I carve out some time every morning to sit. Nothing special or mystical. I just sit there. Sometimes I listen to a guided meditation, or I listen to some nice recorded Tibetan singing bowls. Other times I set a timer and listen to nothing, or everything. I focus my attention on my breath, or what my body feels like from the inside out, or the coolness of the breeze from the window and the warmth from the fireplace on my skin. There are mornings when I am able to drop right into calm, the traffic of my thoughts slowing and dissipating, leaving pleasant stretches of open inner road. Other mornings my thoughts hurtle along until they cause a pile-up.
On those congested mornings I remind myself of what meditation teachers say: there is no such thing as a bad meditation. Conversely, there’s no such thing as a good one either. Meditation is not a task or an achievement or even a goal. It just is. What sets it apart, if indeed it must be set apart, from typical waking consciousness is the observance of one’s thoughts and feelings rather than actively identifying with or participating in them. It’s watching the traffic pass from the vantage point of a park bench instead of jumping into a car and heading off into rush hour.
I’ve dabbled in meditation for a good chunk of my life, but have only been at it on a daily basis for a year or so. I’m a newbie. I haven’t become a new person. My neuroses are still operational, my susceptibility to anxiety and pettiness still very much in place. My ego is as tetchy as it ever was.
The difference is that now I find a little distance between my observing self and those neuroses and fears and even my ego, who holds forth in my head like a well-meaning but overbearing friend who can’t take the hint to shut up. As it turns out, that chink of clear air, that breathing space, allows for choice.
For somebody who has spent most of my life liable to hijacking by my emotions, the option to say yes or no to a reaction is a big deal. It’s not a skill that has made me rich or famous or better looking, but it does make my interior a more peaceful place to dwell.
Here’s an example. On Saturday morning I attended a writer’s event in San Francisco. It was an opportunity to meet with literary agents, one for which I had spent days and dollars preparing. The City, as we NorCal old timers call it, is about 60 miles away from where I live, and once you’re there the traffic roaring up and down those famous hills is no joke. City drivers use their horns like sonic weapons. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the world, but I will do a lot to avoid navigating it in a car.
Being the strong, independent woman that I am, I find if I whimper and bat my eyes at my husband, I can usually get him to do the driving. But I needed to arrive early enough that it meant crawling out of bed at 4:30. While my dearly beloved will do almost anything for me, on this occasion I was on my own.
So I sucked it up. I checked and double checked Google maps before I left; no big traffic issues at that ungodly hour on a weekend, and the estimated driving time was seventy six minutes. The parking garage wouldn’t open until 8AM, so I timed my departure accordingly, giving myself a little padding in case I made a wrong turn or encountered road construction somewhere. All of my materials were packed in my tote, my commuter mug was tanked up with coffee, and all I had to do was start the car and wait for Apple Car Play to load as I headed out of my neighborhood.
When I asked my frenemy Siri for directions, she told me I was destined to arrive a full hour and ten minutes late. And the route she had in mind for me, when I managed to convince her to reveal it to me step by painful step, was bewildering and Byzantine.
Did Siri know something I didn’t? Were all the more direct routes suddenly subject to natural or manmade disasters? How could I have been so far off in my calculations?
How could it take over two hours to travel 60 miles on a Saturday morning before the sun is fully up?
And here’s how meditation works for me. My default response, had this same situation occurred two years ago, would have featured a frantic inner monologue composed as follows:
1. Self recrimination. How could I have been so stupid? Must I always screw things up? How’s it going to look when I drag my tardy ass into that room?
2. Sputtering frustration. Why is Siri telling me to go THAT way? That can’t be right! Can it?
3. Catastrophic thinking. My writing career is over because I can’t bleeping tell time.
All leading to:
4. Mental paralysis. Do I take Siri’s wonky directions? Or just follow the freeway signs and go the way we usually do? Or maybe I’m remembering that wrong. What to dooooo????
I’m familiar with this self-sabotage, having heard some form of it many times. But now I had that breathing space between my dismal litany and me. I could hear the muttering recording in my head, but I didn’t have to listen to it.
In that space, I found instead:
1. Acceptance. I might be late. Oh, well. Who cares, besides me?
2. Perspective. At the end of the day, it’s likely to matter very little whether I arrived on time or not.
3. Choice. I’ll try my way. What have I got to lose?
I decided to trust freeway signs and my memory instead of my phone app. By the time I was sailing across the Bay Bridge, Siri had caught up with me. Now she said I would arrive by 8:08AM, plenty of time to park and walk from the garage to the meeting venue without missing anything. It turned out she had been steering me along a route without tolls, who knows why. Hence the extra hour plus.
As it happened, I arrived at the meeting safe and sound, in a state of happy anticipation. It was a beautiful morning in the Mission District, and I felt ready to take on the world.
Then the venue for the event turned out to have been triple booked, leading to such drastically crowded conditions that the fire marshal appeared and closed the whole thing down before an hour had elapsed.
But that’s another story. Let’s just say meditation came to my rescue for the second time in one day.