“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Friday, December 9, 2011

Day Two: Meditation for Skeptics, Slouchers, Neurotic Planners, Caffeine Addicts, and People Who Think They Are Too Busy to Meditate, But Want to, Kind Of

It’s 8:37 while I begin this post.  I just came back from my writing & yoga & meditation studio above our garage, and I just meditated.  I am not feeling enlightened.  The snow is falling lightly outside and I’m thinking a) it’s great that I have snow tires, because I have to drive to Potsdam today and get dog food, and I hope I can find a café that doesn’t have Wi-Fi where I can get a big chunk of grading done, but if it has Wi-Fi I’ll be too tempted to keep checking my e-mail and Facebook to see if anyone has read this post, and b) that I feel pretty good.  Zoe is curled up beside me on the floor.  I just fed her some cut-up pills, her post-chemotherapy medicine, that I rolled into almond butter and slid down her gullet.  She’s so nice the way she lets me stick icky things down her throat without resentment.

So here’s my meditation practice.  I get up and go outside and cross the yard to my studio with my coffee cup in hand.  I don’t do anything without a caffeine fix first.  If I have to teach at 8 AM and I left it to too late, if I slept past 5:30 AM, I have to meditate while I drink the coffee.  That’s how “impure” I am.  I light three candles.  I take a whiff of a scented oil, usually rosemary, which I love because it reminds me of the South of France, and also because it reminds me of roast chicken, which my husband and I often eat for Sunday lunch with rosemary and garlic and roast potatoes and spinach.

So I sit in a corner in a comfortable chair I bought at Ikea.  My posture is too awful for me to meditate on a cushion.  I’m a sloucher, although I’m thinking of reforming--eventually.  Then I light the candles.  I take a whiff.  I set my meditation timer, which gongs gently at the start and end of the session, which today is 15 minutes. 

Before I start meditating, I say/or read/or think a kind of prayer.  Today it’s for my friend who had brain surgery two days ago, and for another friend whose anxiety about her book project and all her work has been waking her up at 1 AM, and for my sister, who has just tired herself a whole lot on book tour, and who just found out her foot is, well, kind of deformed, which could affect her ability to go on long dog walks, and for my husband, who has arthritis in his hips, and another friend, who has a chronic illness that has affected all the major organs of her body, and another friend, whose father’s longtime companion is in hospice, and for my stepsons, who are getting ready to come home for the holidays and are buried in work, and always, always, always for Zoe, who has bone cancer, which we caught and “cured” by the amputation of her left hind leg, but which may be spreading to her lungs.

And for myself I just ask for a peaceful day.  I think if you meditate, and if you commit to a process that sort of opens you up for internal review, you just have to want a little peace.  World peace is great, but short of that, a good-enough day, with meaningful exchanges here and there with the people in my community, no friction with my spouse, and the gods of mechanical and electronic things not wreaking havoc: that’s about all I am asking for today.

So I sit in my chair, the lights are off, the candles are lit, I’ve smelled the rosemary, I’ve said my prayer, and now it’s time to get visual.  I picture roots shooting out of the bottom of my feet.  Sometimes I have to massage the rather high arches of my feet because they don’t touch the ground so it’s hard for me to make earthly contact.  I see ancient, big, gray roots shooting down.  Now, let’s be real: down is to the garage.  It’s kind of garage-like, meaning dank.  It smells of gas, and the recyclables we haven’t taken to the Price Chopper (and you know how skunky beer bottles can smell), and there are all kinds of things piled up down there: old skis, boots, motorized things and tools my husband collects that are alien to me.  So I don’t dwell on the garage but go deeper, down into the earth, shooting past subterranean earthworms, down to bedrock.  And as I do this, my legs feel pleasantly heavy.  So heavy that it would be hard to pick me up and carry me off this chair.  It’s a relief to give in to gravity now and then.  I wish I’d known this a long time ago.

Then, when I know I’m pretty well grounded, I bring my attention to the base of my spine, to the perineum, the bottom of my butt.  Michal Levin, whose meditation method I have been using for about nine years, includes a drawing in her book, Meditation: Path to the Deepest Self.  It’s very helpful.  She imagines a light switch that her mind pushes “on” at the base of her spine.  And she pictures a color.  For her, it’s usually yellow.  I change colors all the time, but usually I go with green, which is my favorite color, next to blue.  I picture a giant thermometer going up my spine.  The base is that bulb at the bottom of the thermometer; the mercury rising is the color.

So I see the color, today it was green again, and I picture it going up my spine to the crown of my head.  When it gets up to my skull, I let it stay there for a couple seconds and then I bring it back down to the base again.  This whoosh of color rising and falling with my breath is energy.  It goes through the seven energy centers of the body which yogis call the “chakras,” from the base of one’s being, which deals with root survival, and up, to the areas having to do with sexuality, free will, the ego, our heart and compassion, our speech, our thoughts, and the part of us that is altruistic and intuitive.  More on all this later, not today.

So here’s the thing.  I was skeptical when I started.  I’m open to things Indian and Eastern-sounding, and definitely am drawn to Buddhism, but I just know myself and know that I’m too fidgety and anxious and goal-oriented to waste time “sitting around.”

But years before I began this practice, I found myself doing the feet-sprout-roots exercise just naturally, as a way to calm myself down when I had to do public speaking.  I would do it before I gave a reading, or a talk, or some kind of interview, and I found that somehow what came out of my mouth wouldn’t embarrass me later, and that I was able to get through the day without leaving my keys somewhere or ramming my car against our fence when I was backing out of the drive.

The other thing is that although my mind moves too fast to grab hold of and it’s hard to make me stop thinking/planning my day/fretting about this or that, I am pretty good (who knew?) at visualizing a giant thermometer going up my butt to my head shooting bright color through my body.  If you could get money for possessing this skill, I would not be in debt now.

Here’s how you know if you can do this.  Just close your eyes.  Try to picture a color, any color.  If you can see it in your mind’s eye for just a nanosecond, you can do this.

And then close your eyes again.  If you can bring your attention to any part of your body—your feet, your head, your arms, your stomach—and feel the sensation of that part of your body while you think of it, then you can visualize energy and color moving around there.

This book that gave me this practice, Meditation: Path to the Deepest Self, is by a former BBC reporter who was not just skeptical but downright hostile to the idea of meditation when it was first suggested to her by a health care practitioner who was treating her for what sounds like depression and anxiety.  She described herself as someone busy in her career who was interested in current events and social justice and not inclined toward anything that seemed self-indulgent.  Compassion, yes.  But not mysticism.  But once she started, she found that it really clicked.  “Really clicked” does not do justice to what she describes in this modest little book that looks, honestly, like some kind of lightweight coffee table book with its pictures of fields of wild flowers and her own abstract paintings that were inspired by her meditative states.  But it changed her life, healed her of a kind of existentialist despair, alerted her to the fact that she had a brain tumor the size of a peach that no one had diagnosed, and gave her a way to help all kinds of people.

My aims are much more low-key.  I just want peace.  I want to be effective at what I set out to do, whether it’s writing, teaching, driving to Potsdam to buy dog food, grading the papers without excessively checking e-mail, and being a good friend, mate, colleague, comrade, stepmom, sister, teacher, and dog mommy. 

In a subsequent post I’ll tell you about the first time I tried to meditate—back in college, under the tutelage of a friend who became a Zen Buddhist monk.  What a disaster that was, because back then I thought everything—Art, Love, Truth--was all or nothing.  Absolutism is very attractive to the young, which is why we have to protect them from becoming fundamentalists.

But today, right now, life is good.  Maybe it’s because I meditated for 15 minutes.  Or maybe it’s because I’m having fun writing this post.

What I discovered is that you don’t have to believe it will work to try and get the benefits of meditation.  The secret is to not fight with oneself.  Morning after morning I would go to that chair and spend the ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes trying to stop planning my first class and the rest of the day.  Be here, in this moment, I’d tell myself.  And then I stopped fighting.  I would plan.  Then I’d go back to the breath, to the color.  And invariably, no matter how grumpy I was that day, by the time the color passed my face, my mouth, I’d be smiling.

I think all you need to possess is a sincere desire for a little bit of peace, and a healthy dose of curiosity.  The rest takes care of itself.
I took this picture on a tea plantation walk in the Western Ghats, north Kerala, India, in late May of 2011


  1. I think your blog will be a sort of meditation for me. I dont have time to do a lot of reading which gives me a little peace of my own. so i will read your blog, read about your peace and maybe that will help!

  2. My favorite line:I am pretty good (who knew?) at visualizing a giant thermometer going up my butt to my head shooting bright color through my body. You are seriously hilarious. I am going to aim at also becoming good at the same thing. We can have butt color thermometer contests.
    Write on, Sister!