Screaming Knees, Epiphanies, and…HOW MUCH LONGER?!
A 60-minute meditation. Fuck. A lesson in Einsteinian relativity. When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit in meditation for a minute you think it’s two hours. Now imagine 60 minutes. But when a monk commands you to meditate, you do.
I’m not new to meditation. I’ve done it countless times. I pride myself on some of my meditation spots — mountain tops, beaches, the slightly chilled waiting lounges of international airports. But I’ve never broken 25 minutes. And I remember vividly how badly each of those minutes hurt. I also usually sit in a chair. I’m kind of a fair-weather meditator honestly. I’m part of the “Concentrating my mind is hard enough, why make it harder by crisscrossing?” Club. But nonetheless, there will be no chairs this time. I sit. On the hard floor. Back straight. Legs crossed. I know already those stress points that will be my painful companions for the next 60 minutes.
I begin. Focus on the breath. Cold air on the in, warm air on the out. My mind ping pongs. My to-do list for the next three days cascades through my thoughts. Profound epiphanies flash before me, begging to be remembered. Every email that sits unread in my inbox leaps out before me. I spend four of the first five minutes lost in thought. But as the clock ticks five, my mind relaxes…slightly. Like a puppy tied to a pole, running circles, leaping — the rope gets shorter and shorter.
My mind begins to concentrate, like an image sharpening with each turn of the focus. Like a muscle stretched long after a night’s sleep. In. Out. Cold in. Warm out. Breath by breath, my breathing builds slowly in my consciousness.
And then, it’s gone — the moment of clarity shattered by the screams of my ACL-repaired knee. “MOVE ME!” it shrieks, fierce desperation in its voice, panic. It speaks up at what I think is the 20-minute mark. 40 more to go. At least I hope. God, I hope I haven’t been meditating for only 10 minutes. My knee shifts its tone, bargaining for a moment of extension. Just straighten me, it whispers. For just two seconds, it’ll feel soooo good. The more I wish for the pain to leave, the stronger it gets. Only when I finally acknowledge its existence and accept its power do I again gain clarity. Like an infant suddenly recognizing its own reflection. My consciousness is aware of itself. I’m aware of my thoughts, my pain, instead of lost in it. With each focused breath, I move further away. The pain doesn’t stop, but I stop caring. And I am back in my breath. Cold in, warm out.
Suddenly, the ego of accomplishment floods through me: pride. All this hard work is paying off. I wonder how much longer until I feel calm all the time? Fuck. Lost again in my thoughts. And then aware yet again. Always in flux — aware and lost, floating then sinking. Knowing one is thinking is very different from thinking.
I notice next the numbness reaching through my leg. A slow cold creeping to my toes. Next, my back joins the chorus. I can feel each muscle fiber clench and release, clench and release, cascading waves of pain over me…is this what they call mindfulness? Can I hurt my body sitting too long like this?
Perhaps only five minutes until the end. My clock beckons. Back to my breath. Anytime now. Back to my breath.
I move back towards my breath, suddenly conscious of my wandering mind. I notice the restlessness, the “how much longer” question that repeats itself like a broken record. With each breath, my awareness increases. My body relaxes further. Further into itself but also out of itself. A calmness descends upon me like the warmth of a quilt pulled tight on a frigid night. My breath utterly consumes. The pain outside calls and I know that concentration is my only remedy. So I concentrate. I notice the heat emanating from my knee, the light breeze touching my arm, the steady breath of the monk beside me. I notice my own breath, practically external, an object to be observed but not controlled. And it seems that for a moment, just a brief moment, the world pauses. It is as if time itself ceases its methodical turn. My pain exists but I stop suffering. My mind wanders but I pay it no heed. My ego melts away. My whole being breathes deeply.
And then…it’s over. The monk’s voice breaks the tranquility, announcing an end to our pain. One hour of meditation over.
The vibrancy of the world washes over me, yet the one thought I can muster is: meditating for an hour fucking hurts.
I stay silent, absorbing the experience. I stretch my legs gingerly in front of me. I see now a certain truth about meditation. I understand that meditating is not supposed to be easy. We practice through the pain because life is pain. Life is disappointment and heartbreak and boredom and loss and stress. But through meditation, we learn to confront our pain, to not be averse to what is unpleasant. For aversion is the mind’s battle against reality. It is the mind’s unwillingness to accept what is and the choice to avoid the painful clarity that surrounds us. When we meditate, we are forced to sit and confront our suffering. We are forced to watch as our mind rages and strains and wrenches, grasping for any distraction, any respite from the agony. But there is no escaping. One problem begets another and we only stop suffering, stop worrying, and stop stressing when we relax our desires — desires for reality to be different, desires for life to be easy. Focus on eliminating suffering, not eliminating pain. When we sit in meditation and accept that reality conforms to no one, our suffering is lessened.
When we sit quietly, we observe how “should” is the enemy of mindfulness. “Should” is the evil creation of our unproductive minds. It is what keeps us adrift in doubt, terrified of risks. It is what keeps us looking to the future and clinging to the past. “Should” arises when reality doesn’t fit with our expectations. And when we meditate, we finally understand how “should” is just a conception. For through meditation, we truly see that there is nothing beyond the now. There is nothing beyond the steady pumping of the blood and the rhythmic hum of the breath. We understand that what we fear is not failure but judgment — judgment from ourselves, judgment from those we perceive as judges. We act for us. For now. For as C.S. Lewis said, “the present moment is the point at which time touches eternity.” We practice accepting whatever is.
We gain clarity. We see, for the first time, things for how they actually are. Devoid of our presuppositions, our biases, our learned likes and dislikes, our delusions and hatreds and loves. We see emotions as emotions, thoughts as thoughts, and fears as fears instead of being lost in a sea of endlessly proliferating imaginations, the overwhelming “what if’s.” We see how our unhappiness, our suffering, our worrying, is our own construction. If you don’t like your reality, change your perceptions.
Meditation teaches us that the only definite in our lives is the impermanence of everything. As we sit, we observe how every pain comes and goes. Every thought blossoms and wilts. Breath in, breath out. The pain in the knee comes, the pain goes. Thought in, thought out. Anger arises, anger subsides. We are humble because we know that our success is impermanent. We are strong because we know that our suffering is impermanent.
And when we practice meditation, finally embracing the moment, we feel at peace. Capable of truly existing in this chaos we call life. Capable of loving and acting without expectation, not dominated by our anxiety. Whether in love or business or family, we achieve clarity. And once there, we can actively engage with the truth of the world.
In one hour, I realize the truth of the lies I have told myself about meditation — the lies I have been told and believed.
“I can’t meditate because I can’t concentrate.” — I realize that everyone’s mind wanders. It’s the nature of the mind. The goal is not to stop the wandering but to notice when it does. It is not holding the mind still that we are practicing but rather noticing when it ceases to be still.
“Meditating hurts.” My pain will come. It will go. There is no meditation session that doesn’t hurt. It hurts for the monk — 70 years old and still seated on the cold, hard floor. Everyone experiences these pains because it’s the nature of existence to experience pain. But the pain turns into suffering when the mind tries to exert its control over our being. However, pain is not the same as suffering. I know now that pain is in the body, suffering is in the mind.
“I can’t achieve that calmness that I experienced in that hour!” — Meditation takes practice and discipline and consistency. No one can learn the piano in a day and if everyone surrendered after a dispiriting first lesson, we would have no Mozart. Patience and practice.
“I want to be good at meditation!” I recognize that even a desire as pure as this will lead me astray. Recognize the ego that builds after a successful meditation and the disappointment after a difficult one.
The goal is not to feel a certain way, or achieve something; it’s not to reach some tranquil state. It’s merely to notice what we are experiencing at that very moment. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Meditation is so challenging because life is challenging and meditation is akin to our larger experience of life. But if I take the time to sit and observe, I understand that it will make me a better person, more productive, less quick to anger, less stressed. More accepting and less judgmental. When we learn to sit with the pain in meditation, life becomes much less painful.
A thank you to Bikkhu, our meditation guide, for the valuable lessons. I am forever grateful. Thank you to Kay and Aryeh Levenson and Abbie Skotnes and Leah Leve for the editing help and thoughts.
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