Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sit your butt down!

This is a picture of a cushion.

This isn't just any cushion, though. This is a meditation cushion.

Those of us who have practiced meditation know that you can't sit your butt down on just any 'ol pillow. This is something that you may be sitting on daily, for close to an hour; at retreats, this time could grow to over 8 hours.

That's a lot of time for your cushy butt to be sitting! And so you need a special, handmade cushion that molds to your cheeks just so (some people prefer meditation benches, or just a chair)

I'm taking so much time to talk about this particular cushion because it's mine. And for the past 2.5 years, it's been sitting abandoned in my closet, collecting dust. I have taken it out about half a dozen times, only to meditate for just 10 minutes - probably every 5 months or so.

And before you close this post, claiming that you "can't meditate" because "it just doesn't work," let me tell you a little about my experience.

If my mind were a picture, it would look like this:

picture from http://www.thout.ca/

Buddhist philosophers talk about the human mind as a "monkey mind." We are all over the place, swinging from branch to branch, and never settling still. Some of us have busier minds than others, and some of us find it tough to quiet our minds. I am a person with a busy, busy mind. If I take time to check in with my thoughts throughout the day, I can count about 10 different thoughts in the span of 30 seconds. That's a whole lot of ideas, worries, and random thinking.

And most of the time, our thoughts get us into trouble. We spend our days thinking about the past or the future, without ever really settling on what we're experiencing in the present. We eat our meals while reading, texting or watching TV. We text while chatting on the phone. We chat on the phone while working away at our computers. Boring tasks, like washing dishes or doing laundry, allows for time for the mind to "wander," but usually we're just wandering over to the future, trying to remember what else needs to get done on our to do list.

Before you know it, you're lying on your death bed wondering where all the time went.

I stumbled across meditation by accident. A yoga teacher I had while living in Huntsville gave me the number of a doctor who was running Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Stress Based Reduction Program. Created in the U.S. to help people cope with chronic pain, the program soon branched out to include individuals from all walks of life - those struggling with the loss of a loved one; those with depression or anxiety; those with chronic pain from injuries and accidents; and those who were just a little curious about learning different ways to cope with day-to-day stress.

I called up the doc, and happened to score the last spot in the class. I was psyched! Until I learned that I was required to meditate for 45min per day throughout the entire 2 month program - AND attend a full-day silent retreat. SILENT....as in, NO TALKING. I was more than a little terrified.

The first few weeks were brutal, to be honest. I sat on that damned cushion, and cursed every minute of it, trying desperately to just "focus on my breath." No matter how much I focused, my thoughts kept coming in floods - no, tsunamis! - and I felt lost in the mess of it all. Despite my misgivings, my teacher (we call our meditation guides "teachers," in the Buddhist tradition) urged me to continue, and reassured me things would get easier.

But one day four weeks into the program, while trying to meditate and NOT listen to the TV just outside the bedroom door, I discovered a place. A quiet place. A place where one thought would enter the right side of my brain, and slowly, lazily, depart to the left. I could almost watch the thought dancing along in front of me, and felt myself descend further and further down into the deep, dark silence. For those of you who have read Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love, she gives a good description of this process, although I certainly wouldn't compare it to landing in the palm of God. I'm not really all that religious, and I think what happened was just a biological phenomenon by which my brain signals slowed down to the speed of molasses. Whatever it was, it was pretty cool.

I could end this post, and little story, by saying that my life was forever changed by this program, and I no longer experience stress or anxiety. Sorry to disappoint you, but that's not the case, and nor is it the point of mindfulness meditation (the technique used by Kabat-Zinn). The point is to experience everything in the moment in which it is happening. To meet your sadness, anger and happiness head on, and to watch them calmly from the sidelines. Out of this, you tend to gain a better handle on your mind's emotions, and no longer react blindly to them. So in this way, I guess you could say meditation is life-changing, because you are no longer a prisoner to your thoughts and emotions.

Since that program, I have returned to my practice at different times in my life, and even completed a 3-day silent retreat (which was truly incredible). But my poor old cushion has sat abandoned since early 2009, and I think it might be time to give it a good dusting off. Get back in the sadle, as they say.

For more information about meditation, I recommend checking out True North Insight, a local group grounded in the tradition of Insight (or mindfulness) Meditation. http://www.truenorthinsight.org/ They also hold classes and retreats in the Toronto area.


  1. I need something like this. I need someone to make me do it though which probably defeats the purpose. ;) Anything here in Orleans? :)

  2. Maybe we should start a meditation group here! I live in Orleans too!

  3. There's a really neat article in Psychology Today from a year or two back that talks about living in the now. It was quite interesting read. I'll check to see if I still have it and send you a copy. Not sure if their articles can be red online or not. I struggle to focus on just one thing at a time. Meditation has been recommended
    To me many times over the years. One day...... that cushion looks nice and comfy. CAn you meditate lying down?

  4. YOu could meditate lying down, but the danger is that you'll fall asleep :o) And then you're not really getting the benefits of meditation. But at least you'll be rested! I've fallen asleep many times, even while sitting up...lol


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