said, I have forgotten his exact words so I’m paraphrasing this:

Sometimes when you sit down to meditate, you open the door into a monastery filled with tranquil peace, and sometimes you open the door into a disco.

This from a man who had spent a lifetime meditating and guiding meditation.  He inspired me to start that journey and it brought me into one of the most frustrating periods of my life.  But first, a little background into my personality.  

When I was a child, I hated Sundays.  Sundays may have been my parents’ very needed day of rest at the end of a long workweek, but for me Sundays were painfully boring.  There was no school to attend and no dance classes to go to.  I was an introverted child who had moved across the USA several times and I didn’t make friends easily.  School and dance classes were my main source of mental and physical stimulation.  Well, that and unfortunately torturing my little sister.  There was nothing to do on Sundays except go to church and hang out with my family (I had two younger siblings at the time).

A frequent family Sunday activity, which my father loved, included drives in the car.  The boredom factor was amplified by my being seated in the middle of the backseat as a buffer between my warring siblings and by my not being tall enough to see anything out of the windows.  I spent hours of waiting for the inertia to end.  When you factor in the low self-esteem of a child who moved around the country a lot, the battered ego of a ballerina in a negative reinforcement training environment and the insecurity of being a female in a male dominated world, you might begin to understand why I’ve never been very good with being still.  I continue to wake up every morning in a race to grab every opportunity that the world presents to me, which has forever had me either working non-stop like a demon, or crashing from exhaustion…one hundred percent or zero, with nothing in between.  Meditation seemed to offer a pathway to balance.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that the pathway was fraught with a multitude of personal battles.

My first obstacle in meditation was the physical aspect…the simple act of sitting still.  Who would have thought that sitting could be such an issue?  After all, I sit all the time!  I’ve spent a lifetime sitting!  The challenge comes from stillness and until I started this journey into meditation, I never realized how much I shift and move around when I sit.  I began my first meditation with one of the traditional postures, seated on the floor with my back upright and my legs crossed.  It didn’t take long before my spine started wearying from the strain of sitting straight.  Soon my neck started to go into spasms and my legs began to go to sleep.  After a few days of continued struggle, I gave up, opened my computer, and googled some solutions.   I made a trip across the city to a funky little meditation shop tucked in between the pastry shops and delis of Greektown.  The store was filled with cushions of all shapes and sizes, plus little stools, incense, crystals, and wide variety of buddha statues.  It was a meditation heaven.  After considering all my options and consulting with the store clerk who looked like he meditated a lot, I bought a grain-filled meditation cushion and two small beanbag shaped mini pillows to shove under my thighs.  The next morning while attempting to meditate once again, I found that comfort had been achieved, but that comfort had not completely sustained.  My shoulders and neck still ached.  I soon discovered that resting my hands on my thighs helped…for a bit.  I eventually found that having a pillow in my lap for my hands to rest upon worked most of the time, although sometimes the body aches got so intense that I simply gave up and lay down on my back for the rest of the session.  Somehow that felt like cheating.   And sometimes I fell asleep which really defeated the whole concept of meditation.

My next hurtle in meditation was in developing my ability to concentrate.  I’m not sure the word “concentration” is the best description.  Maybe the better word would be “focus”.  I was trying to develop the ability to concentrate or focus on the present.  Our minds spend so much time fussing over past events or worrying about what might happen in the future that we forget to actually be in the moment.  What’s that expression…”Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.  It’s funny how when something interests you, like drawing a picture, you can lose yourself in that activity for hours, yet when you try to put that same concentration level into a seated rumination…nada.  I began to explore the different methods of honing my concentration, starting with focusing on a candle flame.  Within a few days, I soon abandoned that method.  My eyes watered constantly, and I could feel my face screwing up from the effort.  Developing new wrinkles on my forehead just didn’t seem like a worthwhile compromise.

Next, I tried to go for the mindful element of meditation by simply sitting and noticing the sounds and sensations of the world around me.  We had done exercises like this during our yoga teacher training; take a piece of chocolate and really spend some time examining it, smelling it, feeling the texture in your hand, feeling how it melted in your mouth, contemplating all the elements in the world that went into giving you this piece of chocolate, including the people who harvested the cocoa and store clerks who put the bars of chocolate on the shelves.  It’s pretty amazing when you really stop and think about everything that goes into the things that we use every day.  Another element of the mindful practice is one of non-judgement.  Notice something but don’t judge it as good or bad.   I sat on my meditation cushion, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.  I noticed the chirping of the birds who were sitting in the flowering quince bush near my bedroom window.  I felt a slight warm breeze coming through my open window.  I noticed the hum of a lawn mower down the street and the soft whoosh of cars passing the houses.  I noticed the whiny voice of my neighbour Roger who creeps me out with his constant sexual innuendos.  Then I smelled the stench of burning plastic that wafted over from Roger’s yard, as he was once again illegally burning his garbage.  Roger’s grandchildren who lived with him, burst out of their back screen door, and began to loudly argue.  The screams of the three-year-old could travel blocks.  Roger yelled at the kids and his wife Rita added her voice to the cacophony with a barrage of non-stop pleas, curses, and admonishments.  I began to pray for a sudden cloudburst that would drive them all inside.  Maybe my neighbourhood wasn’t built for a non-judgemental mindful practice.

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