“I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today
I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence…
Sometimes quiet is violent”
~Lyrics to Car Radio by Twenty-One Pilots
I read about meditation. I read about contemplation. I read about prayer. I read about musing and pondering and imagining. I read about concentration. I read about it. I read about how others do it. I read about all the benefits. I read about the accoutrements and got a friend to fashion us personalized seiza meditation benches. I read about the methods, the breathing, the effects, the percentages of things in your life which will increase or decrease because of it. I read about it.
And… I don’t do it.
Well, I don’t consistently do it. I would say once or twice a month I find time to sit. To be still. To check in with silence. I do still consistently read about it. I do want to do it. And for a time, I used to. I used to go to a Soto Zen Buddhist Sangha for an hour-long meditation every Wednesday and would often find time to do 10-15 minutes on other days.
Meditation isn’t always pretty.
I look back with wonder. I can’t sit still now for 5 minutes. I wonder why I’m so unsettled.
But then I look back further. And I know it’s because I feel scared.
I remember my first entry into meditation with that Sangha. I remember settling into big cushions. I remember the incense. The crisp and quiet smoke littering the air with spice. The singing bowl sang and I remember being led into the art of letting go while we all turned to stare at our individual patches of wall, glowing under the soft light of a church basement.
Then after about 10 minutes, I remember being absolutely terrified.
I wanted to panic, but I couldn’t really panic in front of these people I just met. I was also very confused as to why I felt like somewhere in the shadows someone was watching me. I felt like prey. The hair on the back of my neck pricked up. I wanted to revert to amusement, because I certainly felt silly. Sitting there, in a sculpted heaven of a moment, being petrified. I had to do something. Laugh, cry, leave?
I almost left. I almost opened my eyes. I almost ruined my confrontation with deflecting to humor. But, like the lyric above: I just sat in silence.
And wow. This first silence of mine was very violent. This rush of fear flooding out of you, drowning you. I was completely caught off guard by why it was I was feeling this threatened, this anxious, this wild.
I think it was because I was only used to who I was on the surface. I never had stopped long enough to excavate myself. This falling down into my core felt out of my control. Feeling physically afraid was a manifestation me being afraid to look behind the curtain and really check in with myself in the here and now. No magical hats to hide behind. Just silence.
Oh, but the silence is relentless no matter how comfortable the cushion you’re sitting on is. If anything, you peek behind your curtain from sheer mind-wandering boredom. Your ego screams “DON’T!” but it’s too late. You just made eye contact directly with yourself.
I’m glad I did. During that hour, I felt dreadful for forever when somehow it clicked. I started trusting myself to honestly and gently accept what was happening. I accepted I was afraid. I accepted myself and my life. Moment by moment I accepted, I let go. I accepted, I let go. Then suddenly, I wasn’t fearful. I was simply feeling fear.
Read that again:
I was not fearful.
I was feeling fear.
The subtlety of such grammar invokes powerful mental shifts. I am filled with gratitude for the silence that night. I knew I felt anxious, but I didn’t know how deep it went emotionally. I didn’t know I could feel that strongly.
So that’s why I think I’ve been avoiding meditation. Right now, my life feels pretty aimless. I’m not unhappy, but I don’t want to sit with my own discomfort about it. I don’t want to wade through the slow process of developing flexibility, patience, and courage. I know it will take discipline. I know it won’t always leave me feeling amazing. Empowered, yes, amazing, no. It’s like medicine. You take it to make you feel better, not because it necessarily tastes like gourmet meal.
On the surface, meditation looks like a free, floating, hippie, dazed, lazy, and happy thing. But it’s a practice. There is work involved. There’s commitment. A particularly hard part is there isn’t any grading scale telling you how well you are doing it. You rely on awareness and practice.
Yoda the Jedi master explains it the most succinctly “Do or do not, there is no try.” You sit and mediate or you don’t. There isn’t such thing as “trying to meditate.” If you sit in silence and think you are trying to meditate, you are meditating. Easy. Accepting the silence, sitting through discomfort, letting go of how you compare. Not easy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had good experiences in meditation as well. The feeling like you are soaring. Opening my eyes and feeling like my brain was just massaged. I just think I had these incorrect ideals and expectations about what I would “get” from meditation because in trying to attract people to actually sit down and do it, people overplay the overtly positive benefits. I was definitely caught off-guard my first time and because of my definite resistance this time, I can only imagine I might be in for a ride again in order to rebalance myself. And I am reluctant.
But, this time around its different because in all my research and the bit of practice I did have before- you become aware of everything loud and busy that we have become so good at filling silence with so we don’t have to be with ourselves. So this time, I am fully aware when I’m purposefully distracting myself. When I make sure Hulu or Spotify is on when I eat. When I scroll through other people’s lives on social media because I don’t want to look at my own. When I talk about nothing out loud so I don’t have to think about something in quiet.
Then there are the rules I make up in my head. Maybe you’ve done this with something like exercise or starting anything new. Rules like “I’ll start on Monday.” “I can only do it at this specific time during the day” “I’m not ready, I will start after I read this book about the method I want to try.” “I will start after I get the right equipment.”
Then Monday comes, you start- and fail to continue to Tuesday.
Or you get to Tuesday and your specific time of day comes and goes because you were stuck at work late. So instead of finding time later or attempting 5 of your 30 minutes- you don’t even do it at all.
And you keep putting off reading that method book.
Or you do manage to read it and you are intimidated by all the things you are trying to put into practice at once, then just plain give up.
The only thing we all seem to be good at in aligning our actions to our desires is buying the “right” equipment. Behold our capitalistic safety blankets: Treadmills covered in clothes. Climbing shoes still in the box. Skis and kayaks cluttering garages. Language softwares taking up hard drive space. Expensive kitchen appliances collecting dust. Classic novels you’ve never read on your book shelf.
All these rules and all of these things we buy are just childish ideals. Reality is more gritty. You’ll never be ready and there is no perfect way to do it. The key to actually practicing something is: you just have to do it more than you say you want to.
So right now my hat is telling me to stop being a hypocrite. Instead of reaching for my methods book, or typing more, or avoiding it: I am going to go sit in silence.
Before I go, I want to encourage you to try it with me. Set a timer on your phone for 10 minutes. Literally Google: “How to meditate” don’t over think it, and go from there. Expect the unexpected. Don’t be daunted by discomfort. Check in with how your silence feels these days. Let me know how it goes.
If you are interested in learning more about meditation and contemplative living some human resources I’ve found helpful :
Thich Nhat Hanh
Fr Christopher Jamison
Karen Cavanagh inspired by Rumi
Admittedly they are from a variety of mostly religious traditions as meditation’s history is intertwined with many spiritual rituals. Know that there are other philosophical and non-religious practitioners of meditation, because it makes sense the experience of meditation would only reflect whoever is practicing it. I just took who came to me on my journey (mostly Buddhist and Christian sources), and no secular persona has captured my attention yet- the closest person I can think of is Alan Watts, but I think he was relatively spiritual. If you know of someone from your own experience I’m interested.
Hat’s off to you,