(Expanded from a shorter Facebook post.)
Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
~ Patanjali’s yoga sutra 1.2.
“Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.”
~ “Sounds of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel
So, I’m taking not one but two meditation courses. Finding inner peace is hard work, ya’ll. One is a free online 21-day deal with Deepak Chopra. The other is a four-week meditation “snack” course at a studio near me in Clayton, N.C. The courses are quite different, and not just because one is online and the other “live.”
Deepak’s course ~ I like to call him Deepak, because I like saying “Deepak,” even quietly, to myself ~ has a specific theme each day, with an accompanying Sanskrit mantra. A link to the day’s lesson is delivered via e-mail, and I have been listening to them right after I get up in the morning ~ after drinking my gut-cleansing ayurvedic warm lemon water, which is probably stripping the enamel off what few natural teeth I have left in my head, but before my cuppa PG Tips, which is probably stripping the lining of my stomach. Once seated, either cross-legged or on my heels, I’m usually interrupted by the need to pee. Or a cat casually saunters up and rubs or claws a knee. Purring or snoring ensues. So many obstacles on the road to sitting still! In silence!
Each lesson takes about 15 minutes. Deepak’s voice is lovely, and how appropriate to be guided to yogic bliss by an Indian voice! Cliches are useful, ya’ll. I could listen to him read the phone book ~ not that they exist anymore. Ironic to be guided to relax through digital media, a form that has enhanced modern life yet killed so many industries and livelihoods. Bitter much? But I digress. See why I need more centering?
I try to carry Deepak’s daily mantra with me off my blanket and out of my office and into the world ~ heck, even down to the kitchen ~ but by noon each day, I’ve usually forgotten what sort of prayer or abundance-manifesting mantra I’m supposed to be reminding myself of all day. The idea that meditation is yet one more thing to add to my To-Do list makes me want to scream, and that is pretty much the opposite of silence. That I find the need to make relaxation a task is a sign that something is way off-track, no? When I feel so scattered, I get flashes of images from the 1982 documentary “Koyaanisqatsi” (“Life Out of Balance”). It’s a dialogue-free pastiche of images that show progress as entropy and self-destruction and vice versa, not unlike “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a sort of satire of National Geographic and its ilk. (“Does the noise in my head bother you?”)
The studio meditation course is very sweet, offering guided visualizations and breathing techniques, some of which involve subtle movements. It comes from the tradition of Purna Yoga, a Washington state-based school created by Aadil and Savitri Palkhivala. This course is less verbal than Deepak’s and tunes into more of a heart channel than a brain channel. It’s also different simply because it’s not practiced in solitude. It’s nice to be in a warm, cozy room with other folks who share the desire to relax into their true self, whatever that is. Honestly, I think we all just want to shed what’s not serving us and find what does serve us so that we can more fully serve others. It’s that simple. And yet so difficult.
The Purna Yoga course offers some simple techniques ~ “snacks” ~ that you can use any time you feel the need to gather yourself, depending on your immediate location and comfort level with exhibitionism. One trick is to simply put your middle finger on your sternum, the heart center (although the heart is to the left of center, which is how I lean anyway), and breathe. Another snack is a centering breath in which you:
Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Place your cupped hands by your ears with the fingers sealed together and pointing straight up to the ceiling. Hands are close to but not touching the head. Inhale there. As you exhale, draw the hands together in front of the face, as if closing a curtain, ending in prayer position in front of the third eye, with the palms sealed. Inhale there. Exhale as you draw your sealed prayer hands down to the heart center. Repeat a few times. The idea is to gather your thoughts and draw them down from the monkey mind to your true self.
But quieting the monkey mind is hard, ya’ll.
During a recent week of strange occurrences, I tried to draw on both courses to center and ground myself and open my heart space and be more mindful and grateful and compassionate and yadda yadda. But I don’t think I tried hard enough. Fair warning: Wildlife and common sense do not fare well in this tale, as I:
1) Ran over a squirrel on the way to a yoga class. He zigged, I zagged. And I wasn’t even looking at my phone! Thunk. RIP. After class, he was still there, in the road, flattened.
2) Accidentally voted for a few people of the “wrong” party. But they were judges, so who cares. Outside the polling place, I’d been handed a voters guide for the “wrong” party and crumpled it up, not thinking to use it as a how-to guide for whom not to vote. Maybe I hadn’t had enough caffeine. Oh well. Perhaps a better use of my citizenship would have been to not vote at all …
3) Ditched a yoga class (as a student, not teacher) after getting thwarted by backed-up traffic at not one but two interstate exits. Colorful, non-yogic language ensued. I thought I’d left that nonsense behind in Washington, D.C. Heart-centering breaths didn’t cut it.
4) Took a break from a long walk around the lake near my house to lie on a picnic table to rest my back and enjoy the stillness and silence, which was pleasantly peppered by crickets. Or grasshoppers. Do grasshoppers chirp? Whatever. Once I felt revived, or was no longer able to lie still, I sat up and opened my eyes to see a huge granddaddy longlegs crawling up my right arm. I squealed and squashed the poor creature in my frenzied attempt to brush it off my arm. Spider guts were mashed into my white T-shirt. Blarf. RIP. You can Google granddaddy longlegs, but for the uninitiated, they are really barely spiders ~ they have tiny oval bodies and the longest, skinniest legs ever. They’re practically pets, they’re so harmless.
5) Watched my car keys slide off the top of an apparently slanted tank and into a toilet full of yellow water — not mine — at a Chinese restaurant. Probably karma’s way of telling me that I should have made a better choice than pork fried rice. I fished the keys out, bare-handed, grateful that whatever was in the water dulled the smell of the gasoline that I’d sprayed on my hand at the pump a few minutes earlier. My husband was just worried that the remote lock on the keychain wouldn’t work. It still does.
6) Locked our gimpy arthritic cat in the garage for … a good while. She loves to hunt and explore dead leaves and whatever else is out there. She didn’t meow at all (unlike our other cat) and, once rescued, didn’t seem to hold it against me. I tried to make it up to her with cuddles, but she just looked confused.
7) Earned myself a bonus visit to the chiropractor after mentioning the words “ice pick” in ways that apparently scared him. I’ve been on once-monthly “maintenance” visits for a while, but he scheduled me for a follow-up two business days later.
And so I went “back to the loving place,” as Ellen Degeneres says.
There are so many simple tools with which to try to disengage from life’s silliness, to get off that useless and exhausting mental hamster wheel, to shed unhelpful patterns and life’s pointless annoyances ~ never mind learning how to cope with the irritations and traumas that really matter. What I’m finding is that it will take practice ~ surprise! actually doing instead of thinking and writing about doing ~ to become familiar with the tools such that I reach for them as naturally as I now reach for my habits to fly off the handle or get needlessly upset at stuff I can’t control and stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with me.
During my yoga teacher training, I found meditation to be the most elusive subject. Asana, ok, got it. Take your right hip back, left hip forward. Philosophy? Sort of got that. Patanjali and his sutras, ok, I have a filing cabinet in my mind where I can put that and come back to it. Anatomy? I’m not a scientist, but I’ve at least heard of the rotator cuff. I can now maybe name its four muscles, but I can’t tell you what they do. But meditation? I kept waiting to learn how to do it successfully. Give me an assignment, I’ll do it. Give me structure, I can try to follow it. But maybe I’m asking too much. One of our teachers finally just said: Meditation can’t be taught. Ok, then! Bye! Yet it makes sense. It’s such a personal practice. But there are so many techniques, how do you choose? I know folks who swear by Transcendental Meditation, but I don’t feel like shelling out yet more dough to try to solve the same mysteries over and over again. Shouldn’t inner peace be priceless?
What it probably comes down to is just to sit. No agenda, no map, no words. Sit and breathe. Just like I tell my students. We teach what we most need to learn, no? Notice what you notice, and let it go. Oh, and zazen. Isn’t that just sitting? How hard could that be? I should Google that. Maybe I’ll try to find an ashram or a Buddhist meditation group. Maybe I’ll add that to my To-Do list.
Better yet: to an Un-Do list.