illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
A Meditative Journey
My recollection of when I began to meditate ‘properly’ was in 1995. I as working as an architectural assistant in Berlin and suffering from terrible migraines, which had plagued me since my mid-teens. My GP in London had simply told me that I was stressed. She prescribed me Nurofen tablets, which, as I got older and the migraines got progressively worse, became stronger medication. So one day, out of desperation, I sat cross-legged on a cushion in my Berlin flat, set my alarm for 30 minutes and tried to empty my mind.
The results were immediate. Within days, the migraines disappeared. Not long after, I had an ‘out of body’ experience. As I sat with my eyes closed, I felt a sense of my ‘self’ lift away and rise upwards. It was not part of my body and had no physical form, just an expanse of light and energy that seemed to radiate across and encompass my whole perception. At the time, I remember being inspired by one of Richard Bach's novels (he of ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ fame), where he described a similar experience of his spirit travelling away from his body during the night while he slept. I thought I was enlightened!
I continued to meditate daily and with the sole purpose of re-creating this featherweight out of body experience. Until I noticed that, while I felt calm and happy during my meditation, I still felt depressed and angry throughout the rest of the day. This couldn't possibly be enlightenment.
A year or so later, I started to follow a different instruction, where I focused on my breath and followed my diaphragm going down and up with the in-breath and out-breath. It was then I began to ‘see’ my thoughts; the endless, and usually negative, conversations I was having in my mind with myself, my family members, my friends, my boss, etc. To focus on two or three breaths continuously without going off into another conversation felt like a miracle and it didn't yet occur to me that all these conversations were going on without anyone else being in the room.
However, I kept with the practise for several years and was slowly able to take a distance from my thoughts. I realised that I (and my mind) was the person making up all these conversations I was putting so much energy into. They had never actually happened. Even my analysis of past interactions with people would be embellished with an added tone of indignation, or justification, to suit my perspective. Once I got through the shock of how much effort and time I was wasting being in my head, I also realised, most importantly, that I needed to have a sense of humour about the fact that I talked to myself all the time! Otherwise, I would simply think I'd gone crazy.
Over the years I kept at daily meditation and got better at ‘catching’ myself when I went off into an imaginary conversation, and subsequently brought my attention back to my breathing more often. I went through periods of following alternative instructions, including sitting with my eyes open, counting my breaths, and listening to the sounds around me. I watched my thoughts as they came and went, allowing them to pass without getting seduced by their emotive pull, or thinking that if I was having destructive, negative thoughts, it meant I was a destructive person. The illusion of wishing for ‘enlightenment,’ the perfect ideal of what I thought a human being should be, was not ‘it.’ It was the physical action of putting my bottom on the cushion every day and sitting. And that was it! To sit and be with whatever I found.
And many, many years later, when I observed that my habitual negative thought patterns had changed and I felt less judgemental about my life and the people I knew, I got to the stage of really looking forward to meditating. I not only enjoyed the discipline of sitting every day, but felt a huge satisfaction from its consequences, the other aspects of my life that were slowly changing for the better. And that was when I started to fall asleep. No matter what time of the day I chose, how tired or awake I felt, as soon as I began to meditate, I immediately fell asleep. Being in a constant state of jolting myself awake just as I was about to fall over was not satisfying at all!
Twenty years have passed since I was in Berlin. And the challenge continues. Because the amount of time in years that I have been meditating is not the point. Today, my meditation practise is about paying attention to the daily actions of my life; peeling and cutting fruit for breakfast, brushing my teeth, having a shower, putting on make-up, listening to my clients with my whole mind and body, and so on. Unresolved situations are always a part of life, in tandem with the dilemma of choosing what is right and wrong, and the game is still to ‘catch’ myself when I go off into my thoughts instead of paying attention to the present. ‘Now’ is the only time I can trust the insights I have about what needs to be done next.
Meditation is a practise, not a destination. The point is to sit and be here and now! Simply that.
[ If you're interested in learning about meditation, please see the ‘meditation series’ at www.koan.mu/meditation.htm ]
photo © Anthony Pugh