Sometimes life just surprises you.
Of course, there are unpleasant surprises.
I just took a friend to the hospital this week for an unexpected hernia surgery. The price tag, $6,000, was another surprise. Being unhealthy is a lot more expensive than most people realize.
This is not the kind of surprise I am talking about.
When I was growing up, I didn’t like green beans at all.
Then one summer, on a camping trip, there wasn’t much to eat other than canned green beans and bread we baked over one of those camping reflector ovens where you use the reflected heat and light of an open campfire.
Suddenly, for some unexpected reason, all the canoeing I was doing made me very happy to eat my green beans.
When I first started studying yoga, I could do virtually everything except meditate.
I remember my first yoga teacher, who wasn’t that friendly in the first place, used to pick at me because I was so bad at meditation.
I just wanted to get up from my mat and leave the room.
It seemed like a big waste of time, and the fact that he was so grumpy with me made the situation seem all the more frustrating. If he had only been kinder to me about it, I might have listened to him. He just came off as an arrogant know it all, so I got turned off.
Then, during my second yoga teacher training, one of the other fellow teacher trainees said to me that doing yoga without meditating was like working without getting paid.
I listened to him. I didn’t quite believe him or understand quite what he was saying, but I was listening.
Meanwhile, of course, during all my readings, I learned all about the many benefits of meditation.
Like if you get 1 percent of a population of an area meditating, you lower the crime rate, accident rate and sickness rate for the area. That’s scientific research. It’s called the Maharishi Effect.
So I could see if that I was one of the 1 percent that actually made an effort to meditate, I could be making a contribution on a larger scale. I have always wanted to make a big difference. Here was a very quiet, unheralded way I could contribute to the collective good without drawing attention to myself.
A couple of years ago I made a meditation CD – a loving kindness meditation – because I had a lawyer client who was having trouble sleeping.
She begged me to make a meditation CD.
I was always telling people to meditate, but they didn’t really know how.
So one of my clients at the time owned a sound studio and the two of us worked together, as sort of a community service project because we only actually covered our costs, to create this CD to help other people.
I also went to hear the Dalai Lama speak for an entire day about the benefits of meditation.
It was ridiculously expensive for an event where the audience was crammed in to uncomfortable wooden chairs with less leg room than an airplane.
The Dalai Lama could only be seen on the large video screens. He mumbled and was a surprisingly poor public speaker, even though his books are great and he is clearly adept at the written word. I couldn’t really understand him. It felt like something I needed to check off my list – check! – I heard the Dalai Lama. Now let’s move on.
He had done a research project through Emory University and had proven that loving kindness meditation – the same kind I had made my CD about – was profoundly beneficial in terms of lowering stress hormones and improving a person’s mood.
So between understanding that I could benefit others and then really getting the scientific research about the benefits to me personally, I came around to practicing meditation above and beyond the meditating I was doing in my yoga classes.
Like any human being, I would be more or less consistent, depending on what else was going on in my life.
Then a couple of years ago I met my neighbor Steve Hart, who runs the Monday night meditations at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, www.aszc.org.
The way to Zonolite Road is so meandering and complicated that I would catch a ride with Steve.
I found that meditating in a group is much easier, just like practicing yoga with other people somehow you end up getting a better practice than when you go into it purely on your own (although I currently love my personal yoga practice and go very deep into a meditative state when I am practicing my postures by myself).
Steve says that he has been reading about mirror neurons, and that he believes that when we meditate in a group, that mirror neurons are part of what makes a big difference.
Mirror neurons are neurons that fire when observing the same action performed by another person.
So for example, if I practice yoga with a great yoga teacher, I am more likely to get the poses at a deeper level than I would if I was sitting at home scratching my head over a manual of various postures. My brain cells would fire just watching her get into some complicated pose, and then I would get it myself much more easily and my muscles can match what she is doing.
When we meditate, of course, our eyes are either closed or half closed, so it’s not like we are actually looking at other people and seeing what they are doing.
My theory about the Zen Center (we all have an opinion, so here is mine) is that it sets up an energy field that is so still and so quiet it makes it easier to dive into a very deep state.
When people meditate, we go into alpha and theta brain waves.
Alpha brain waves are between 8 and 12 hertz.
A normal waking state is beta waves, which is above 13 hertz and go as high as 38 hertz.
We go into relaxed alpha and then as we go deeper we go into theta brain waves, which is about 4 to 7 hertz, which is just above the brain waves of deep sleep, 0.5 to 4 hertz.
As I started catching a ride with Steve, I noticed that the next day after meditating I would feel significantly happier.
This is similar to how I became a regular exerciser.
Although we all want to be svelte, toned and look good, what really got me to be very consistent with my exercise was the fact that I noticed how much better I felt – on literally every level – if I exercised daily.
I sleep better. I am happier. I have more energy. I am calmer. I have less stress.
If I feel bad, either mentally or physically, I can get over it in just 1 hour of exercise. I figured that out through years of practice.
So when I started noticing what a huge difference meditating in a group made to me, I discovered – surprise! – I actually love to meditate.
Although I never got it while my grumpy first yoga teacher was hectoring me, I finally got it at the deepest levels so far when I found myself meditating in a group.
Of course, we can all stay home and meditate. I do this sometimes also.
I am just marveling how, at age 53, I have come to love to meditate and am always finding little ways and small places to slide this activity into my life. Like after I practice yoga or qi gong. Or in micro meditations between yoga poses.
I view my knitting and my beading as a form of meditation.
I go into a very deep state while knitting, and somehow I do believe this transcendental state gets manifested into very beautiful works of art, especially recently, with the self fringing ribbon shawls of sari glittery yarn I have been making.
Because I listened to all the people who told me about the benefits of meditation, I am now a regular meditator. Surprise!
Steve talked Monday night about how in the Zen tradition, the meditative state is likened to a twisted tree.
There are mountain trees, ocean trees and sky trees.
Mountain trees are unmoving and still. I am not a mountain tree!
Ocean trees dive deep into life. I think I may be an ocean tree, plumbing my own depths and the depths of others.
Sky trees are transcendent. Maybe I am also a sky tree because I take actual photographs of angels.
Now, because I have been meditating regularly, I can access a bliss state in a very short period of time.
This is very useful.
So many people try so hard in so many ways to make themselves happy.
They drink too much, eat too much, take drugs, spend too much money, what have you.
What if you didn’t have to over extend yourself in any way to be happy?
What if you could just find happiness within yourself for free, anytime anywhere?
This is what meditation does for me at the present time.
With all this said, let it be known that I still don’t think I am a very good meditator. In fact, I would say that officially I think I suck. I think I am like the person in the back of an exercise class sort of doing the moves but not quite, and yet they show up every week doing what they can do, even if they look sort of ridiculous.
I still have too many thoughts. There are days when my too many thoughts really become excessive and I wonder if my mind will ever just stop talking.
But I am encouraged by the Zen philosophy that if you are sitting and meditating, you are already in a state of enlightenment. Even if you are struggling to find the stillness, you are still in that state of enlightenment.
And I am encouraged by Steve’s explanation that if you just let the mind run, like a team of wild horses, eventually it will just let itself run out. Just don’t get too attached. Blah blah, whatever.
You don’t have to reach anywhere, achieve anything. If you are sitting in zazen, you’re already there. And zazen is just sitting. Zazen is the heart of Buddhist practice. Supposedly, if you are just sitting, you are embodying all the steps of the eight-fold path. And all you have to do is sit!
OK, maybe it helps if you have a zafu, and for me it definitely helps to be in my meditation group.
My legs get tired, my feet go to sleep after just 25 minutes. I have to rub my legs and feet when we get up to do the silent walking meditation.
But I find myself feeling so happy.
Surprise! It has taken awhile, but I love to mediate.