Sunday, April 18, 2010: Why meditate?
When people learn that I mediate every day, I am frequently asked questions about my practice. I am usually asked how long I meditate for, and what style of meditation I do; and sometimes I am asked, “Umm… but why? Why do you meditate?” To some people, meditation seems so…boring. And pointless. Almost wasteful. I mean, sit still with your eyes closed – and then what? What are you supposed to do? Just sit there? Just. Sit? Really?? What’s the point? Aren’t you too busy to spend a full 20-30 minutes in your day doing nothing? Don’t you have better things to do with that time?
In response to these questions, I usually say that meditation is best understood by actually experiencing it, by doing it, rather than thinking about it or discussing it. To offer encouragement, I share examples of some of the benefits I have received from meditation: clarity, acceptance, contentment, peace, compassion. But often, I feel like the other person leaves the conversation wanting something different, something more; some really compelling explanation as to why they should try meditation.
Yesterday, I heard a teacher offer one of the best analogies of meditation I have encountered; so to all of the people who ask, “But why?”, I offer this illustration.*
“Imagine you are in a room with a huge, state of the art television. It has the latest-and-greatest everything: flat screen, plasma, high-definition, surround sound, 54”, the works. Everything you could possibly want from the very best TV, this one has. And you love it. You sit in a big, comfy, overstuffed recliner, and surf from channel to channel to channel, completely entertained. And when you get bored with one channel, you just click to the next one – and you watch, and you click, and you surf, and you think you are really happy with your TV.
Then one day the electricity goes out. As you get up off the recliner to investigate the problem, you notice that the room you are in has a door. Since the TV is out, you decide to go ahead and open the door and see what’s going on there. You discover that the door opens to the outside world – so you decide to step outside. As you take a few steps outside, you see the sun that you know so well from your TV viewing experience; only now, you not only see the sun, but you actually feel the warmth of it on your skin – something you simply couldn’t experience by watching your TV. You take a few more steps, and you encounter a beehive. You remember seeing on TV that some people put the goop from a beehive into their mouths, and they seem to like it – but you could never understand why, it looked kind of gross. But you are curious, so you take advantage of this opportunity, and you taste some honey – again, something you couldn’t do in your TV room. You keep walking, and you see a person mowing their yard – and a strange, fresh smell enters your nose; you realize that the grass being cut smells like something different from the scents that were in your TV room. You saw grass, and honey, and the sun all on your TV, but you never had the experience of actually smelling the grass, of tasting the honey, of feeling the sun; in fact, you weren’t even aware of what you were missing until you got to experience these things for yourself.
Life as most people know it is like living in the two-dimensional world of the TV room. Beginning meditation is like opening the door to the outside; and living a life mindfully is like living in the three-dimensional world with the sun, and the honey, and the grass. But each person has to experience the 3-D world for him/herself; as much as people may try to explain what a warm sun feels like, what honey tastes like, what cut grass smells like, a person can only really understand these things by fully experiencing them. This is the gift of meditation.”
So. To the people in my life who wonder why I “like” meditation; and to anyone who may be curious about what meditation has to offer, I hope this example helps. If you have experiences with meditation you would like to share, or other analogies that resonate with you, I’d love to hear them – feel free to comment below!
Saturday, April 3, 2010: Unexpected meditation
I’ve not been sleeping very well for the past few weeks. My husband and I have a dog who is nearly 14 years old – and who is beginning to show signs of senility. As a result, our puppy will frequently become very frightened without provocation; she literally will be lying down in the room with me, gently dozing or just hanging out, and seconds later will stand up and start panting and shaking uncontrollably, doing whatever she can to get as physically close to me as possible. Sometimes these “episodes” last for a few seconds, sometimes they linger for 5-15 minutes, and occasionally they last for several hours.
Last week our dog became fearful around 1:30 am, and spent the next two hours panting, pacing the bedroom, shaking, and doing her best to physically climb into the bed. My husband and I tried everything we could think of to console our poor pup, from petting her and talking to her gently, to turning on the radio and the hallway light, to ignoring her hoping if we “lost interest” in the behavior then she would, too; but nothing worked. She finally fell asleep around 4 am from pure exhaustion.
Suffice to say, I didn’t get much quality sleep that night. And I’m a gal who gets pretty cranky when she is sleep-deprived. So as 1:30 am turned to 2 am, to 3 am, I was forced to face a situation I didn’t like. What to do?
After I did what I could to try and change the situation by attempting (and failing) to help our pet, I realized that this situation (i.e., the “disturbance” of our dog) was not going to change. At that point, I had a few different options.
- I could worry: about how tired I might feel in the morning, how exhausted I might be at work later in the day, how I might get a headache because of the lack of sleep, etc.
- I could get angry: curse our dog for getting old, get mad at myself that I was so stupid I couldn’t figure out how to make things better for her, resent the vet for not “fixing” our pet, etc.
- I could be fearful: about the harm being done to our dog (physically and psychologically), that the situation would repeat itself and I would never have peace in my home again, etc.
- I could try avoidance: clamp a pillow over my head and try to shut everything out; lock the dog out of the room; make my husband deal with the pup and let me sleep in peace; etc.
And so on.
Much to my surprise, I found myself meditating. The type of meditation I practice is all about noting what is going on in the present moment, and then simply accepting it exactly as it is. No fixing, no changing, no reacting – simply notice, and accept. Notice, and accept. Notice, and accept. Without even “choosing” to meditate, at 2 am I found myself breathing calmly, saying to myself, “Hmm, the puppy is really shaking. But I’ve done what I can, so just breathe. But man, I’m going to be so tired tomorrow! But tomorrow isn’t here yet, so just relax and breathe. But when will this dog stop already? I suppose she will stop whenever she stops; clearly I can’t make her stop, so just breathe. But the vet should be able to fix this! But the vet is asleep right now, so just let go and breathe. But what if the dog behaves like this again tomorrow night? I’ll never have another full night of sleep in my life! But this is tonight, not tomorrow night, so just come back to now and breathe. But this dog is driving me insane! But she’s not doing any of this to be annoying, she’s just old and scared, so have compassion and just breathe.” And on, and on; having thoughts (because the mind always thinks), but letting go of those thoughts as best I could, and returning to the present moment of my breath, over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.
Interestingly, I didn’t consciously choose to do any of this. After six months of daily meditation practice, apparently my mind is slowly integrating the habits I am forming “on the cushion” into other areas of my every day life. It was only after several minutes in bed, releasing thoughts and breathing, that I noticed, “Hey, I’m meditating! How cool is that?!”
If you have any experience with “unexpected meditation”, or dogs who are fearful, or older dogs, or just want to say “hello” and/or offer encouragement, feel free to leave a comment. : )