A meditation on meditation: Learning it, hating it, needing it

Think meditation kind of sucks? Rachel Machacek did too. In fact, nobody really likes it. But you’re sure glad you did it afterwards.

Photo by: alcidesota@yahoo.com

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When I first started learning the practice of meditation, I was on a far-flung beach in Mexico, there for yoga teacher training. Every day, I got up before sunrise for a 30-minute meditation. I sat in a circle with the other 13 would-be instructors on a wooden platform, ocean waves crashing nearby, eyes closed, incense swirling. Sounds like bliss was just an OM away, doesn’t it?

Not to burst the bubble, but no. During these sessions, my eyes darted around inside my head and I would shift uncomfortably at least 50 times, and usually ended up on my back, unable to sustain a comfortable seat. I did not feel blissful. I did not feel good. And the reason was this: the entire time–every single morning for three straight weeks–I was doing it wrong.

The instructions were simply to sit. But I had this heaping expectation for exactly what I was going to experience and feel, trying to control the process for a specific outcome. I was searching for the blue pearl.

It’s cliché, but you’ll get over it. Lore has it that in a state of deep meditation, you can feel a blue light radiating from the center of the skull and this, my friends, is the ultimate union with God/love/divine energy. Neurologists who scanned the brain of a Tibetan monk in meditation also saw blue. It’s a thing, and “it is the goal of every seeker to find it,” wrote Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat. Pray. Love.

You don’t just get to show up in Mexico, close your eyes and experience bliss, apparently.

I wanted that blue light so bad, though I kinda missed the part about doing the work of sitting and stilling the mind in order to reach this enlightened level. You don’t just get to show up in Mexico, close your eyes and experience bliss, apparently.

Since then, I’ve revised my expectations about meditation, meaning I don’t have any anymore. (I mean, I do, but I really try to keep them in check.) And thanks to an amazing teacher, I have a much more grounded, more real understanding that doesn’t include curing all my ills and bringing the universe to my doorstep.1

“Ultimately, it’s a practice aimed at teaching us to accept things as they are, ourselves and our world included.” That’s Ellie Burke, a yoga and meditation teacher, and life coach here in Richmond. (She’s also one of my meditation teachers.) “It helps us be able to be with what is whether that’s a perceived positive experience or perceived negative experience.”

To be with what is. Have you ever noticed how little people do that? Classic, overused example: Road rage. Drivers who speed up, cut off, flick off, etc. are decidedly not OK with being with what is. And what is contained in this circumstance is simply this: traffic. A fact of urban life. People make mistakes in traffic. People do bad things on purpose. Who cares? How can we get to a state where we just allow and accept–feathers unruffled, blood pressure intact–and move on?

Have a Sit

Despite what’s plastered all over the internet, there technically isn’t a verb “to meditate.” There is no “meditating.” The verb part where you’re sitting with your eyes closed and focusing on your breath or a mantra, is just that. These are the tools meant to help you eventually arrive at a state of meditation.

According to Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa in his book The Path is the Goal, “One simply sits without aim, object, purpose, without anything at all. Nothingwhatsoever. One just sits.”

I’m just going to say this out loud right now, it can be pretty boring.

“I say this jokingly but it’s true: who actually enjoys meditation?” said Burke. “Sometimes it’s nice, but sometimes it’s just not. But there’s something other than having a nice experience that’s asking you to just sit there. The mind is uncomfortable, the mind doesn’t like the experience, but there’s also your essential you that you’re connecting with, which is the being part.”

It’s notable to say that it’s possible when you sit, that you will enter a state of meditation, or maybe not. Or maybe not the whole time. Maybe it’s for just 60 seconds total in a 45-minutes session. Maybe you enter a state of meditation without sitting at all, according to Burke. Spontaneous meditation!

For the most part though, those of us who are not Zen Buddhist monks do the work and what happens happens.

I feel like I’m sucking the fun out of this, and I realize this explanation doesn’t exactly match the images of pure, blissful smiling faces plastered all over articles on meditation. Or Don Draper when he comes up with the Coca Cola jingle after sitting just once in meditation. Maybe you’re even saying, why bother?

Here’s why.

If you can get to a place where you are not internally fighting with reality then everything, quite simply, will be calmer. “This doesn’t mean you aren’t going to experience pain in life or sadness, but what meditation helps with is the suffering pieces,” said Burke.

So when we can engage in this process of stilling the mind, we can soothe the suffering. When we soothe suffering, we create calm spaciousness around ourselves and unravel mental constrictions. And then you understand that you don’t sit in meditation to bring the universe/divine energy/God to your doorstep. All of it is already there. You sit in meditation so you can actually realize it.

The Techniques

There are a LOT of tools and schools of thought for meditation. Zen meditation, Vipassana meditation, Mindfulness meditation, Transcendental Meditation–too many to mention and explain here.

For someone who has never practiced, it can be useful to test drive different techniques and systems, but then stick with the one that helps you find a sense of inner spaciousness and inner quiet. If you’re really going to work with meditation, Burke recommends finding a solid teacher who can help you unlearn all the doing and busy-ness of your mind.

Or just try this right now:

Take a seat. Any seat where you can sit up straight and breathe easily.

Breathe through your nostrils.

Close your eyes, or softly gaze at the ground in front of you.

Feel the air on your skin. Feel the ground or chair below you.

Tune into the sounds around you.

Now notice the breath at the tip of your nostrils, the coolness as you inhale, warmth on the exhale.

When your mind wanders (and it will), return to observing the breath.

And continue.

Start with five minutes. Set a timer. Stick to it. Then increase your time, gradually working your way up to 20 minutes or more, if you like. Like most forms of exercise, it’s better to do a little every day than just one massive session once in awhile.

Sweetness and Love

At the end of my yoga teacher training, we had a cacao ceremony.2 We sat in another circle. There were drums and chanting while we drank from a steaming cauldron of hot cacao. Later, we were guided through a meditation with crystals that was so deep and so restful that I came away free of the shackles of my foundational anxiety. I didn’t feel my perpetual back pain. I did a headstand! Later, I swam in the ocean. It was a typical day at the beach with a bunch of yoga people. And it was one of the best feelings ever because with all that presence and acceptance in the moment came an all-encompassing physical and mental sweetness. Everything is OK.

Since then, I’ve had this same feeling of contentment wash over me while sitting under a tree and watching the sunset at Libby Hill park, at home with the cats, and while sitting in my car. I don’t look for it when I sit for meditation, but it’s wonderful whenever it happens. It doesn’t make my life less complicated. I still don’t know what I will do when I grow up. I still worry about pissing off both vegetarians and meat eaters when I put bacon on a tofu sandwich. I still can’t always get in an elevator because I’m terrified of the loss of control.

But when I can catch these fleeting moments of clarity and sweetness, I’m reminded that I am connected to myself and I am good and I can deal with anything in that moment, and then the next.

And when there’s that, who the heck needs a blue light?

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Learn to meditate

Burke is teaching two Intro to Meditation session at Yoga Source in Carytown early this year. (January 14th – February 4th and February 18th – March 10th). You can get more information at ellieburke.life.

The Ekoji Buddhist Sangha web site has information about a number of local mediation groups with instruction.

Many yoga studios have regularly scheduled meditation classes, including Yoga Source, Ashtanga Yoga Richmond, Project Yoga Richmond, Adya Yoga & Ayurveda, and Glenmore Yoga & Wellness Center.

  1. There are so many forms of meditation. There may be some forms that, in fact, do have you try to change something or work on something in your life. I’m strictly speaking from my experience with meditation and my teacher’s experience with meditation. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing if it’s working just because you read this! Seriously. 
  2. Cacao is not just a super food and a safe word from Portlandia. It is also used by shamans for many healing purposes including holding focus during meditation. “It brings you to the door of your consciousness, but it does not push you through.” 
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Rachel Machacek

Rachel Machacek is a yoga teacher (obviously) and a writer (obviously). She also has cats (obviously).

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