by Carol S. Hyman
Years ago when I was in my mid-twenties and prone to reckless leaps into the unknown, I decided, with very little experience of meditation practice, to do a solitary retreat deep in the Colorado mountains in the middle of winter. Had I given any consideration to how hard I found spending time alone even at home, and how constantly I sought out companionship of all sorts, I might have realized that lack of meditation experience wasn’t the only obstacle I would face.
These days, someone with as little sitting practice as I had at the time would be advised to meditate a lot more, probably with a group, before considering such an endeavor, advice I likely would have gotten back then too had I mentioned several relatively recent psychiatric hospitalizations. But I didn’t mention those when I was interviewed by the person responsible for scheduling retreats in the isolated cabins. The idea of solitary retreat had piqued my romantic fancy and I wanted to present myself satisfactorily. I succeeded and was booked for ten days just before Christmas.
On my arrival, a man named Dan helped me carry my backpack and provisions into the cabin. He showed me how to work the woodstove and melt snow for water, instructed me on the location of the nearest outhouse, and told me he would be back to check on me half-way through the retreat. Seconds after he left, I started to cry. I had no idea why, but I couldn’t stop. I cried as I unpacked and set up my cushions and kitchen. I cried carrying wood in. And when I finally lit candles and sat down to meditate, I continued crying.
The basic mindfulness instruction involves bringing attention to the breath, over and over, coming back to that as a focal point whenever thoughts and emotions carry you away. But between tears and the torrent of emotional upheaval and storylines running through my head, I couldn’t find my breath, much less return to it repeatedly. All I wanted was to escape.
Our biggest obstacles can sometimes be our biggest allies. In this case, pride came to my rescue. I was unwilling to be known as one who had fled retreat, and so I bargained with myself. The shortest solitary retreat I’d heard of anyone doing was a week. I decided to stick it out alone that long, even if I didn’t feel like I was really meditating.
Snowstorms and moonlight and coyotes kept me company but weren’t much comfort. Still, I persevered. Expecting a visit from Dan on the fifth day, I planned to tell him that I would be leaving early. But he showed up a day late, and so by the time we talked I had already started to pack for departure the next day.
Why? He wanted to know, clearly hoping to convince me to stick it out. Because, I said, I’m a bad meditator. I try to do the technique, but I can’t. Yesterday, I told him, I only remembered to come back to my breath three times in a whole day of sitting. He laughed. Then he said, “Well, look at it this way: three times yesterday, you were actually here!”
Surprising myself, I laughed too. And although I did indeed leave the next day, I didn’t stop practicing meditation. Now that I had met my mind and seen how wild it was, I was determined not to quit until I had tamed it.
So I speak from experience when I tell people there’s no bad meditation. But no matter how many times I say it, people have a hard time believing it. I suspect it’s because, like me heading into my cabin, they have a preconceived idea of what meditation should be like: a way to reduce stress and anxiety, a peaceful and serene state, a blissful sanctuary from the chaos of life. Others think the purpose of meditating is to clear our minds of all thought.
But in this type of meditation, what we’re undertaking is a form of investigation. And as with any investigation, if you start out with an idea about how it should go, you won’t fully see what’s going on. You miss clues if you believe you already have the answer.
Asked to describe her experience of practice, a recent workshop participant said, “It was going great for the first three minutes and then…not so great for the last seven.” When I asked why, she said the chair was uncomfortable; she got fixated on physical sensations and had a hard time coming back to her breath. Reminding her it’s fine to move when uncomfortable, I also said that while the first three minutes were great, the last seven minutes were…also great! They may have even been better. Because we don’t learn so much when everything is easy and smooth; we learn about ourselves from challenges – the hard stuff.
That’s why I congratulated another participant who reported dejectedly that her practice had gone terribly: her thoughts wandered, but even worse, she said she found coming to the surface, for lack of a better word, “a lot of crap,” as well as tears falling. And she’d said to herself, “Shoot! This is supposed to be restful…”
The fact that she used the word “crap” reminded me of something the man I learned meditation from said. It could be paraphrased as “The ground of wakeful presence is fertilized with the manure of experience.” All the shit life hands us actually enriches our experience if we know how to work with our minds.
If we don’t, we try hard to avoid crap. Discursive thinking is one way we distract ourselves from things that would make us cry. But tears are a sign that we’re dipping below the surface and touching something real. We’re allowing ourselves to feel the depths of what it is to be human. Human experience is rich, with many aspects. We tend to seek what makes us feel good and avoid what doesn’t. That strategy keeps us scrambling and doesn’t work in the long run anyway.
Of course, meditation can sometimes be peaceful or quiet, and it’s nice when that happens. But thinking of meditation as the continual act of making friends with yourself invites a different perspective. If you met a friend for lunch and she started crying, you wouldn’t tell her to stop blubbering because this is supposed to be a nice, peaceful lunch. You’d ask what’s wrong. Then, if you were both lucky and open, she might be able to tell you. At the end of the conversation, you probably wouldn’t say lunch had gone badly. On the contrary, you’d likely feel more deeply satisfied than if you had spent the time discussing the latest movies you’d seen.
Being present for all of our lives, even the hard parts, is the greatest benefit mindfulness practice brings. Because, try though you might, you can’t avoid life’s tough stuff. Even if you can temporarily avoid some of life’s obstacles and challenges, you can count on eventually facing some of them, including your own death. The ability to fully inhabit your life even when things are uncomfortable is what mindfulness training is for. It can help you find deep satisfaction in every moment, whether you’re bustling down a busy street or crying alone in a cabin.