(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey. That’s Bert at left, meditating. Or napping. Not sure which.
At Steve’s urging, today I resumed meditating. I had stopped for a few weeks.
I stopped because I hate it.
Well, hate may be too strong. But I’ve gotten damn good at avoiding it.
I practice (when Steve can nag me into it) my own version of zazen, the Zen form of meditation. I’m self-taught. I bought myself a navy blue zafu and cushion online and read lots of books about it.
From Albert Low I learned how to point my head towards the ceiling and follow my breath instead of leading it. From Joko Beck I learned to label thoughts when they come up (eg, thinking how much I hate meditating), which lets me to detach from my own thinking and go back to breath-following.
Another writer (can’t remember who) taught me to half-close my eyes and defocus my vision so I retain some connection to the outside world. And I think it was Philip Kapleau who taught me to keep a half-smile on my face, as a sort of secret reminder that the scary noise in my head is not to be taken too seriously.
Why do I hate all this? One reason, really.
The discomfort takes three forms:
Discipline. Discipline means making a plan and following it even when you don’t want to. But I want to do what I want to do, and nothing else. (So there.) Anything else makes me feel, well, whiney inside. It feels like being bossed around, chewed on by Top Dog, or like giving up my freedom. I keep forgetting that freedom and discipline have a yin/yang relationship, and that I can’t have the first without the second.
Monkey mind. Meditation forces me to sit and listen to my own internal chatter. As Eric Maisel says, “It’s real bedlam in there.” It’s no fun sitting and watching my thoughts gallop away with my sense of security. No fun facing my inability to control my own mind. No fun abstaining for twenty minutes from work, tv, books, music, food, conversation, or any other everyday narcotic.
Discomfort itself. The ability to avoid both mental and physical discomfort feels like a perk of adulthood. Hey, I like comfort. I like numbness. Why leave it voluntarily? Asking myself to do so feels somehow…unfair.
So why, despite the above, do I keep dragging myself back to the zafu?
I have five reasons.
(1) It makes me feel grown up. You know, like you feel when you do something you don’t want to, just because it’s the right thing. Like going to the dentist, or walking the dog in the rain, or voting.
(2) It calms me. The first ten minutes of any practice session feels like mental roller derby. But (on a good day) in the second ten minutes my shoulders drop, my breath slows, and a small space opens in the center of my mind where there are no thoughts, no feelings, just quiet.
(3) It reduces static. By static I mean that level of unconscious tension or stress that plays in my head like endless background music. After a week of meditating that music starts to quiet down. I find myself sleeping better, less annoyed by commercials, more able to notice things like birds and sunshine.
(4) It helps me practice detachment. Zazen forces me to stop all forms of doing — including trying to control life by obsessing about it — and, for twenty minutes, just be. Among other things, this leads to not taking thoughts too seriously. Instead of worrying No one will like that post I just published I can step back and say “Oh, look. A projection.” Or in bed at night I can tell monkey mind Oh, shut up, start counting breaths, and fall asleep despite not having solved all my problems.
(5) It’s the best alternative to monkey mind. The only alternative, really, to letting monkey-mind dictate my feelings, warp my perceptions, and run my life.
If you’re new to all this and want to taste the experience, try this guided meditation for beginners narrated by Jack Kornfield. Kornfield wrote A Path with Heart, many other books, and also my single favorite line about spiritual life:
Much of spiritual life is self-acceptance, maybe all of it.