Meditation and Me

I’ve always loved yoga, but my early relationship with meditation was far from easy. I remember my very first attempt to meditate in 1983, not long after meeting the man I eventually married. Rick had been sitting for years—an hour each morning—and his dedication to the practice piqued my curiosity.

One night, as we were getting ready for bed, I said, “If I wake up early tomorrow, I might sit with you. What should I do? I mean, how do you meditate?”

“Well,” Rick said, “I start by taking a few deep breaths. Then I let my breath return to normal, and just watch as it naturally moves in and out. Gradually, my mind grows focused. Any time I notice that I’ve gotten caught up in thinking, I just bring my attention back to my breath without making a big deal out of it. That’s probably all you need to get started.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.” I was dubious, but how hard could it be to sit and focus on my breath?

The next morning, I got up 20 minutes early and sat down on a cushion next to Rick. Before I’d even settled into a comfortable position, my thoughts were racing in a dozen directions at once. Eventually, I remembered Rick’s instructions and took a few slow, deep breaths. This isn’t so bad, I thought. I can do this. I tried to watch my breath, but noticed instead how uncomfortable my knees felt.

Just 15 minutes more, I thought, and began to tick off the things I needed to get done at work. Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be meditating. After just a few conscious breaths, I found myself feeling intensely vulnerable, as if an unseen hand had pulled open the curtains and I was standing center stage. Alone and in the spotlight, I felt transparent, and imagined a judging God seeing clear through me. I squirmed, not wanting to be seen. I felt naked, as if someone had not only pulled the curtain back but also unzipped my skin, exposing my unworthy self.

Everything I didn’t want to face about myself began to emerge from the shadows. I struggled to hold onto the lifeline of my breath, wanting to twist away from a rising sense of inner turmoil. Through sheer force of will, I sat with closed eyes until the nearby church clock chimed seven times. Rick stretched, yawned, and looked over at me with a smile. “How was it?” he asked companionably.

I wanted to scream, “I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. I’m afraid of doing this!” Instead I said, “I don’t think meditation is my cup of tea,” and quickly headed off to take a shower. This exploration of my inner landscape was totally new territory. I hadn’t imagined that meditation would require me to face up to the “not-okay me,” the “guilty-beyond-redemption me,” the “shaky me” who was certain I would never measure up. This was more than I’d signed on for. Maybe the truth was that I just didn’t want to sit and watch my breath first thing in the morning. Was that such a big deal?

Fast-forward nine years, during which my husband meditated every day, and I did not. We had moved into Kripalu Center in its ashram heyday and were unexpectedly invited, along with two dozen other residents, to participate in a month-long, early-morning meditation training to be held in the guru’s home. To participate, I would have to commit to meditating an hour each day with the group.

I couldn’t meditate for more than 10 minutes without squirming, so the prospect of an hour-long sit was daunting. I agonized but, in the end, my curiosity won out. Once I sent off the affirmative RSVP, I felt a wave of fear. My identity was so thoroughly wrapped up in doing, I was scared that if I became truly quiet inside, I would simply cease to exist. Poof. No more me.

When the training began on January 3, 1992, I borrowed strength from the group, which included a number of people I deeply respected. As we settled onto our cushions, I affirmed that with them in the room, spontaneous human combustion was unlikely to reduce my body to a pile of ash.

We were instructed in vipassana meditation and, for an hour, I followed my breath, trying to remain aware of each inhalation and exhalation. I yearned to move, to do something, anything, to shift the inner focus off myself, but since everyone else sat still, I stayed put, too. Over that long month, I learned to witness the changing array of thoughts and feelings that paraded behind my closed eyes.

My mind never grew still but Rick assured me that the goal of meditation was less to quiet the mind than to witness its ceaseless activity, using what Swami Kripalu called “self-observation without judgment.”

“The parade of thoughts will thin out after a while,” Rick told me. “And there’s a sense of connecting to something bigger than the mind, but if you’re waiting for your thoughts to stop entirely, good luck. I don’t think that happens, or at least it hasn’t happened for me.”

As I got past the fear of meditating, my relationship with my mind began to change. I learned to listen carefully to the cacophony of voices in my head—self-critical, judgmental, scared, doubtful, skeptical. Hearing each of them, I became less reactive to their messages. Gradually, I gained a facility for witnessing whatever arose—judgment, emotions, physical sensations, pleasant or unpleasant thoughts—and the sense of being flayed alive lessened. I learned to watch the transient nature of my thoughts and notice when I became lost in the currents and eddies of “mindstuff.”

For the first time in my life, a bit of space opened up between my thoughts and feelings and whatever it was that watched them. The realization that the content of my mind wasn’t all of me, didn’t define me, was life changing. By the end of the month, I was a convert.

From then until now, I have meditated nearly every morning. Over the years, I’ve shifted from a strict focus on the breath to a potent mix of prayer, self-inquiry, and simply witnessing whatever is going on inside. While I don’t relish every moment, meditation has brought a measure of acceptance and serenity into my life. Even when I believe the stories my mind tells me, I catch myself much sooner than I used to. Choosing to grow still once a day has left me less bothered by the small stuff, more present, and less apt to react to everything my mind throws at me.

I’m still meditating because connecting with the truth of me is precious even when it means sitting with the thorny, dark, or difficult places. When I let awareness be the vessel in which the outer world seamlessly meets the inner realm of thought, feeling, and consciousness, there are no longer two distinct realities, but one vast continuity of experience. Those moments when I know myself as whole mean everything to me.

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