When I first started meditating over a decade ago, Pema Chodron was one of my favorite authors. She had a way of describing the experience of meditation that spoke to me. Partly she provided guidance, tips and instruction. Partly she named something I felt and sensed that I had not been able to put into words.
I recently picked up one of her books again, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, and turned to a chapter titled “Learning to Stay.”
Here is an excerpt:
“Why do we meditate? This is a question we’d be wise to ask. Why would we even bother to spend time alone with ourselves?”
Let’s pause here for a moment and ponder this question. Chodron gives a beautiful answer, which I will share in a minute, but first I want to take the time to appreciate the question. Whether you have never meditated or have been practicing for years, it is a worthy question to ask: why meditate?
What are we trying to get at when we sit down, pay attention to our breath and our body and stay with ourselves, moment-to-moment? Is there a goal? Is there a wrong way to do it? Wouldn’t I rather go eat a pizza, turn on a movie or check one of my many social media accounts (you may be wondering)?
Sometimes, truthfully, the answer to that last question is yes, for any of us. Part of what meditation has done for me is to invite me to know and appreciate the full depth and breadth of my experience, including the times when I do not want to pay attention to what I’m feeling and would rather be doing something else. In that moment of acknowledging I’d rather be distracted, I actually move closer to myself and the center of my experience.
Chodron, again, with her answer to why we meditate:
“First of all, it is helpful to understand that meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that this is why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure. We’ll assume we are doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called maitri, a simple, direct relationship with the way we are…It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves that meditation becomes a transformative process.”
As we sit, we stay with what we are feeling, whatever it is. We bring compassion to ourselves right here. Overtime, our ability to stay with uncomfortable feelings increases. We see more. We feel more. We may still want to run away at times. And we learn how to stay with that feeling, as well.
Ick. This Doesn't Feel Good
One of the consequences of mediation may be that we feel restless or angry. We may feel like we have taken a step backward. In truth, we are opening up and uncovering all the hidden places in ourselves. We take a step out of denial. It’s not always comfortable. Sometimes it is very challenging. Lately, I have had many moments of wanting to be done with it. Wanting to be less aware and to stop feeling all the things churning within me.
Somehow, still, I come back to it. I tenderly greet the scared part of me that wants to go away. I breathe. I let myself know I could stop. I could runaway to some other life and never meditate again. I ask for help when I need it. And I remember how fruitful this practice of sitting and being with myself has been. That is why I keep returning. Even when it's hard. Even when what I feel is "everything is impossible."
Through this path of mindfulness and meditation, I have learned how to welcome whatever is happening inside myself. There is freedom in that. I feel less swept away in the intensity of an emotion or memory. There is more of me to hold my experience and to be the observer.
The choice I continue to make is this: would I rather be at conflict with myself and fighting my experience in some way OR practice making friends with myself, no matter what I uncover or feel? Again and again, I choose the latter.
It takes practice. The beauty is you start where you are. If you are curious and interested in learning more, I recommend picking up one of Pema Chodron’s books. Try on her words and see what fits for you. Or look up Jack Kornfield and Thich Nhat Hanh. Sometimes when reading their words, I can feel a place of compassion and acceptance opening within me.
I also recommend finding a group to sit with. It can be helpful to have the support and encouragement of a community, especially if you are new to meditating. That is how I started and it made a big difference. In the beginning, it took all I had to sit still for a few minutes and if I wasn’t in a group, I am not sure I would have stuck with it.
If you take one thing away from this post, take this: meditation is about bringing kindness and acceptance to wherever you are. That process is, in and of itself, transformative.
As always, if you have questions about what I have shared here, feel free to contact me.
Katherine Grigg, MPC, RSMT is a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist who is passionate about weaving mindfulness and compassion into everyday life. She sees clients and teaches classes and workshops in Connecticut and Massachusetts. To learn more about her work, visit her Spirituality and Mindfulness and Pain pages.