It’s a bright, unseasonably springlike January afternoon. The house is freshly cleaned, and I’ve thrown the curtains open in the bedroom. The sunlight’s streaming in, and I’m feeling gung-ho for the task at hand. I’m going to meditate and observe the session carefully so I can then sit down and document it for the purpose of this very essay.
So this is it. I arrange myself on the cushion, put on my headphones—I always meditate to soft music, having finally decided after years of meditating that it’s not cheating to do that—and press “play” on my current favorite meditation track.
Too soon, maybe. I might need to use the bathroom. I seem to be also slightly parched and possibly too cold. But maybe I can forge on and make this work for half an hour.
No. Abort. I hop up, use the bathroom and grab a fluffy cardigan and a glass of water. Okay, now I’m ready. I sit back down and press “play” again. Soft bells begin to chime once more in slow, peaceful intervals. Yes. Good. This is going to take. We’re off.
I think it’s going to be a fine bout of meditation today. Not every meditation session is pleasurable, but this one’s off to a promising start. The minute I sit down and become quiet, my body kicks in with its usual array of distracting sensations, but I can tell I’m not going to fight them very hard this afternoon. These sensations vary: for a while, I’d get shooting pains in my lower back every time I meditated, while these days I’m plagued by some strange tugging sensations in my mouth and forehead. As Roseanne Roseanneadanna used to say, “It’s always something.”
Today, however, I’m not sweating it. The physical sensations are par for the course. I frankly pay so little attention to my body on a regular basis, it’s no wonder that it mouths off for a while when I finally make room to notice it.
Sometimes the physical sensations drive me berserk, and some days just the prospect of them is enough to keep me away from the meditation cushion altogether. So I’m glad I’m making peace with them today. I’m particularly glad because there’s a subtler sensation underneath my ever-changing parade of physical tics and pains that doesn’t let up, and finding relief from that subtle sensation is the reason I meditate in the first place.
Here’s a quote from a wonderful book that I think every human being should be assigned at birth, which will begin to explain this sensation. The book is The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, and you should organize yourself a copy right away if you didn’t receive yours as a baby. Singer writes:
Just stop for a moment and see what you have given your mind to do. You said to your mind, “I want everyone to like me. I don’t want anyone to speak badly of me. I want everything I say and do to be acceptable and pleasing to everyone. I don’t want anyone to hurt me. I don’t want anything to happen that I don’t like. And I want everything to happen that I do like.” Then you said, “Now, mind, figure out how to make every one of these things a reality, even if you have to think about it day and night.” And of course your mind said, “I’m on the job. I will work on it constantly.”
Bingo. Michael Singer has busted me, and I could just kiss him. Now that he’s pointed out what goes on in my mind, I can feel all of that operating in myself. When I get quiet, I become aware of an ultra-low-grade whirring in my body, like the shuffling of hundreds of tiny index cards. I’m locked into scan mode, constantly vibrating with the effort of trying to predict and foreclose on every conceivable problem I could possibly have—and even the ones I don’t and will probably never have.
This ceaseless scrambling is exhausting. I’d love nothing better than to take this pattern down once and for all. The prospect of relief is what drives me to the meditation cushion over and over, more than any other motivation. I’m not looking for God; I’m not trying to be a better person. I’d welcome both of those side effects—but really, I’d just like to stop whirring.
Through the years, I’ve experimented with different meditation techniques: counting meditation, mantra work, tracking the breath. Each of these was rewarding in its own way, but nowadays I’m doing something simpler. I sit down to stop. That’s my only plan when I hit the cushion. I’m just going to stop.
Once I read—I forget, sadly, where—that a great meditation technique is just to sit down and wait. The simplicity of waiting appeals to me in the same way that stopping does. The difference is: stopping feels like waiting minus the expectation for something to happen. For the time being, I’m an avowed stopper.
So, here we are. The music is still playing, softly, just outside my attention. The tugging sensation is shifting dependably between my mouth and forehead. Every so often, I catch my mind trying to lock onto a fantasy or a worry: What if I never write a book? Do I need to see a doctor about my glands? Maybe I’ll travel to New York in the fall. And then I remind myself where I am. I’m right here, sitting. Or I’ll remind myself when it is. It’s right now. I straighten my posture and make myself a little more alert to snap out of the fantasies, and then I do my favorite bit—the stopping—which involves finding the source of the whirring in my body and almost-but-not-quite whispering to it, “Shh. You don’t have to do this.”
It’s gotten to the point where I’m starting to believe me. When I indicate to myself that I get to stop, something stops. My endless ruffling energy stills. It may start up again two minutes later, but for those two stopped minutes, I’m in heaven.
If I never achieve anything else with my meditation than just this, this tiny ephemeral relief, it will still have been worth it. But today it may be two minutes; next time it may be three minutes; and the next time four minutes; and could I imagine five? Six? An hour? A whole afternoon? This is why I meditate. To find out.