Many of us may think of meditation as sitting still with our eyes closed, waiting for something profound to happen while the chitter chatter in the mind hopefully comes to a halt.
This was how I had been meditating for years until I received a phone call from my sister, Pooja, who had just completed a 10-day silent meditation course in the middle of rural California. That call changed my life.
I was working a high-powered corporate job in New York City, operating at full speed and running on low battery. Slowing down was not on the to-do list, especially in such a fast-paced environment where if “ya snooze, ya lose”. I began to question being defined by my career and if where I was on the corporate ladder was true life success. I wondered if there was more to life than existing as a machine in a large capitalistic society, dominated by white males (yes, I know, a topic for another blog).
What my sister had to share about her experience brought up so many different reactions and emotions, enough for me to reorganise my life so that I could attend one of these courses. What attracted me the most was not having any access to the outside world. Not only were we to maintain complete silence, but there was to be no interaction with anybody at all. This meant no phones, no yoga, no journaling, no reading, no gestures or eye contact with other participants, no talking whatsoever (not even to yourself) and only one real meal a day. It sounded like a prison and where I was in life, it sounded like exactly what I needed.
I applied, was accepted and enrolled onto the course in September 2010. The centre closest to New York at the time was in Massachusetts. I arrived, registered in the women’s ward and handed in my phone, and anything that would distract me during the course of the next 10 days, over to the messy haired lady at the centre. Everyone was really nice; the centre was basic but comfortable and it felt right. Ten days passed, I made it and so did all of the 40+ participants who walked through that door on the first day.
I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say I spent a lot of time with myself, something I never really did. I was meditating for 10 hours a day, going on short nature walks, eating small amounts of healthy meals, waking up at 4am to start the day and not even feeling tired at that hour. And all of this I did by myself, with myself, FOR myself. Don’t get me wrong, it was not easy and I had moments of questioning my decision of being there or rather, cursing my sister for telling me about this thing! I learned the resistance was part of the experience, and it had a name. It was “sankhara” in Pali or “samskara” in Sanskrit, which translates as mental conditioning.
I was with myself and only myself, in my head and out of my head, completely immersed in my own thoughts or, as encouraged in meditation, lack thereof. On one of my nature walks on day 2, I decided it was time to work on my anger. Yup, I used to be a very angry person. Maybe it’s part of my nature from previous lives, but I know in this life growing up too quickly, being assaulted as a child and inequality in the workplace didn’t help. Neither did having to juggle between two cultures, being a first generation American and trying to be an obedient Indian child. During the rest of the 10 days, I found a means to cope with my anger.
I learned to observe my thoughts and emotions rather than react to them. I learned to watch them come and go rather than just try to empty them from my mind. I learned to be neutral to how my body felt after sitting in one position for a very long time and I learned a discipline to practice. I learned that I could be separate from my mind and body, that there is something beyond both and that something’s natural state is to be happy.
I went back home and diligently practiced meditation for 2 hours a day, no matter how busy I was. Within one year, meditation helped me to cope with an abusive marriage, a long drawn out divorce and an injustice in my workplace. I learned to be more accepting of situations rather than fight them, which did not mean that I gave up on them, but rather I used the tools I had learned to manage my emotions and reactions. My anger dissipated, I found work-life balance, I slowed down, I started spending less time on gadgets and I learned there was something more to life than my high-powered career. In no way did I become perfect, but I began to step back and observe things in a way that separated me from them. All this came to me simply through practicing meditation which made me realise meditation is not just sitting still with my eyes closed waiting for something profound to happen but something I use to improve my everyday life.
Meditation has immense benefits, and my experience is just one of millions of people out there. Since that first course, I have sat three more, each time having a distinctive experience, each time taking away something I did not the previous times. One thing is for sure - what I took away that first time still tremendously helps me today. Observe, accept and be happy.