Why do I meditate? The short answer is because I want to be happy. The long answer is the same. Not just happy the emotion, that momentary high when something goes your way, but a true happiness. The happiness of staying equanimous in the face of Life, no matter what she happens to throw at me. Actually, let’s just scrap that word happy, it doesn’t do this feeling justice. Let’s call it balance instead.
And what is balance? Some may tell you it’s an illusion. Work vs. life, loving yourself vs. loving others, worthy vs. worthless – so much of our lives seem to be centered around finding the thin little line dividing one thing from another. But even if you are the Lebron James of juggling, how long do you keep it up before the balls in your hand come tumbling down? Even if your skill level is unmatched, how powerful are you in the face of a north wind, blowing in to pick your act apart, dropping it like flies?
By balance, most often what we mean is the holding and controlling of what is exterior to us in our lives – our jobs, our wealth, our relationships and our health. The fact of the matter is, we do not guarantee or control anything on that plane. If we expect happiness to come from the bottom of a completed To Do list, the top of a corporate ladder, or a perfectly fit body, we are forgetting that in an instant any of that can change. Who can say when an emergency, someone else changing their mind, Mother Nature’s fiery temper, or any of a million and one possibilities will occur to blow your carefully crafted balance right out of the water?
The truth is, there is nothing outside of ourselves we can control, no matter how much we delude ourselves into thinking that we hold onto the steering wheel. Life flows in its own rhythm, it doesn’t answer to you or I, or to our religious beliefs. It cares not about what our society values, or even what our humanity does. Balance absolutely exists, but if you are looking for it externally you will never be able to point to it with clarity and say there, there it is.
So it is not for the balance of the things outside of me that I meditate for two one-hour sessions a day, sitting on my meditation mat, in my designated meditation room, surrounded by candles and good vibes. At least, I intend to anyways. In reality, I squeeze in an hour on weekends, and probably only ten minutes here or twenty minutes there during the week. And forget the meditation mat, whatever’s lying around that’s most convenient will do. Ever tried a meditation sweater? It plumps up nicely when folded, and is easily made compact for storage.
Now in terms of meditation itself, it would be nice to believe that every sitting is accomplished through crossed legs resting in lotus position, fingers set in a mudra one resting on each knee. But meditation is about change not rigidity (as is the whole point of the practice, to raise one’s awareness to this little ditty!) so if for whatever reason you cannot sit then simply don’t do it. Don’t do it! Walk and meditate, or even lie down and meditate. Buddha did, as evidenced by the many statues showing him reclining languidly on his side. And if it’s good enough for Buddha it’s good enough for me.
Whatever posture you choose in the moment, just close your eyes, turn your gaze inwards and take your own self-awareness by the hand. Pull a shield down against the world outside and block out the noises constantly asking for your attention. Reclaim time as your own, you are here and now, present.
Just like the meditation posture is not so significant, neither is the place where you do it. Ideally in the future our societies will value our mental needs as highly as our physical ones, and all of our buildings will come fully equipped with a meditation room as they do with kitchens and bathrooms. We’d come to our practice daily in the same place, as we do now when we go to make our lunches or take a pee break. Such a room of concentrated meditation will raise the vibrations of the atmosphere inside, and anyone who comes in to meditate will feel their efforts expanded by the collective energy left behind.
But such rooms are hard to come by. If meditation doesn’t find you in the same place every day, let it find you wherever you are. Turn your subway seat into a meditation cushion, it doesn’t mind. The next time you are running late in traffic, put some soothing tones on the radio and let the soft tunes carry you into yourself. Keep your eyes open though, it’ll be better for everyone around. But won’t that change my practice? I thought meditation is supposed to be done with my eyes closed, you may ask.
If you’re ever worried that somehow you are meditating wrong because you’ve read in a book somewhere, or learned from someone who said, “This is the right way to meditate,” forget them. The secret to meditation is that there is no secret. Meditation comes in many different flavours and everybody’s taste buds are not the same. It is your own personal practice into yourself, and you don’t need anybody’s instructions, or permission, to look inside. All you need to know, if you ever do catch yourself fixating upon the questions, am I even meditating? or, am I doing it right? is yes, yes you are. Are you aware of yourself in the present? Can you observe down to where your hands are resting, or where your feet are laying? Can you consciously feel your breathe as it comes in and out? Well then shit, congratulations! You, my friend, are meditating. Everything else, as they say, is just gravy.
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In the practice of meditation there are two pillars that hold it up, both of which have equal importance. If you are doing the above, ie. raising your awareness to being in the present in this moment, and, ideally with practice, in every moment, then you have raised one pillar. But a lopsided structure doesn’t hold, and just being aware is good but not enough. The second pillar is arguably much harder to find – the pillar of equanimity, of non-action. Now, to all my friends who immediately jump to the conclusion that non-action means passivity, I am here to tell you that you’re wrong. Non-action means actively not reacting. It is the furthest thing from inaction, as anyone who has ever tried to hold back tears or an angry outburst can tell you.
But why should I want to hold back my feelings, you ask? Haven’t we already spent enough time doing just that, being repressed by the patriarchy, our societies, the unrealistic expectations of our parents? Isn’t it time to move away from holding back and just let ourselves feel all the things?
Oh, my friend, absolutely. And meditation agrees with you one hundred percent. Because learning to become equanimous is not about learning how to suppress your feelings, it is the exact opposite. It is about accepting what you feel, all of it, to accept it without judging yourself or the situation that you’re in.
Practicing meditation is learning to do the work that the pharmaceutical and alcohol companies want to convince you is their job. We already repress ourselves, by ourselves, because we are so afraid of facing our feelings. To meditate is to learn to observe your feelings as they come up, to recognize when anger is there, sadness is there, pettiness, bitterness, any and all forms of happiness, and in that observing you stand in greeting of the emotion without inviting it in.
This is why I meditate, because I have experienced no greater happiness than in those moments when I have achieved equanimity. I remember the very first time, when I’d become aware of anger rising in myself, felt the taste of familiar bitterness awash on my tongue as the venom squeezed from the fire inside begged to be let out. Only for once I wasn’t overwhelmed, I saw the anger and I simply watched it. I observed the feeling like I was watching a film of somebody else, I could see it happening but I sat at a distance to the action rather than smack dab in the fray. And by seeing my anger I didn’t feel attached to it, no longer needing to defend it because it was mine. I could even turn my objective eye to the source of my anger, see how it had nothing to do with what I was feeling because the anger I felt came from me, not it.
And during these quiet observations I did one thing different – I didn’t react. No blind rage, no bomb exploding. Soon enough, like a movie changing its scene, my anger changed too, like all things must. For it, too, was mutable, impermanent, and in that moment of observing this change I accepted that truth. After all, why make such a big deal out of a feeling that is bound by nature to change, when by reacting to that feeling I only serve to make things worse?
Does this mean with meditation I now simply lay myself down at Life’s feet, lie passive as a carpet to any injustice stepping all over me? On the contrary, Watson. I take action, better and more informed action than ever before because my actions are now not reactions. If you don’t fall prey to the heat of the moment, the course you take is much clearer and level headed. Maybe you don’t decide to swing at the cops, or kiss your married co-worker, or cheat. Maybe you still do those things nine times out of ten, but for that one time you don’t, and you save yourself from one more world of hurt. I don’t know about you but to me that’s worth it. Spend a little time meditating and increase my standard level of happiness? Sounds like a bargain to me!
And it can be a bargain for you, too. It’s up to you to take your life into your own hands, to take responsibility for your own happiness. Meditation is no trend or a cult-y sect. You don’t need any special training, or money, or equipment. If you are looking for it, teaching and guidance is out there – a simple search of Vipassana aka insight meditation on the internet will inform you of many meditation centers worldwide whom will happily take you in and teach you for free. But if you don’t want to seek out guidance you don’t have to either.
If you’re only just curious about meditation, even just a little bit, the first simple step is to get to know yourself. Be curious about this person whom you spend every single moment of this life with. If you just start there, trust me the path to yourself will throw itself open to you.
I started in the same place. Curious. And it led me to change my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and then some. Practicing meditation made me realize what I wanted from my life was more than just a corporate job, that my most precious commodity given to me on this earth is my peace of mind, and my most important task in this life is to make myself happy. By taking care of me, I could then be the best version of myself to those around me, because a natural side effect to being happy is making others feel so, too. It’s really hard to hate someone who’s in a good mood – if you do, it usually means it’s you who’s likely not the most pleasant person to be around.
Despite all this I am not always happy. I say meditation practice and not an inherent skill because, like all things, it’s a practice that fluctuates. It changes. Some days it goes great, some days, some weeks, some months it goes the opposite way. But I accept this and I’m okay, because the whole point of meditation is to teach you that things will change. For long term or “serious” meditators, this can become a huge sticking point. You get caught up in the memory of great sittings you’ve had, and lord knows our brains love nothing more than a juicy comparison game. Damn Linda, she tells me, you couldn’t even sit still for forty minutes today. Remember yesterday when we did an hour and a half no problem? I guess this means you really aren’t the next Buddha reincarnate.
This is a trap! Whatever you do don’t fall into it! There is no such thing as a good meditation or a bad one. There is only a reality, and the reality is you aren’t meditating if you are not sitting with the present that you’ve got. So stop wasting precious energy wishing reality is something that it’s not. If you are doing this, at least know you aren’t the only one – trust me, I’ve been here now I don’t know how many times. But the beautiful thing is, once you fall into the trap, all it takes is one moment of awareness to pull you right out.
So if you ask me, “Why do you meditate?” I will tell you: I meditate because it teaches me I can accept my reality as it is, not in some way I want it to be. I meditate because by seeing things the way they are, in the present moment, right here in the now not in some past or future, I know that everything in my life is alright. The now is always perfect, and if I can connect to that then I am okay. More than okay, I am happy.
Author’s Note: Like most people, and by most I mean all, I wasn’t born knowing how to meditate. I fell into the practice by accident, from a casual lunch with a friend who told me about this “ah-mazing, seriously life-changing, babe, you have to go” kind of retreat they just got back from. I was intrigued, then I heard about the details – ten days in silence? Learn how to meditate all day? Two meals a day? 4:00am wake-up gong…Wait, hold up, did you say two meals? My mind immediately jumped to my own daily schedule: breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, and second lunch, oh and dinner, of course – well sounds interesting but it’s not for me, I couldn’t do that. Yet the idea nagged at me, and six months later I found myself signed up for my first Vipassana course just outside of Tokyo.
From that very beginning I was hooked. It wasn’t hard to be – I could easily observe in myself how unshakably balanced I felt in my own peace of mind whenever I practiced, and how suddenly my perspective on life took a nose dive whenever I let other things get in the way. That first year after sitting my Vipassana course I practiced sporadically, and after the first couple of months I felt dejected in the feeling that all I had gained from my course was lost. But I kept at it anyways, and went back for a second course in India six months later. This time around I felt my determination strengthened, I even became a full fledged vegetarian, and I vowed would do whatever I needed to in order to make my practice my top priority.
It’s been two years since then, I’m still a vegetarian and my practice still is in flux, but I am also gentle on myself for it. Because I like meditation, it’s a huge part of my life, and I don’t want to take that human stick of perfection to it, beating it into a pulp I no longer recognize. So for anyone who is just starting out, or are already deep into their practice, just remember to be kind first to yourself. Meditation and its practice is nothing without this, and you are nothing without this.
For anyone who is interested, here is the website for Vipassana that has all the information you need to find courses all over the world. And if you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer what I can!
Please share this if you think anyone you know might be able to use these words here to help better their lives. Cheers friends, and may all beings be happy!