The latest study on the benefits of meditation was released this week in JAMA and covered by all the usual suspects (Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Forbes). The study concludes there is no evidence that mindfulness meditation is an effective tool to control substance use, sleep or weight.
There are secrets and there are dumb secrets. Dumb secrets are those bits of information that are hidden because the only potential holder of the secret does not want to know. The sort of people who don’t want to know are called husbands. A man can only carry so many subjects in his head at one time. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It does not occur to my husband to worry about the very thing that distracts me from my work. He has access to the information and chooses not to access. The result is that there is information being withheld from me and the not knowing sucks up all my attention and diminishes my focus. My husband, in the meantime, gets his work done.
So, my choice is to ask my husband for information which will require him to think about something he does not want to think about or to make peace with the fact that whether or not I know does not change the status of the information. The facts are the facts whether or not I am aware of them.
Today’s meditation was dedicated to letting go of the need to know. What has happened has happened whether or not I am aware of the results
Phone rings, dog barks, my nose itches. What interrupts you in the middle of your meditation practice? There are thoughts, of course and the goal is to let the thoughts float on by. Sometimes I have an interesting idea and I promise myself I’ll come back to it later, then I keep my promise. But outside distractions are out of my control. In real life, the sounds of the physical world interfere with the time I have set aside for silence. Here is what I do: I hope the noise subsides and I start again. I don’t start from the beginning. I’ve already done my breathing and have relaxed my body. I have a head start and I use it. I just go back to my mantra and back to the place where I found my stillness. This is not a perfect practice. This is meditation in the real world.
I meditate. I tell people I meditate. I tell people I blog about my meditation practice. But I do not have the patience nor do I make the time to study about meditation. I have made a feeble effort to read The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda, but never made it past the first couple of pages. I tried a couple of times to meditate with the online Deepak and Oprah original transformational meditation program(their words). I found the built-in sales pitches distracting. I attended a meditation workshop and support group at my local yoga studio, but I found it uncomfortable to sit on the floor.
My meditation practice is comfortable, not all that challenging, and highly effective. I find it’s better to have kind of a crappy meditation practice than to have no meditation practice at all. I don’t worry about stuff like whether or not I scratch my ear if it itches or if the dog starts to bark as soon as I sit and I have to quiet him down, then begin again. This practice is not a practice of perfect. It is a practice of easy and a practice of compassion for an impatient and perfectly flawed person – me. And maybe you, too.
When I sat in Lee’s living room and she taught me what she knows about meditation, she insisted I not call her my teacher. She once scolded me, as only a former high school English teacher could, for referring to her as a guru.
I used to say: Everything I know about meditation I learned from Lee. But now I see why this is not true. Every time I sit down to meditate, it is a new meditation and new chance to find stillness, to find the way to my center. No one can really teach such a thing because it is within each of us to find our own way. But those of us who have cultivated a habit of sitting in stillness every day can encourage others that they too are able to do the same. It is not magic. It is not mysterious or esoteric or only available to those who have scaled the mountain and sat cross-legged for day upon uncomfortable day with the guru. It is available to everyone and it is available to you.
This past weekend, I participated in a Meditation Workshop at Cleveland Yoga with JoAnne Aboussouan. This is the first time I’ve ever done any kind of group meditation and I wondered whether I would experience something unusual, some sort of group energy experience. Meditation has enriched my life in many ways, but it is pretty consistent that when I look for something for meditation to bring to me, it doesn’t.
The concept I found most helpful was an overview of various breath techniques. For example: alternate nostril breathing. This is when you use your thumb and forefinger to close off one nostril, inhale through the other nostril, hold for a few seconds, then slowly exhale through the alternate nostril. Like diaphragmatic breathing, this type of breath work allows your nervous system to calm down and in general get you centered enough to be able to sit in stillness. It only takes a couple of minutes and I count this breathing time as part of my 20-minute meditation time.
We also spent some time talking about our Objective Observer. This is that part of yourself that observes your thoughts as they pop up when you’re trying to meditate. Your objective observer is used to your monkey mind and without judgment, she watches your thoughts, then watches as you let them drift away. Personally, I don’t use an objective observer when I meditate. I have a subjective observer. She’s fond of coffee and ice cream just like I am, but she is a kinder, gentler version of me. When my monkey mind kicks in and the thoughts breed more thoughts one after the other, my subjective observer says: It’s okay. You’re going to get it. Try again.
For twenty minutes each day, there is no voice that chastises me for all the things I have not accomplished. But there is a voice who is encouraging and kind and optimistic that I will achieve stillness despite all the negative distractions. I think I’ll go buy her a latte.
In yoga class this morning, the boy next to me had an ankle tattoo: So it goes. It’s the classic refrain from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I thought: What a perfect mantra. It says everything and nothing, same as yoga, same as meditation.
After class, I had an opportunity to chat with the studio owner, a woman I call the Reluctant Yoga Mogul for her reticent manner and burgeoning yoga business. I know from my dealings with her at Cleveland Yoga, Tami’s business plan is: Do the Right Thing. If you have punches left on your pass and your pass has expired, she’ll extend your pass. If you forgot to bring your credit card and need to purchase a class, no problem. Pay online when you get home. Today, Tami was hosting a Kenyan yogi named Walter whom she had meet through the African Yoga Project. She was pleased with the class he taught because he had emphasized the connection between a yoga practice and tikkun olam (my words, not Tami’s). But tikkun olam is what she meant. It’s our duty to repair the world. Yoga means union and when you can feel an undercurrent of connectedness between doing good for the outward world and healing ourselves on the inside, that is when yoga happens.
So it goes. Namaste. And thanks Mr. Vonnegut.