Earlier this year I made a big declaration about how this was going to be my year of pilgrimage. I envisioned myself going to all these different houses of worship—mosques and tabernacles and gospel Baptist churches where the choir claps and sways and sweats. But other than visiting a Hindu temple on New Year’s Day, it hasn’t been like that.
The thing about journeys is that they surprise me. I think I know where I’m going, but if I follow the map too closely, I’m usually bored. In this case, there was probably never any map anyway. This kind of journey can’t be described or predicted; it has to be followed the way rain drips from leaves and flows down trunks, seeping between roots and stones. The passages to underground rivers are narrow, known only to worms and jinn.
In other words, the journey has been inward. There has been less to write about because there have been fewer words.
For about eight months now, I’ve been experimenting with meditation. I have no idea what I’m doing. Meditation is one of those things that has always been for other people. Patchouli-toothpaste white people with rustic-but-pricey cedar furniture and mandala wall hangings. People who “study” Japanese cooking. People with gurus and lots of time on their hands. People who gesture casually to framed snapshots of themselves with the Dalai Lama.
In other words, not people like me. I have a sushi mat (somewhere) and sometimes think about getting one of those mandala coloring books (but never do). I live on frozen pizza and keep telling myself that one day I’ll get up early enough to do the Tai Chi video I’ve had checked out from the library for three weeks.
But let’s get back to meditation.
I initially started doing it to support my husband, who was beginning to use meditation to help with anxiety and cyclical thinking. I found that I kind of liked it. On days when we weren’t able to meditate together, I tried to maintain some kind of practice, even if it was only for fifteen minutes.
I’ll be honest. A lot of the time I was just sitting there thinking about my grocery list (more frozen pizza), which is the opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing.
Fortunately, I’ve reached a place in my life where being good at something isn’t especially important. Maybe it’s just getting older and giving less of a shit about impressing people. Whatever the reason, I can now quite happily do things I rather suck at. This has served me well in my journey with meditation.
But along the way, something wonderful started to happen. I started meditating for real.
By which I mean that, little by little, I made space inside myself. Or became a space? It was sort of like clearing out a garage, but I guess it’s different for everyone. Friends who meditate talk about listening to their bodies, tuning into what their cells are doing. Others use mantras. I guess I’m not that advanced. What’s most useful to me is to find a mental image—a blade of river grass, say, or a pavilion on a hill—and to “become” that image.
If that makes any sense.
For me, sound helps. I like to sit outside when I meditate. When I do, I hear birds singing and children playing, my wind chimes and the wind itself. I hear the cries of the rogue peacock who lives in the cemetery behind my house, mixed with the moans of nearby freight trains. I like to let these sounds blow through me, as though I were a structure without walls.
When this happens, sometimes for blessed whole minutes at a time, I stop thinking thoughts with words in them. And then I stop thinking thoughts. Which is hard for anyone but especially challenging for a writer. (The inside of my head is like one long .doc file.)
Of course, I’m probably doing it all wrong.
Even so, I’ve noticed more space inside myself. An opening up. I feel less inclined to judge or condemn, less bound by the binary systems in which we operate (e.g. Democrat and Republican, male and female, right and wrong, good and evil). There is more room inside of me, for everything. There is more possibility. Things don’t make me as mad, or as scared. But that’s all very cerebral and abstract and hard to articulate. It’s hard to write about, and Thich Naht Hanh does it better anyway.
More immediately: One of the best things that I’ve noticed is that, all of a sudden, everything is more beautiful.
I used to have to use certain substances to make the world glow the way it does now. To have that heart-piercing clarity. You know when you’re outside and the sun is falling through leaves like stained glass? And it kind of hurts because it’s so pretty? And the sky is an impossible shade of blue. And the breeze moves so tenderly over the grass, making ripples in the lawn behind the library as though it were a great, green pond? And the inside of an iris is fringed and striped and perfect, a tiny amethyst cathedral more lovely than anything any man could have imagined? And all of it, all of it, is actually God—God everywhere, quietly all the time, perfect and available.
That’s how I’m seeing things lately. I don’t know what it has to do with meditation, but there seems to be some connection.
Aside from all that, I think it makes me a better person. Or I hope it does. By which I mean, I hope I am kinder. I hope I am more forgiving. I hope I regret less and accept more.
Frozen pizza and all.