After returning home from Kripalu, I promised myself that each day I would practice metta meditation for at least fifteen minutes. Having been on retreat for three days, I didn’t think this was a particularly tall order. Surely I had the discipline to sit still for fifteen minutes. To prepare, I ordered an elaborate meditation cushion, and a timer that was supposed to chime with the sound of Tibetan bells. The meditation cushion with its three-legged plastic base shaped like a flying saucer proved uncomfortable and strange; the timer’s chimes sounded like the electronic ring of a regular alarm clock. So I gave up on props and tried just to sit, using the comforting metta phrases that Sylvia Boorstein had taught.
May I feel protected and safe; may I feel contented and pleased … My mind would break through the words almost instantly. Gotta call the dentist. When’s the school picnic? These first thoughts were all on the level of the utterly mundane. I tried to be a neutral observer—to simply watch the thoughts as if they were clouds in the sky—but it was difficult. I was full of self-judgment. This was what was in my mind? My first layer of consciousness felt like a trash can full of Post-its and to-do lists.
May my physical body support me with strength; may my life unfold smoothly with ease. I couldn’t get all the way through these four brief phrases without some bit of detritus from my daily life intruding. Why hasn’t that health insurance reimbursement come in yet? It seemed impossible to quiet down. Again and again, I was overcome by an intense desire to open my eyes, to move, to check the timer—to stop. The desire felt physical—an uncomfortable surge of energy. As soon as one passed, another would start up again.
On some days I discovered that I was able to tolerate these surges of energy for at least a little while. And when I did, I began to see the endless, circular monologue beneath them. No wonder I didn’t want to go there! Worry, fear, doubt, resentment, envy, anxiety, comparison, sadness—apparently these were the themes of the complicated stories churning through my head. Rather than being like a still, clear pool of water—an image often used in visualizations—my mind was a stagnant pond badly in need of dredging. The checklists and tasks were the debris floating on the surface. Either way, it was murky territory, and I didn’t want to go there.
But go there I continued to do—because really, what was the alternative? I had gotten a peek at the enemy, and she was me. If worry, fear, doubt, resentment, et al. were part of the fabric of my inner life, didn’t I need to know about it? Each day it took longer and longer to prepare myself to meditate; simply plunking myself down on the floor wasn’t going to do the trick. I started to worry that this was becoming a full-time job. What was an ambitious, sociable, urban-oriented forty-five year old doing, spending her mornings sitting in dead silence with her eyes closed in a house in the middle of nowhere?
After Jacob was off to school and Michael had left for his writing studio in town, I unrolled my yoga mat. Most mornings I didn’t feel like doing this, but I had learned that it was best to ignore what I felt like doing, and instead create a ritual, a habit. I put on the decidedly unorthodox yogic mixed tape that Michael had made me: an eclectic combination of everything from Pink to Leonard Cohen. And then I did my intense hour-long physical practice, which had begun to feel, to me, like the only possible preparation for meditation. It seemed that I needed to physically exhaust myself before my mind could find any quiet.
Once the final strains of k. d. lang singing “Hallelujah” faded away, I was ready—or at least as ready as I could make myself. I folded my legs into half-lotus and began the internal struggle to let go. I repeated Sylvia’s phrases. Focused on the out breath. Focused on the in and the out breath. Became aware of the birds chirping outside my window, the distant rumble of a truck straining uphill. What was this exploration? I was like a scientist experimenting in a laboratory of the self. I watched the thoughts come, tried to label them simply as thinking.
Why did she do that to me? I never—
How are we ever going to be able to afford—
I hope he didn’t think that I—
The surges of energy continued. By now, I knew that these surges meant that there was more; beneath these painful, but still mostly mundane, concerns lurked something pure and deep that this simple process of sitting was stirring up. I couldn’t touch it yet. All I knew was that sitting helped—and by that, I don’t mean that it helped make me feel better. It was hard, scary, and sometimes felt silly. What was I doing? I had deadlines to meet. Students to teach. Food shopping to do. But it was helping me to make out the vaguest beginning of an outline. I was starting to see what was there.
Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of seven books, including the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion and the novels Family History and Black & White.
Excerpted from the book Devotion: A Memoir, by Dani Shapiro. Copyright ©2010 by Dani Shapiro. Used by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.