I don’t remember the first time I meditated. I do remember inching toward it in college, reading Jon Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness, gradually becoming aware of my tendencies toward anxiety and depression and looking for relief from an anxious mind. I started doing yoga. I began to realize that the world keeps buzzing by and never gives you a break. I noticed that I felt more grounded and whole when I was doing something meditative like playing music, writing, appreciating nature.
Later, I ended up in San Francisco, where meditation is not weird and is in fact quite ordinary. I signed up for a daylong retreat. I learned about how to sit on a cushion (which, as a rule, is–still– terribly uncomfortable for me), how to focus on my breath, how to be forgiving as thoughts ran away from me like puppies and I gently gathered them back. I liked the teacher, Howard Cohn, and discovered that he did a weekly meditation and dharma talk in the Mission. I started going to that.
People may ask, “What does it do for you?” and it’s hard to articulate an answer. For a long time, it felt like I was pulling myself out of the river of my relentless thoughts, sitting on the riverbank and watching them flow by like leaves. My mind felt clearer afterward.
One time I received a phone call at work from a very angry person, yelling as soon as I picked up the phone. Once I realized what was happening, in a split second I centered myself. I acknowledged inwardly that her energy was not mine. I let her yell for a while and then addressed her from a peaceful island oasis. It’s my single example of how meditation has helped me, but it’s a good one.
Most days, I try to meditate for ten minutes in the morning. Sometimes in a chair, sometimes sitting on my couch facing the sunrise in the east. Many times, I just let the thoughts roll and don’t even remember to bring it back to my breath. This isn’t the “point,” exactly, to be planning what to wear or making mental notes about how to handle projects at work.
The point is, it’s a practice. It’s not one thing with one clear result. It’s a process of training the mind to recognize thoughts as thoughts–not my reality, not my storyline, not my truth. (Pause to take a sip of my Ocean of Wisdom tea, no joke.)
At Green Gulch, I approached our dharma teacher (and Buddhist priest) with a goofy question. I figured it would be unanswerable and/or offensive, but I had to ask him anyway. It was gnawing at me, and when I mentioned it to several others, they were curious about it too.
My question was: if I am meditating in the zendo next to an experienced meditator (like a monk or nun or priest) and there are thought bubbles over our heads, what is in the thought bubbles? In essence, what am I striving for?
He looked thoughtful and answered my question much more directly than I expected. He said that in my thought bubble, he suspects that there would be lots of images of people, places, objects. And in the experienced meditator’s bubble? “Clouds.”
He acknowledged that all people have stresses and struggles–but the experienced meditator has a choice when these things come up. They can choose not to follow that line of thinking (whereas I often get dragged along).
Earlier that day, we had done an exercise in the garden where he had asked us to find one spot of our own and focus on one thing of our choosing, giving it our full attention for 15 minutes. I laid down between the strawberries and some orange poppies and focused on the sky. The coastal fog was roiling through the blue sky, dynamic, swirling.
The image of “clouds” therefore was instantly and freshly available to me the next time I sat. For a while I just had clouds. Then a thought arose and I thought “choice” and went back to the clouds. I kept this up surprisingly well for about a twenty minute session and was excited to tell our teacher of this development. (And the next time I meditated, I spent the entire time wrestling with the cushion…)
I will keep up my practice. I’ll read Pema, I’ll attend two daylongs this coming weekend: one entirely outside in nature and the other with the famous Tara Brach. I need to get a Buddha so he will remind me to sit. And a zafu and a zabuton. I need a bolster so I can spread-eagle offer my uterus up to the gods. It’s important to have the right accoutrements.
Meditation is helping keep me mellow as life throws all kinds of twists and turns in my path. I am serene as a mountain peak. I breathe.
Less than two weeks to go.
Let the waters settle and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your own being. ~Rumi