My first attempts at meditation took place at a 35-day spiritual retreat. I had never done anything spiritual before in my life (unless you count three years of fidgety Catholic school masses.) I was completely taken with the idea that I could control my thoughts, and thus change my reality. I cherished the idea that I could find a sense of peace and calm and self-love through meditating. My entire logical mind was completely on board.
Until it actually came time to sit down and do it.
The genius of the organization hosting the retreat was that they refused to give you any idea how long you would be sitting in meditation. It could be 10 minutes, it could be four hours. My mind balked immediately at the thought that it had no control at all over how long it would be expected to remain empty.
That is the aim of meditation though, to empty your mind. To turn it into a hollow globe of liquid blackness and let your body go into a state of rest so thorough it feels as though it’s ceased to even exist. At the retreat our instructions were to empty our minds of everything save one image: a picture we had drawn on a card symbolizing something we wanted to have manifest in our lives. No sweat, I thought.
The process of self-torture that these morning sessions began would have been fascinating if it hadn’t been so painful. How quickly a well-trained mind can turn on its master – and show the "master" who’s really running things! It became clear from about the fourth minute of my first meditation session that my mind had a mind of its own. The thoughts that rushed in at first seemed predictable enough. "When will this be over? What kind of experience is my friend having? How much money do I have in my bank account?" But as I became frustrated at my seeming inability to meditate "properly," the thoughts became more and more ruthless. "What is the matter with you? You’re going to be the only one in this whole room who doesn’t achieve inner peace! You suck at this just like you suck at everything you’ve ever tried to do. You are destined to a life of utter un-enlightenment."
It sounds silly, but my self-flagellation became so severe that I came to positively dread meditating each morning. While I heard others around me crying out in rapture, I was stifling tears of self-pity and self-hatred. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t change, I couldn’t create anything that I wanted, I was a failure. Some mornings I would come in with fresh resolve and determination; other mornings I just tried to get through it without wanting to do myself harm.
But that’s the beauty of a long retreat. It’s not that easy to quit. You can’t just get up, go into the living room and drown out your disappointment in yourself by watching old episodes of "Friends." For me, I needed to be "forced" to get up day after day and face my own mind – to get to know just how cruel I could be to myself and find a way to love myself enough to change it.
A morning came when I did change it. I had taken to lowering my hands to my knees and giving up any attempt at meditation about halfway through. On that morning I told myself, "I don’t care what else happens. You are not going to put your hands down. You’re not giving up today."
Maybe because of this determination, the session started out worse than usual. My mind was like a hailstorm of angry thoughts that battered down on the part of me that was so desperate to resist it. It was exhausting. I wanted to stop trying, to quit fighting my mind. I let my hands rest on my knees for a moment with weary sadness. But in a moment, I recalled how I’d felt each day after quitting and a new resolve was sparked. I lifted my hands and resumed the breathing more powerfully than before. I breathed and breathed and breathed…I forgot to think….
It was like my mind entered an entirely different universe. Suddenly the blackness behind my eyes, which before had seemed like nothing more than the inside of my head, broke open and expanded like space. My head, my body, felt as huge as the building I was in – it felt infinite. From out of nowhere I felt a feeling of love for God that was so beautiful that it made me cry. I had arrived somewhere I’d never consciously been before. I had tapped another part of my brain. It felt so perfect. I never, ever wanted it to end.
Of course, it did. The music we were listening to stopped and we were told to lie back without removing our meditation masks. As I laid back, I clung to the feeling as hard as I could, willing myself to stay in that precious space. It slowly faded, but left a sense of empowerment I’d never felt before. I felt love for myself. Throughout the rest of the retreat, I had many battles with the cruelest parts of my mind. I lost some and I won some. But I knew I could do it, knew I had won a victory that was more meaningful than I could even fully understand.