Sometime during our California sojourn Ralf and I joined a Sangha, which is a group of people who get together to meditate. Well, actually Ralf joined and I came along to have dinner out with my husband afterwards. I was not looking for enlightenment or happiness or inner peace, as I felt that I already had more or less enough of these things to be going on with. The Sangha leader was younger and more humorous than I had expected and immediately caught my attention by pointing out that most of us don’t have the luxury of pursuing enlightenment in a beautiful Zen retreat. With that statement he differentiated himself from traditional spiritual leaders who seem a bit out of touch with daily modern life. His take on enlightenment (and I’m way oversimplifying here) is the practice of giving yourself some distance from your ‘problems’ by watching yourself react to them. Metaphysically speaking, you take a step back and try to see things more clearly and less emotionally. You do this by sitting still, shutting up and watching your thoughts. Or, as he put it, ‘facing your life.’ This approach is equally applicable in a Zen retreat or a hectic professional life.
I don’t pretend to be a good or even consistent sitter but I am a believer. From the outset I found that my busy mind welcomed a bit of calm and after a few minutes of relative mental stillness it would start to feel as if my brain was tingling. I’m thinking that the brain is so used to being constantly active, hyperactively throwing out scenarios in order to be prepared for any eventuality, that it starts following the same old pathways by rote. We might call that being smart or analytical or professional or paranoid but what it amounts to is that you’re so good at a certain type of thinking after years of practice that you don’t have to put much effort into it any more. A natural outcome of all this repetitive activity is that the brain doesn’t need to develop in new areas because it’s already good at what has made you successful and you’re busy so why bother? Anyway, my interpretation of that tingling sensation is that the brain seizes the opportunity to stretch out a bit as soon as those stagnant old thoughts stop hogging the stage.
OK, I’m probably wrong about this but tingly brain feels pretty neat.
There are undeniable and well-documented health benefits to stilling your thoughts. Just as sweating in a sauna can remove toxins from your body, regularly sitting to calm those restless, circular thoughts can help quiet the poisonous thoughts that harm you. And this process is what over time allows you to create space or distance around your problems so they don’t loom quite so large. And more importantly, your response to them becomes more appropriate, which in turn makes them smaller. We've all experienced how an overemotional response to a problem tends to make it worse. Luckily, the reverse is also true.
My personal example of the ‘space around your problems’ thing happened one evening early on when I arrived at Sangha absolutely furious over something at work. I was vastly pissed off and I didn’t expect to be able to sit still at all, let alone quiet my thoughts. Oddly enough, that was one of my best sittings. I suddenly had this incredible sensation of splitting into two awarenesses, one childish and furious and the other calm, loving and wise. The angry one was clearly me but I was able to recognize myself in the wise one as well, which felt kind of like me when I’m at my best as a mom. As this wise motherly presence I was able to watch my own tantrum with love and patience just as if I were one of my own kids and see how trivial the problem was in the grand scheme of things. It was kind of like when a friend describes some situation that is causing them pain and you are able to see clearly that it’s not that bad because you’re not the one caught up in it. There was space around the problem that allowed me to observe my reaction to it impartially.
This personality split is what is referred to as 'beginner's luck,' where you have a cool spiritual experience early on in your practice and then nothing for the next ten years. It has not happened since and I’m happy to report that although myriad things have annoyed me in the meantime, there hasn’t been anything else bad enough to trigger schizophrenia. But the experience created a lasting impression and a belief that we are more than our little concerns and subjective experiences and that we’d all be happier if we’d treat ourselves with the same love and tolerance we give our kids (on a good day, that is).
I admit that I am not very far along the Buddhist path and I certainly wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. The interconnectedness of everything doesn’t impress me much as a reason to, say, love thy neighbor (that is, I believe that we’re all interconnected but I still think some people totally suck), and I also believe in good and evil, despite my Sangha leader’s best efforts to change my mind. But the practice of meditation offers some cool takeaways even for us spiritual Philistines.
For example, one of my go to practices while sitting is something that both Anthony Robbins and Eckhart Tolle recommend: I concentrate on the force of life in my hands. That probably sounds corny if you haven’t tried it but think about it: something flows through the universe on a such a microscopic level we can only theorize about it after years of graduate school, connecting everything, holding it all together somehow. This is now accepted in both the spiritual sphere (well, at least by the Buddhists) and the scientific sphere. And the amazing thing is that if you focus your undivided attention on your hands you can actually start to feel that something, or at least a darn good imitation. For some reason it’s stronger in the hands than other parts of the body and stronger still if you bring your hands near each other without touching. It’s not your soul, it’s certainly not your thoughts but it might just be the source of life itself. And the really cool thing is that if I pet my cat after doing this he gets a light static shock so he tends to stay away from me when I'm sitting.
I sometimes wonder what kind of world this would be if we taught our children to pay attention to the life within them instead of how to follow schedules, take tests and manipulate people to get what they want?
Anyway, believe me or don’t, but give it a try. Tingly hands are almost as cool as tingly brain and quite refreshing after hours of compensation design.
And my very favorite thing about sitting? You’ll never guess. It’s the laughter. Sometimes when I’m watching my own thoughts I hear the most fantastic, joyful laughter in my head. It kind of sounds like me but more so. It doesn’t happen often and it’s probably just my own imagined reaction to some silly egoic thoughts I’m having but whoever it is laughing in there sounds like someone I want to know better.
So at the end of the day I keep sitting, hoping it’s me.