Meditation (For People Who Don’t Own Billowy Yoga Pants)
As you read this, I am certain of two things about you: one, you have at least 10 other things you “should” be doing right now and two, the idea of meditating makes you cringe with at least a little bit of terror and anxiety. Meditation is the Dentist’s Appointment of stressed people like you and me. It’s one of the things that “those people” have been saying you should do for years, that it would “really help you,” typically suggested with a condescendingly-knowing nod and faux-sympathetic bunny eyes you just want to stab. And now you’ve built meditating up so nefariously and unfairly that you could only dare to approach with foreboding and dread.
Somewhere in your mind, meditation became a series of both actions and then outcomes you worry you will fail at, but the great secret is: there is NO “doing it wrong.” Meditation is very simply NOT a series of tasks one can fail at. In reality, it is the exact opposite of tasks and “how-to-do”s. I have enough rules and demands in my inbox: I don’t need anymore. Meditation is the solution to this: there is no WAY to do it. It is the absence of tasks and the complete evacuation of rules and structure.
Some very Type-A people were freaked out by not having rules and structure so they put them back into meditation where they do not belong. “You have to sit this way,” they said. “You should have your hands and feet here. You should think like this.” I call bullshit. If you wanna sit straight, sit straight. If you wanna lay down, with one leg straight up and the other bent, and a hand on your pants…hey, that’s meditation, too. When I meditate, I prefer to slouch- but that’s because I’m gangsta. There is no “way” to meditate. People can offer suggestions of what works for them. Anyone offering more than that is a jerk.
Now let’s talk about the outcome of meditating. Hear me now: the point is NOT to “empty your mind.” People throw this expression around like it has even the most remote semblance of attainability when in fact it is the single craziest goal I’ve ever heard. In modern times the only way to actually sit with no thoughts is while actively engaging in a “Jersey Shore” or “Cake Boss” marathon, and even then only for a few seconds at a time. Particularly for stressed out people, the fallacy of this goal is treacherous. We are a people surviving entirely on the surplus and fluidity of our thoughts: to even try to counteract that is like telling a SCUBA diver you will be switching his oxygen tank with a gumball machine. Of course, it makes you freak out, and believing this to be the goal will inevitably lead to feelings of failure every time you sit.
The single most important thing a person can do for his own health is setting aside a bit of time every day to stop. To disengage. To not participate and instead just to watch. TO PAY ATTENTION. To not be at the whim and consequence of our thoughts and relations to others but to be a mere spectator of those thoughts. 98% of the day we will spend as a mother, or employee, or boss, or husband, or daughter: we must, must, must find that 2% where we can reclaim ourselves for ourselves, focusing only on the selfishness of being alive.
I know all those “Love and Light”ers would probably scratch my eyes out for implying that meditation is a selfish practice but I stand by it. The hippies will tell you that meditation is our time to focus on the “interconnectedness of all things” but I actually experience that “interconnectedness” (their word, not mine) in my regular life; I don’t need MORE time to focus on other people. When a baby is crying on the plane behind me or I am stuck in traffic at 11pm for no reason or I spend more than 3 minutes with my family, I feel connected to them. I need a fucking break. Meditation is my one opportunity to CUT that connection, to sever the web and just restore myself without feeling like I am giving to or getting from the cycle. The proof here is in the pudding: the reason why so much of meditation focuses on breath is that breathing is the most singularly and perfectly selfish act in existence. You breathe for you and you alone, and putting thought behind this process reinforces that, to some extent, we are NOT connected and there is a singularity in our being. Focusing on the way we “steal” air from the universe to just keep ourselves alive reinforces our selfy-ness, and that is why it is such an easy place to start when meditating.
Here is the secret of meditation: it is not “do this, sit like that, think about this.” Meditation is simply whatever happens when you sit down with the intention of paying attention to yourself. It is whatever happens when you decide to take a little quiet time for yourself. It is whatever happens when you are reclaiming yourself and your time, however briefly, quietly and lovingly. Whatever that looks like- for you- is meditation. That’s it. There’s no failure. There is no “I didn’t do it right.” Whatever happens, happens. Once you make a little space for yourself in your day, once you close the door and quiet all the other voices besides your own that are rushing to fill your head, once you set the intention of self-attentiveness for just a few minutes…that’s meditation. Everything that happens after that is totally unnoteworthy. Our lives are about doing and expecting: meditating is about just being and letting it happen.
If you’re thinking this sounds nice but like a lot of crap too, I sympathize. It took me a while to be ok with eliminating rules and expectations, and my egotistical mind really enjoys setting up a “success or failure” paradigm in everything I do. (It also enjoys bullying and vilifying, hence my distaste for hippies.) To not have this is deeply unpleasant for me. But it’s also been freeing to me, and helpful in understanding that I don’t have to find a way to beat myself up for everything I do. Meditation is whatever happens when you sit with the intention of self-attentiveness. No good, no bad, no right, no wrong. Wow, I can just breathe.
This may be a little too amorphous for some people and as someone who enjoys a little infrastructure, I understand. I will offer some instruction but I revert to my earlier statement: anyone telling you “how to meditate” is a jerk but Im ok with it. I usually like to start by being really nice to myself. My natural instinct is to flog myself, for everything, all day long, so I like to start by paying attention to where I’ve done that. When have I been mean to myself today? Where did I pummel myself? Can I go gentle on myself? Can I just forgive myself for the “failures” I’ve totally manufactured? Can I just make the choice to clear the slate and just be nice to myself for a few minutes? Usually I can (not always.)
After that, I just watch. I watch my thoughts. Like I said, I don’t like to “not think.” I’m a big thinker. My head is big. What I don’t like is letting my thoughts control me. I don’t like being
overwhelmed by thoughts. So I disconnect myself from the power of the thoughts like an outsider would. I watch my thoughts like I would a spectator at a kid’s baseball game, commenting on every player, giggling about the awkward ones, commending the skillful ones, and observing everything in between. If I think about bills I have to pay, I step back and watch. “You’re now thinking about bills. You’re having anxiousness about money.” My mom calling me “Little Asshole” as a kid pops into my head. “Now youre thinking about Mom. Now you’re thinking about donuts.” I watch the thoughts come in and I watch them go out, like clouds on a windy day. Doing this, seeing thoughts as an outsider, realizing they are transitional, that they don’t control me, allows me to monitor the amount of power I give them, and if need be, I can refrain. This takes a lot of practice. Our brains are designed to participate; they really want to engage the thought, not just look at it. Some thoughts and feelings sneak through and suddenly I am fully engaging them, gripping and right in it. Eventually I snap back to witness. It’s OK. I didn’t fail. Its part of the work. That stress which kept me up all night….is a cloud on a windy day. It comes in and it leaves.
In my fantasy world, every meditation should bring me closer to becoming a blissed-out amalgam of Pat Morita, Eleanor Roosevelt (with better teeth), and a touch of Phylicia Rashad. This is RARELY the case. Part of accepting the whole “Meditation is whatever happens when you sit down with the intention to pay attention” thing is that oftentimes distraction, struggle and “failure” are part of my practice. They happen. They happen for me a lot. Leaving feeling calm and “zen” is not the point. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t happen, that does not signify I didn’t do it right. On the contrary: it is just as significant when I leave feeling hateful and violent.
To remind myself of this, one of my favorite ways to meditate is to do TWO back-to-back meditations, each about 30 minutes. Typically, the first one is easy. I’m in the zone. I’m all twillight-y, full of love and self-forgiveness. I open my eyes totally moon-faced, warm and fuzzy, like a strong black woman. I’m Dr. Maya Angelou at her most poetic and preachy: I am “Christmas from the White House” Maya Angelou. Everyone on Earth is “my child.” I go to the bathroom and then sit down again.
This is where the shit goes wrong. I cannot sit still for another minute. The guy next to me is breathing loud. SO loud. I hear cars outside. Every bus in the city is driving past the window right now. I swear I can hear planes flying low. My knee hurts. And my back. This guy must have emphysema! There is no reason for one man to breathe so loud. He must smoke! This disgusting smoker is ruining my sit! My back is killing me! It must be a malignant tumor pressing on my spine! I am trying to be peaceful and pay attention! SHUT UP WITH YOUR BREATHING!
I have used up all my warm and fuzzies for the day -if not the year-and now I am struggling and choking. Dr. Angelou has left the building. I hate everyone. I have lost my peace and what is left is just me. Heinous, hateful me. Agitated, lashing out, cranky me. The real me. And that, my friend, is meditation. It’s whatever happens. It is paying attention to ourselves. It’s just attentiveness. It is giving myself the time to look at myself. I don’t fail. I don’t succeed. I look. This is the reclaiming of myself. I’m not always Maya Angelou. I’m not Mr. Miyagi. That’s just me breathing. I hear myself. That’s me I see. I am seeing a very real part of me. I’m not judging. I’m just paying attention. And in doing so, I give myself back to me. That is meditation.