Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Meditation Station

 "Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity."
-Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You-

I could probably ramble and write non-linear-ly about meditation for a million and one pages.  It's an equally inspiring and infuriating topic for me, and probably for everyone who's ever tried it.

An interesting article in the New York times came out last week on how meditation may change your brain.  It seems like every few weeks one of these articles comes out, but they still say the science is very young.

What I always find interesting about these scientific articles about meditation is how they focus on the positive sides - of which there are many, granted - but they tend not to mention how, at a certain point in a meditation practice, it can bring things up that make us feel more agitated and irritable instead of less.  More on that later!

I've always been intrigued by meditation.  It sounds nice - quiet time to yourself, it's supposed to lead to reduced stress and increased clarity, and may eventually lead you to the ultimate:  enlightened bliss.  Who wouldn't want that?
I started a practice on my own without any instruction or mentors to help me and I just sat.  It was the spring of 2009 - I decided that I would celebrate Lent for the first time ever not by giving something up, but by adding to my life.  I called it "devotional practice," and it consisted of getting up at least a half hour early every day and taking my pick of reading, writing, going for a run, doing some yoga, or meditating.  Regardless of my practice, I always tried to tack on at least a little bit of meditation every morning.

It was not what I expected.  For some reason, I think I expected it to be a lot easier to find a quiet mind than it turned out to be.  It was sometimes interesting, often frustrating, and there were many times where it took awhile to get up due to one leg or both having fallen asleep!

Several months later, when I began my teacher training at Sonic Yoga, it was actually required of me by the program to meditate every day.  I was very excited by this outside push and motivation, not to mention the incredible community of people who were going through the exact same baffling journey I was.  It was so helpful to have a community of people to ponder the endless questions for beginning mediators.  How should we sit?  What technique works best?  Should we just pick one and stick with it, or try a different one each time?  Should we just sit without any visualization or mantra and see what happens?  If we think about our boyfriend or dinner or work or sleeping the whole time, does it still count as a meditation?

I still haven't entirely answered these questions.  I really enjoyed my consistent meditation with Sonic, but once Marc and I got together, I fell very hard off the meditation wagon and into the complete and utter distraction of true love.  We've been trying to help each other back on it, to varying degrees of success over the past year.

Most recently, as I wrote about in New Year, I decided to kick off 2011 with a dedicated mantra practice.  My number one new year's resolution was to get serious about my daily meditation practice - once and for all.  It's important to me and I can't let myself and my overflowing abundance of excuses get in my own way of my spiritual practice.

Today marks Day 37 of my practice, and it's interesting.  The agitation and irritability I referred to earlier?  I'm right in the thick of that!  My japa mala practice has been specifically about the obstacles in my life - to oversimplify it, I've been praying for the destruction of the obstacles in my life and/or the ability to overcome them.

Lord Ganesh himself.
Now, I didn't literally think that by doing a 40 day meditation practice that the Obstacle Fairy (aka Ganesh) was going to come and fix all my problems for me.  Not in my conscious, rational, adult brain.  But I did think - I'm sending lots of stuff out into the universe, it's not so crazy to expect a little positivity as a result.  To expect something to come of my efforts.

I think I have gotten something - just not necessarily in the form I hoped for.  The year has been good, but busy and stressful (but then, what else is new?) and I haven't necessarily been dealing with it as well as I've wanted all the time.  I'm working hard on accomplishing all my goals and keeping up with my resolutions, but I've found myself just a little more emotional and a little more cranky these days.

What my meditation is doing is what both Sally Kempton, a renowned meditation teacher, and Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, have written about in passages I've been fortunate enough to read lately.

Sally Kempton writes in an article in February's Yoga Journal, "[The mind isn't] getting more restless, of course.  It's just that when [we] sit down to meditate, [we] notice how restless it really is.  Normally, we aren't aware of the intensity of our inner dialogue.  Our attention is focused on what is going on around us, so unless we are unusually introverted or introspective, the wild and crazy scenarios running through the mind generally escape our notice.  But when we sit for meditation - ah, then we see them."

It's no wonder so many people have such a hard time being consistent with a meditation practice when it can bring up such intensity and seem as though it's not helping.  Not to mention, in this insanely busy world, it can seem like a waste of time.  I know I always like to make sure I'm making the most of my time, and it was a bit of a battle for me to fully appreciate the value of just sitting.  Not reading, writing, emailing, working, working out...just sitting.

Kempton also writes about the unavoidable presence of thoughts during meditation.  They not only create frustration in those of us a bit impatient to get on with the enlightenment already, but force you to deal with issues you might not think about when caught up in the hustle and bustle of the everyday.  When you meditate, it's just you and your mind.  There's no escaping what it has to say except through consistent practice.  As they say: the only way out is through.

I've been wondering where I'm going to go with my daily practice once the 40 days is up on Saturday.  I haven't been sure whether to continue on with that current practice or to switch it up - and if I switch it, then to what?  And for how long?

For all this talk about the difficulties and frustration and occasional madness of meditation, it actually has burned through a lot of my resistance and found a piece of clarity.  The last several days have revealed to me what my next steps should be, and because of that I think my practice has done its job.  Ganesh hasn't magically gotten rid of my obstacles - but I have been shown which ones are most deserving and in need of my own energy to fight.  These things require physical action in the outside world as well as a meditation, but one thing is clear:  we cannot forget the fact that meditation is action.

If you're interested in starting up a meditation practice, there are a myriad of places you can go, websites you can check out, books you can read, etc.  Like anything else these days, it's all just a Google search away.  I did come across an interesting article in The Huffington Post today, though - meditation leader Sharon Salzberg is hosting a 28-day Meditation Challenge for the month of February, though you can join anytime.  The article is worth checking out - it's interesting and at the bottom she has some quotes from some of her participants, including an NYC firefighter and NYC police officer.

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