About a year ago I started a near-daily seated meditation practice. I’m not sure how long I sit each day (knowing I would want to keep trying to achieve a certain length of time I never started collecting this information) and it’s mostly the practice of Apa Japa or being with the breath.
Prior to that my experience with meditation had been scattered, spontaneous, sporadic, and often no more than the five minutes or so offered at the beginning of a class.
I didn’t actively avoid meditation and I didn’t seek it either. I always enjoyed how it felt, was surprised when I could shift my focus, awareness, energy, breath to different parts of my body or the times when out of nowhere everything would connect and there would be a strong energy coursing up and down my spine into the ground and up through my crown chakra. My practice was intermittent at best and I had no desire to change it.
The first weekend after practicing for three days in a row I returned to work, turned on my computer, and realized that I was holding my breath the entire time I was going through emails. The entire time. “How long has that been happening?” I wondered. Likely years. Sitting there, breath held, waiting in a hyper-vigilant state for what? My email to attack me? Yes, I was. I was expecting some unknown threat to be waiting within those unread messages. My breath responding as though a tiger was about to pounce on me when it was only words on a screen.
I stayed with the practice after that and it has given me many clues into my breath and how it feels or holds in places depending on the situation (real or perceived). Clues where I could understand myself and how I responded to life. I could see and then have the power to change my breath and responses whenever a similar thing happened.
Last weekend I decided to create a mini-retreat in the city. I found classes I wanted to go to and decided to be offline for 48 hours. One of the classes was a day of silence at the NYC Insight Meditation Center. Now, I have been through silent practices in the past but mostly morning yoga practices extended out through to mid-day silence. It honestly didn’t occur to me that this would involve meditation (despite the name of the center).
When the instructor mentioned we would start in our first 45-minute seated meditation I felt confused for a split second as awareness also dawned on me. “Okay, you can do this,” I said to myself. So what if you haven’t done this before… If you’re going to do it best to do it “right” and find a meditation cushion to sit on instead of this chair. I got up and took my spot on the floor.
I’ve never sat for a 45-minute meditation ever. Turns out it was the first of several as we alternated between seated and walking meditations throughout the day totaling five hours of meditation. Five hours!
And what a ride it was.
To my surprise the time went quite quickly. Sitting four times throughout the day for forty-five minutes each time also allowed me to be with many cycles of breath. As they repeated through their natural patterns my body and sensation of emotions appeared around the breath in the same repeated ways. I hadn’t ever noticed how the breath changes in long patterns all by itself many times throughout a day. I’d never paid attention for that long.
I was heightened from the week and my thoughts were running rampantly at first. My thoughts were so powerful – running through thoughts about work, mostly conversations had, how I could do things differently, more and more thoughts all focused on the future and what to do, say, organize. It felt like the energy underneath them was spiraling so fast and with growing intensity – as if it could lift me up off the ground through the right side of my head and drag me along. My body was literally tipping up and to the right – ready to be carried away.
Near the end of the forty-five minute practice I found sustained stillness and it felt so peaceful. Easy. Like it could be there for hours. I wanted to relish in it. The bell rang. Phew – I made it through!
Normally that would be it. I would have found that delicious space and the practice would feel satisfying at getting there, feeling complete in my practice. Except in this case it wasn’t over. There was more. Much more.
At some point in the second or third seated meditation I found myself not tipping as far forward in future thoughts but images from the past arose. Long forgotten childhood memories bubbling up as images. I later realized that these were all moments where I felt like I had no control. My body moved left and down as they appeared and repeated.
Then at one point the future and the past came together as if they were the same but no words or images – just energy. Dark and bright at once. And slowly ever-so softly surfaced memories of a past trauma. It surfaced in a very different way than in the past – not something to fear or hold my breath in anticipation of threatening me. It was surrounded by a soft sweetness and was floating slowly up. It came as a clue.
All I had to do was watch and hold the space as this soft blob of images appeared and started to mesh with all the energy that had built up and was moving through me. I felt it combine with another piece of my psyche. It felt intense, gentle, and necessary. Healing.
Right after, one word appeared: control.
That’s what ALL those thoughts were when I first sat down. Machinations of control unleashed and rampant – even more with a light cast on it. I often forget how control plays into things – perhaps because it is so engrained in me it doesn’t want to be seen. And in those moments of trauma my need and attempt to control became even more extreme and engrained in infinite ways into everything.
With this clue and healing moment my brain settled. Even more space appeared with so much cleared out. The future thoughts stopped completely. The past memories no longer surfaced. All was peaceful, still, and quiet. Deeper and far more powerful than at the end of that first 45-minutes. It felt like more expansion. More space.
At least for a little while…
Then I started narrating – writing what I would post later as it was happening.
It would for a bit and then would kick back up again.
More quickly this time I saw it for what it was – another form of control. Saying what was happening in the moment so I could control what I would do with it in the future. Controlling both the present and the future in one fell swoop, it appeared in yet another way to achieve its goal – what a powerful tricky energy the subconscious has, especially as it’s healing.
It would start and stop. The gaps became longer, absolutely no thoughts present, only sensation, colours. The energy of that in-between state where the universe rushes in and the sensations are so delicious.
And this time as the narration came back from time to time I settled and said:
“There is nothing to control right now”.
I’m sitting here. In a room. There’s nothing to control. I let go even more. Settled. Far more space. There is nothing to control. I don’t need to do anything. I’m safe.
If there is nothing to control in this moment, then there’s nothing to control in the next. Then that means there’s never anything to control or try to or need to. Everything fell away and I was in a deep, prolonged, blissful, healing energy with not a single thought rising up for what could have been an eternity.
There’s nothing in my email to brace against. I don’t need to hold my breath to try to control what’s happening (or perceived to be potentially happening).
In the years before it wasn’t that my meditation practice was scattered it was that I felt like I was scattered and out of control – like everything would always be so extreme because my thoughts and responses felt so extreme. And they must be true, right?
For all those years I wasn’t riding the wave. It was riding me (throwing me around all over the place – and I let it). It felt as if I had no control and everything else did. In that I created alternate ways to feel like I had control.
I avoided meditation for so long in part because the energy didn’t want to change. It wanted to keep growing and feeding on itself. It was strong and in control of everything. Why would it want to give that up? I certainly didn’t want it to – it was all I knew.
Little by little, over many years, bits of meditation found their way in anyway and introduced a tiny bit of alternate energy into the mix. In time, that alternate energy is now what continues to be fed and grow. It becomes more than the old energy which I keep shedding. As it continues to heal my consciousness, allowing me more and more ability to be with myself and with all that comes through.
All those ways I created to seek control in the past aren’t going to disappear overnight and perhaps some of them are healthy or useful to hold on to. I don’t need to figure it out. I know that in this meditation some of the unhealthy mechanisms to achieve control did let go. I felt some of them lose their hold and fall away as my brain rewired.
What I can see in this transformation is that now I can be with my thoughts – even when they’re rampant and strong like they were on this day. I can ride the energy of them and keep breathing. Through sticking with these practices I haven’t gained more control over what the world may present to me. Now my thoughts aren’t in control of me – they’re no longer running the show or carrying me off. I don’t need to chase after them, make them happen, believe them to be true, be afraid of them, try to control them, or follow them down a reinforcing path of destruction. I’m not in control of my thoughts. I can stay with them and the energy underneath. I can work with them and understand them in new and different ways. I can step out of the past layers and old habits of controlling, let them go, and walk a different path. Perhaps that’s a different kind of control and that’s okay because it doesn’t feel controlling or restrictive. It feels healthy. Spacious.
I no longer need to struggle against the waves or respond to life as though it has the upper hand and I need to scatter and fragment and seek control in order to survive. Instead, I get to live. Breathe. Be. And enjoy the ride.