I have probably announced, dozens of times, that I want to practice meditation. I started my official announcing of this goal nearly a decade or more ago. Declarations are my first step toward taking action and I even recommend my wishes on others — before I do them myself — in the form of sentences such as these:
“You should try meditating. Have you heard about all the health benefits? Meditation has been shown to really fix everything.”
I want to get everyone on board. It’s hard to embark on things alone.
It’s been going on for so long, that when I have a birthday, a new “how to” book appears from someone in my family and I make it several chapters in before losing whatever initial energy I had felt toward it; effects of a good sitting practice take time to realize. It goes against my nature; I remember the day when walking home from school and my brother explaining the geometric reasoning to cutting corners. We walked across someone’s front lawn at an angle; he was so pleased to show me the shortcut. Why would anyone take the long way home?
Trying to meditate has no such instant gratification. In fact, it is instantly uncomfortable in a foreign way, both in body and mind. If I sit on the floor my lower back aches, my feet fall asleep. Items float in my mind of things I need to get done. I have read about the many different ways to approach meditation. There is a lot of conflicting advice. Some strategies offer guided meditation, others suggest counting. Some suggest restricting thoughts and yet another piece of advice is to just notice them float in and out, to just observe the mind. My stack of books has grown bigger but yet I still struggle to maintain a daily and sustainable practice even after my announcements, even after the passage of so many years.
The public pool that I swam in as a child had a high dive. It was at least ten steep steps to the top. Every winter I would promise myself that during the next upcoming summer I would finally jump off. It would be the same process each summer, the trying to find the nerve to do the thing I promised myself I would. A small group of us, or even just one other friend, would sit on our pool towels and watch, over and over, the other brave kids climb up and jump, dive, or somersault off the diving board in the sky.
Depending on who I was with, I would get different sorts of advice. “Close your eyes as soon as you get up there.” Or, “don’t look down.” Another suggestion was to run and jump off without thinking as soon as I got to the top. The worst thing that we could do, we all knew, was to get up there and lose our nerve and turn around and go back down. That would be the biggest failure of all.
By the summer that I had gotten up the nerve to climb up the steps and walk, alone, across the scratchy, cold plank, my stomach felt like it had broken in two. I felt the twisting of an internal war. I never closed my eyes when I got to the top. I never ran, either. Instead, on the fated summer that I finally jumped, I stood at the end of the board staring into the water for nearly a minute. I looked over at the guard and then back down at the water and then behind me to see who was waiting. It never got easier, after that summer, even when I knew I had done it before. Each time felt new and terrifying, as I crashed into the water and nearly touched the bottom of the deep end. There was the same agonizing pause as I swam to the top to get air amidst the swirling of waves from the impact in the water.
What could be so terrifying about sitting quietly that it reminded me of my yearly childhood challenge, the one that occupied days and days of contemplation? It is something that I don’t understand. But when I hear about the monks who spend entire days and nights sitting, I feel the same sort of uneasy anticipation as I did back then. The anticipation of the uncomfortable makes me want to talk about it more, find inspiration from someone else, read one more book or manual. As if by reading, announcing and planning I will absorb the courage to change a pattern, do something hard, again and again.
There are a lot of meditation supplies that one can buy. I have many of them. I have two different singing bowls of different sizes, a circular meditative cushion, candles, essential oil diffusers, a book of daily Buddhist quotes, incense, CD’s, and of course all the books. But having the equipment will not get me up the ladder. I have also watched people meditate – just like I watched other people jump off the diving board. There was the monk who came to our local community center. Through my squinted eyes I peered at him, even though the instructions were clear – soft eyes downcast, feet on the floor, mouth slightly ajar. When I looked at him, his back was straight, he was still, seemingly at peace. But was he? If only I could just gaze inside his mind.
It’s hard to do something of which progress is hard to measure. Though my mind apparently will gain more matter and my Telomeres will lengthen and I might even live longer, I can’t feel or see any of this. All I feel is the disruption inside, a frantic search for a place to settle. Should I count? Should I adopt a mantra? How long should I go? The world rushes by but yet there I sit. There is no shortcut.
I thought, way back then, that once I finally got to the top and jumped, the next time would be easier, more familiar, more comfortable. That the water would not be so shocking and loud, that the water would not rush into my nose and push my bathing suit awry. But every single time I jumped, it took my breath away.