Throughout my adult lifetime, myriad teachers, therapists, and friends have agreed upon the same prescription for me: Explore the contemplative disciplines! Learn to meditate. Practice silence. Look within. Find a yoga class. Namaste! OHMMMMMMMmm …
And, for decades, my response has been the same: “That feels right. I think contemplative disciplines would be good for me.”
And then I proceed not to undertake them.
Until now. Merely on the whim of a friend’s suggestion timed neatly on a Sunday afternoon devoid of Green Bay Packer football, I go to a meditation class. Like, whatever. A few weeks earlier, I tried my hand at raku pottery, too. Whimsically random appears to suit me at mid-Life.
Meditation, for this western civilization wayfarer, is the perfect marriage of ridiculously simple and ridiculously difficult. Simple? Yes. Sit there. Close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deliberately, and notice that you’re breathing. Voila! You’re meditating!
And, oh yeah, don’t think about anything. In fact, don’t think at all.
That’s the hard part. The impossible part. Don’t think. Don’t feel. Clear your mind. Empty yourself. Blank slate.
The instructor rings the bell, sending me and my classmates into 30 minutes of meditation.
My eyes are closed. My feet are on the ground. My hands in my lap. Spine straight. I clear my mind. I’m breathing, slowly and deliberately. I’m noticing that I’m breathing. I imagine I can see into my lungs, see my diaphragm like the bellows of a church organ, pumping up and down even as my grandmother’s feet would push the pedals of her pump organ as she played. I remember how she –
The instructor’s cooing voice calls me back to empty mind and breathing. Great. 11 seconds into my first mediation class, and teacher has caught me breaking the rules. A smile comes to my face. Then a constrained giggle. George Carlin’s face pops unbidden into my mind.
Oh, what a wonderful place for my inner Class Clown! I could –Stop it, Kalas! Grow up! You can do this! Eyes closed. Feet, hands, spine, etc. Mind clear. Breathe. Focus on breath. All righty. Yes. You’re doing it. Ssshhh …
Does time go faster or slower when you’re meditating?
Quiet! Don’t interrupt my meditation.
Did you notice the glass door into this room is poorly fitted in the jam? That’s why it makes such a loud noise when people enter and exit.
I don’t want to talk about the door. I’m mediating.
Okay, I’ll wait ‘til you’re done meditating.
You’re staring at me!
No. I’m not! But since you’re asking, did you notice the little gold Buddha statue up front? I wonder if the instructor is Buddhist?
I’m ignoring you.
This is just like being put in a Time Out when you were little. Remember how you – %$#@!!!! The instructor chants about how I’m not supposed to judge myself when I notice I’ve stopped noticing my breathing. She intones as if an enchantress how I should quietly notice my interrupting thoughts, relinquish the thoughts, and resume noticing my breathing.
Got it. No judgment.
Which is when four people stagger in late. Oh, not together. Nope. Each of the tardies realize a separate opportunity to make the derelict glass door go WHOOMBANG. Then two of them decide that their stage whispers probably won’t bother us too much as they compare notes on where there might be more chairs. Oh! In this closet! A pair of leather sandals screams and creaks multiple times across the carpet, pretty much exposing the wearer’s pretense of deft, subtle and unassuming.
Having suspended my judgments against myself, I found myself judging the snot out of these latecomers.
These people are the worst Shaolin priests ever!
Okay, gotta give you that one. That’s pretty funny. But I’m meditating!
And so it went.
I’m telling you, there is no more difficult task you can set before me than to turn off my mind. To quiet my mind. But I keep trying. Breathing, breathing, breathing – pay attention to your breathing …
I stop arguing with my thoughts. Instead I observe them … then turn away from them. Back to breathing.
The bell final rings. 30 minutes of mental discipline. Whew!
Afterwards, I think of Ghandi’s quote: “I am the most ambitious person in the world! My ambition is to reduce myself to zero!”
I know, deep inside where I just know things, that my aversion to meditation is about my fear of insignificance. My fear of having no weight or consequence. My fear of being zero.
My fear of not being.
I think meditation is like practicing dying.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at email@example.com. StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)