Meditation has something to offer I decided after a workshop on meditation surprised me with a gift of extra energy, the kind protein bars promise but don't deliver. I talked about this in my second post for this series, you can go back and read it if you'd like. But one year passed, then another. I was busy raising children and earning a living. Also, I was wary.
Once upon a time, in the last century there was Meheer Baba with his droopy comedian's mustaches, Trungpa Rinpoche and other rinpoches, Maharishi of TM and Beatles fame, the very bald and clean-shaven Prabupad of Krishna Consciousness - a small group of South Asian men making a lot of converts to whatever they believed. And whatever that was, it did not appear to make anyone I knew who joined them any wiser or happier. This is a short version of a longer story, but you get the idea.
By the 2000s, when I next paid attention, the only meditation guides that interested me were those who didn't make large promises. Herbert Benson's The Relaxation Response and Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Both still classics in the field; both about every day people - truck drivers and college teachers - - practicing meditation to ease physical problems. In Benson's case hypertension and heart disease, in Kabat-Zinn's first programs chronic pain. Lawrence LeShan's classic How To Meditate with its no-frills white cover and no-frills account of the similarities in many meditative traditions also met this criteria.
LeShan's point: You can chant, focus on sound, a candle, breath, count breaths, don't count breaths, it's all the same, just choose one and try it. So, from time to time, for a few mornings in a row I would sit on the floor cross-legged for twenty minutes to follow my breath - my mind would wander here and there - mostly planning the rest of the day, sometimes reviewing things I had done wrong the day before, this latter was a particular personal favorite.
A week or two would pass and a family demand would intervene and that was the end of trying. Yet a few months later I would again be setting aside some early morning time and getting out my cushion. I wasn't quick but I was persistent.
The old gurus' grandiose promises of enlightenment and my attempts to meditate became part of family repartee. Of a morning, as I rose from the cushion and entered the kitchen, my husband would ask me, "Are you there yet?"
"Almost," I would reply. "Just about. Only one more day."
And we would both laugh. We never tired of this joke.
Finally I found a beginners workshop at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center which required a light commitment - one Saturday in June, ten to four - and the leader was a woman, which I considered a definite plus, with an regular name Maddy Klyne. This was something I could do.
Maddy Klyne turned out to be fortyish, with a nicely husky Long Island accent. She told a funny stories about teaching her parents to meditate. She joked about the sitting statue of Buddha on the dais. "He's made of bronze, that's why he can sit so long in that position."
Her clothes were a soft black skirt and jacket, a little formal but not exotic, no sari, no robe. She didn't talk about an end to suffering, she said, in effect and genially, " This can be helpful to people. Come and see." The room had chairs for those with bad backs as well as cushions and mats. We introduced ourselves and said why we had come, then Maddy spoke and answered questions. We did a sitting meditation watching our breath, which I couldn't do - I couldn't find my breath - but I tried, then Maddy spoke and answered questions again, then we did a walking meditation, more questions, more sitting then walking. Lunch was vegetarian and silent. We were supposed to be concentrate on tasting our food. The afternoon format mirrored the morning.
I was fine through the lunch hour. Fine meaning interested and occasionally focused. I would have been happy to stop there. But the workshop lasted until four. For the final three hours, whether sitting or walking, I was mainly engaged in restless complaining to myself: Enough already, I'm done, let me outta here.
But then, when we were released into the late afternoon of a summer day, I had the same surprising rush of energy and lightness that I had had at that first workshop several years before. I walked the ten blocks to Harvard Square full of bounce and lightness of heart and met a friend for an early dinner. If the scientific method is based on reliable instruments and valid conclusions, I had achieved, for myself, some of both: Michele meditates, half the time she doesn't like doing it; liking doesn't seem to matter, something good and surprising comes later. If I were my own qualitative research study I would I had found the instrument - meditation - reliable, because when repeated, in somewhat similar circumstances, it produced the same results, valid because it produced something of the promised good.
I learned one other important cluster of concepts that day - a basic understanding, without which I probably would not have gone much further. This was as follows:
1. The human mind never stops chattering so meditation is not about clearing or emptying the mind - which can't be done but can be noticed.
2. Meditation is, in part, about being aware of the chatter and then a thousand thousand times coming back to focus point - the breath or something else.
3. The point is the journey back to the focus point. The point, as we often say at Goddard, is (in part) the process.