the meditation assignment

Okay already. I’m going to write about meditation. The subject gobbles up a lot of my head-space lately, but I haven’t blogged about it for three reasons:

1. Meditating takes time. How does a person teach, meditate, eat, sleep, practice guitar, exercise, cook, revel in her husband and cat, and write blog entries? Whenever I commit to a new practice, something else has gotta give. Lately it’s been the writing.

2. My insights sound painfully trite when I try to rustle up words for them. At best, I create a tinny echo of something someone far wiser already wrote. (Over the years, one of my favorite ways to avoid actually meditating has been to read about meditation. “Zen and the art of reading all the books about Zen,” as Tara Brach calls it.)

books on meditation

3. It’s considered gauche to go on about one’s meditative practice. Buddhist monks and nuns who meditate for hours a day (and exude that enviable combination of earthiness and luminescence) are notorious for saying they’ve accomplished nothing at all.

Tibetan nuns

Fortunately, a single month into a disciplined practice, I can legitimately say I’ve accomplished nothing at all. Here’s the deal: I sit and watch my mind hash and rehash long-ago experiences, imagined scenarios, and to-do lists. When I meditate after dinner I invariably ponder dessert. Even though I’ve given up refined sugar for Lent, the possibilities tickle my imagination. Shall I cut up an apple? Indulge in a lemon coconut bar? I scold myself. I mean, am I legitimately hungry or am I addicted to the idea of dessert? Then I decide I’m being too hard on myself and remember that, after all, I’ve given up sugar and I’m meditating twice a day. I ought to reward myself with a healthy treat! In the midst of the internal dialogue I occasionally remember that I’m meditating. I return to my breath, if only for a moment. Sometimes I drop in longer and begin to sense spaciousness and surrender – I feel alive and aware, connected to God and the ineffability of all things! – naturally, as soon as I start analyzing it, the sensation slips away. So seriously, what’s the verdict on dessert?

mmm . . . apple

Anyone who has attempted a meditation practice can tell you it’s humbling. The truth is, I’ve meditated on and off for years. (Alas, a haphazard meditation practice is akin to occasional healthy eating. Not a bad thing, but not exactly transformative, either.) I finally committed to a regular practice when we received it as a month-long assignment in yoga teacher training. Deep down, I’m still a middle schooler striving for an A+. I need only hear the word “assignment” and, like Pavlov’s dog, my mouth begins to salivate.

assignment!

Naturally, this overachieving ardor surfaces as I sit in meditation. When I’m not pondering dessert, the emails I have to send, or the mysteries of my job search, my mind clutches about for affirmation. What should I be doing right now? it earnestly pleads. I want to be the best mind ever.

I feel compassion for this grasping, needy mind of mine, but I’m ever-so-gradually loosening my identification with it. This is what meditation grants: a burgeoning awareness that our thoughts have no lasting substance. I love the way Shozan Jack Haubner puts it in his uproarious memoir Zen Confidential:

…the longer you sit the less seriously you take yourself. Fear and desire become like two formerly imposing parents who have begun to lose control over their fourteen-year-old. After a while there’s nothing they can tell you that you haven’t already heard. They still boss you around, but their threats are more like nagging, their logic reduced to “because I said so!” 

Zen Confidential

The best moments of my meditation practice occur outside of the actual meditating. A week ago I found myself anxious and hurried, striving to tick two dozen tasks off my to-do list before leaving for yoga training. Generally this state of mind sweeps in like a tornado, and I spend hours spinning from one thing to another. Funny thing about Tornado Hannah: she feels absolutely no satisfaction about what she’s accomplishing, just a bottomless hunger to accomplish more.

Here’s the first bit of magic. I noticed. Here’s the second bit. I stopped.

I put on my sneakers and went to the gym. When I returned, I could discern the truly essential tasks from the ones that could wait. As you might imagine, that shift in perspective did wonders for the rest of my day.

sneakers

Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor Frankl's classic

Once or twice a day, I find one of the spaces Frankl referred to. I catch myself obsessing over my job search and decide I’d rather trust. In the car, I notice my mind racing ahead to what I’ll do when I get home. I unhand my plans and drink in the blossoming red bud trees instead.

red bud trees

Naturally, my habitual thought patterns rush back in moments after I’ve put them aside, but no matter. When it comes to the life of the mind, a moment of stillness is like a jewel. Would you cast a diamond aside because it’s small?

I’ll take incremental progress. I’ll take the occasional pause. And you know what? I’ll take dessert, too.