The first time I tried to meditate I was nine or ten years old, with my best friend Emily in the basement laundry room of my house. We picked out some cushions, played a Native American flute CD on my boom box, lit some incense and repeated “oommmmmmmm” over and over in unison, hands resting on our knees, thumbs and pointer fingers pressed together. In retrospect I’m not sure what we thought we were doing — but we had a good time doing it. This was a typical kind of activity for us — exploring something we’d probably heard about through our new-agey liberal moms — or just trying to understand our world, ourselves, looking for magic, wonder, new frontiers. These pursuits also included writing letters to fairies (with the occasional response), mixing up flower petals and household chemicals for spells in our Potion Room, doing rain dances, and contacting spirits with the Ouija Board. At the heart of our adventures was a quest for something of the supernatural — a glimmering reflection of what was presumably within us. Meditating in the laundry room was another avenue to explore the boundaries of whatever reality seemed to be at the time.
My spiritual / metaphysical pursuits slipped into dormancy with the influx of middle school, hormones, etc. Years later, in college, I was drawn to a thin yellow book on a friend’s shelf. It was “You are Here” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I borrowed it for over a year, reading it again & again, even if it was just a few lines at odd times of the day. “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” It was so simple. It was kind, patient, and profoundly moving at times. It was helpful to consider Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of compost — yourself the garden — working negativity and difficult experiences into the sometimes-rocky soil, and transforming them to grow something new. Learning to develop empathy for yourself and for others. Using breathing as a way to find your place in the present moment. “I have arrived, I am home. In the here and in the now. I am solid, I am free. In the ultimate I dwell.” This became the mantra I would return to when I was feeling lost, overwhelmed, afraid. Coincidentally, my university started hosting meditation sessions through the interfaith department. Though my experiences were sparse, meditation offered a chance to ground myself, have some room to breathe amongst the challenges & stress of school…relationships…the ambiguity of swiftly approaching adulthood. While consumed by planning and deadlines and a heavy workload — as many people are these days — the idea of just breathing was mysterious .. comforting .. shocking. I was intrigued.
A year after graduating I was packing up my crystals, yoga mat, and hiking boots to volunteer for a month at Shambhala Mountain Center per the recommendation of a friend. I hardly knew what I was getting myself into — the place seemed very ambiguous to me. I was going to be living in a tent — at a Buddhist retreat center — working in marketing (Buddhists need marketing?). All I really knew about Buddhism were the sweet words of Thich Nhat Hanh and a handful of cliches about nirvana & enlightenment. Where did that fit in with this place in northern Colorado, with yoga, with religion-at-large, with positive thinking, with the magic & supernatural of my childhood, recently resurfacing? But I was in need of some processing time, some space—an opportunity to finally check “Meditate” off of my un-ending To-Do lists — somewhere in between laundry & applying for jobs in that slippery, elusive “real world”.
What was supposed to be a month as a volunteer has now become 10 months, and a staff position. Reflecting on my time here, I’ve experienced a lot — the impermanence of incredible people constantly coming & going, staff meetings cross-legged on cushions, doing 300 people’s dishes, finding strength in vulnerability, transformative dance parties, learning to trust, falling in love, losing a friend. But it’s also been the first time in my life where I’ve had a consistent meditation practice (although it’s dropped off periodically and continues to). This new life experiment has helped me evolve in the way I relate to myself, to others and the world around me. When I first arrived here, I think I had some preconceptions about what meditation was going to do for me — inspire spiritual revelations, help me see auras, improve my intuition, connect to spirits, etc. While my experience hasn’t necessarily been devoid of those things, it’s been more practical in a way — an ongoing process of understanding how I work — connecting into the forces driving my actions, reactions, emotions, thought patterns, habits, inspirations…and learning to accept it all without judgment (sometimes an excruciatingly difficult task).
I remember a moment a few weeks into my volunteering & initial meditation sessions — I had an impulse to pick up my phone, which was not unusual— but as I did so I realized it was just my knee-jerk reaction to avoiding a task—no other purpose behind the mindless scrolling (& no cell service anyway). I started to notice how often I distracted myself, and in very creative, subtle ways, from seeing the roadblocks I’d been putting in my own way. I started to see how I’d been sabotaging myself, doubting & distrusting my own decisions, and sealing off very real wells of emotions in the effort to always be okay, composed, easy going, “chill”. Not realizing how un-vulnerable I’d become, not wanting to see myself in pain.
Meditation has brought a lot of that to the surface for me—sometimes gradually, sometimes in unexpected bursts. The first time I really sat for longer than a half-hour at a time (during Shambhala Level 1, a day & a half of alternating between sitting & walking meditation), I became utterly consumed by frustration & deep anger from past trauma that came up during the sessions. As a result, that night I managed to transform what would’ve been a typical interaction with someone into a heated, explosive argument—not characteristic of my typically cool / collected nature. It was painful, and surprising to see that there was something very difficult about sitting all day with myself with no activity or prompt, other than watching my breath and trying not to fixate on my thoughts, which kept rushing and tangling and tip-toeing in. And then trying to understand, where exactly is this frustration coming from? Why is this so hard? Have these difficult experiences caused me to disconnect from myself as a defense mechanism? How have these emotions wound themselves into my body as chronic tension, knots in my shoulders and neck? Though these realizations don’t always form in the most graceful ways, recognizing what my struggles / demons are has helped relieve some of their weight, and opened up some space to heal and live more fully & honestly in this world.
Since making meditation a part of my life I’ve become much more aware of the constant flux of emotions in my body / self, that vary from day to day, moment to moment — from elation to apathy, anger to curiosity, inspiration to anxiety. Every once in a while there’s a moment or two of letting go…sinking…peace…just watching the breath come in.. and out….in…and out…and then, ooh! this is nice.…oh wait, stay!….aand its gone. There is peace in there somewhere, it could just be a matter of committing to uncovering it, to sift through the accumulation of experience & habit & life to get there.
I’ve also started to realize that I’m not solid or static or stuck…but fluid—that the experiences, ideals, trauma, fear, and habits I hold onto so tightly are not fixed — they can dislodge, detach, dissolve — and transform. I can cultivate new soil, grow my own garden.
I think a lot of people (like me) have or have had illusions about meditation—that there are implied religious & spiritual implications, and that “enlightenment” is the goal.
But these days, with neuroscience studies (meditation can change your brain!) and catchy words like “mindfulness” flooding the Internet, there are more and more opportunities to engage with meditation for general health & well-being. It doesn’t have to be spiritual or religious, but just a way to tap into the elegance, chaos, & subtle simplicity of the human experience — your experience. Planet Earth has a lot going on these days, and we’re starting to see that people are looking for more meaningful ways to live their lives. That could be as simple as just learning to be with yourself.
While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert meditator by any means, or a Buddhist…I do believe that there’s something powerful, even rebellious, about making meditation a part of your life — whether you live in a retreat center or not. In a society that’s so motivated by productivity and speed (where are we rushing to anyway?), it takes some courage to sit down and “do nothing”. To drop the constant buzz of addictive productivity and see what it feels like. No goal, no pursuit. Nothing to fix, create, decide, look up. Just feeling your body breathing in, breathing out—doing what it’s designed to do. There’s enough magic & mystery in that to satisfy my ten-year old self. Still hoping I’ll be reading auras and moving objects with my mind one day, but for now I’m just going to sit .. and try .. to just see how it feels to be me.
About the Author
Rachel Zetah Becker is an artist / designer / occasional poet / & aspiring astronaut. Her interests include adventure, human spirituality, fried egg sandwiches, and saving Planet Earth.
See more of her work here: www.rachelzbecker.com