Meditations on Meditation

I always seem to fall asleep nowadays when I try to meditate, and I’m wondering if that’s a good thing. Of course, it accomplishes something for the meditator -it relieves stress- but somehow it appears to fall short of the original purpose of the exercise –coping with the stress. I mean, uncoped stress is still stress, eh? But, maybe I’m new to the territory -maybe the idea is actually to forget about it for a while and then to awake refreshed… by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

But enough of that. I am not Hamlet, nor do I have his way with stress. He just seems to surface as I am awakening from a meditation differentiable from a sleep only by the fact that I am distinctly uncomfortable and my neck hurts from hanging it over my chest while I try to stay upright in the chair. Clearly there is more to this than concentrating on my breathing, or endlessly repeating the special mantra I was given in my Transcendental Meditation classes so long ago. Actually, over the years I forgot the original mantra, and I had to make up another nonsense word that sounded sort of like my special one. But I’m not sure how absolutely unique my word was, although I was told I wasn’t supposed to disclose it to anybody. It was so particularly suited to my own individual Karma, or whatever, that it wouldn’t work for other people -and only it would work for me. So maybe that’s my problem.

I’ve been giving meditation a good deal of thought lately, and sometimes I think it’s precisely the wrong thing to do. It occurs to me that perhaps the whole idea of meditation, ab initio as it were, is to escape from thinking. To allow cobwebs to accumulate in those constantly turning gears inside. To stop our incessant dusting.

And yet when I put it like that, I am reminded again of Shakespeare –this time Macbeth’s ‘sore labour’s bath’ –although not with sleep knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care, but something else: age. Is Time the chief nourisher in life’s feast? Retirement, for example, is an era for most of us when, freed from the demands of career, the vagaries of unrealistic expectations, not to mention the vicissitudes so inextricably entangled with youth, we have the leisure to wallow in Time, unencumbered. Is Age itself a meditation?

Sometimes, though, as I sit trying to concentrate on my breathing, with thoughts washing over me like waves in a storm, I wonder if real –or should I say successful– meditation is a more active process than we are usually prepared to admit. Far from a peaceful surrender, is it, in fact, the tiring and laborious exercise in muffling the noise of thoughts sloshing around inside our heads? Thoughts which even age and changed circumstance may be unable to dampen? A poorly designed breakwater?  Is it, in other words, the effort, not the success that determines the outcome -the journey, not the destination?

I wonder. Were all those years of struggling with mantras, and breathing to wash my head free of the flotsam and jetsam of a busy life, really the psychological equivalent of hiking in a forest all the while frustrated by the trees, upset by the birds, and annoyed at any stream that needed fording? Did I miss the point? The Zen…?

I had a yoga instructor once who took me aside when she saw how discouraged I always seemed as I struggled to keep pace with the rest of the class.

“You don’t seem to be enjoying this, G,” she said in the same soft and unhurried voice she used on the class.

I was having trouble with one of the beginner moves I think, although I can’t remember which one now. And she was right –I wasn’t enjoying it. Despite being an avid runner, the muscles I’d developed seemed strangely unsuited for what she had been asking them to do. I had always regarded myself as fit, so I suppose I was embarrassed by my inability to keep up with the others.

I think I just smiled and shrugged at my situation.

I remember she looked at me for the longest time before she spoke. “You remind me of someone looking in through a window,” she finally said, her eyes smiling and her words gently massaging the expression on my face.

I blushed, of course –the implication being that I wasn’t really trying.

But she sighed and shook her head as if she knew what I was thinking. As if even in listening, I was still on the other side of the window. “Look around you, James,” she said in a whisper barely audible above the ill-disguised heavy breathing in the room. “What do you hear?” It must have been a rhetorical question, because before I could even decide what she was asking, she shifted her gaze and held it on a rather corpulent man bravely trying to assume a balance position on one leg. Each time he lifted the leg, he had to put it down again quickly before he fell. But he tried it again and again, as if this had become a mission for him. As if everyone and everything else had slipped into shadows and he was alone with his task. Determined to succeed.

“And what do you see?” she asked as I followed her eyes. “Do you see someone enjoying himself?” she rested her eyes on my cheeks as softly as feathers. “Or someone lost in himself…?”

A smile gradually captured her face and she withdrew her eyes. “He will succeed, of course –but even if he didn’t… would his time have been wasted?” Her eyes briefly kissed my face again. “I think not.”

 

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