Don’t Just Do Something—Sit There!

Jenna Hollenstein talks about her struggle to finally make meditation practice part of her life.

Much like I contemplated changing my drinking habits for years before ever taking the first step, I long considered making meditation practice a part of my life. Meditation was something I idealized; it was part of the person I wanted to become.

I thought meditation would calm me down (e.g. when trapped behind slow walkers, I would not want to throw them into oncoming traffic), deepen my understanding of the world (e.g. Sarah Palin’s popularity would immediately become clear), and make me a better person (e.g. when my mother announced that I should have married my college boyfriend…again, I’d smile and immediately know her intentions were pure). I soon came to realize all of these beliefs are false.

I truly hoped that meditation would help me deal with the things I found most difficult in my life – uncomfortable feelings, self-doubt, restlessness – the things I drank to avoid.

Yet, it was years before I finally sat down! Perhaps meditating seemed too inactive to affect these troubling things and my bias for action (change jobs, consider moving, start dating again) seemed more likely to change my life. Or more simply, maybe sitting still with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings just scared the crap out of me. Whatever the reason for the delay, I finally got around to it one July morning.

I had been reading Susan Piver’s The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, a guide to dealing with heartbreak that involves seeing it as a potentially transformative experience. The book also provides some introductory meditation instruction (Note: I am a beginning student of meditation and the following lines should not be mistaken for instruction of any kind, just a poor description of what I was trying to do the first time I attempted to meditate):

  • Body – you sit in a comfortable cross-legged pose with a fairly straight, unsupported back, hands on the thighs, and softly gaze at a spot about 6 feet in front of you (yes, the eyes stay open).
  • Breath – you place awareness on the breath, which is in and out through the nose.
  • Mind – rather than trying not to think, you maintain awareness on the breath until, inevitably, thoughts draw you away, at which time you gently redirect your awareness back to the breath.

With some trepidation, I slid from my bed to the floor, two pillows strategically arranged beneath me. I set a timer for 10 minutes and stared at the old wooden chest of drawers pulled years earlier from someone’s garbage to decorate my first apartment.

Here is how it went:

I started off with my attention lightly on the breath. In – out – in – out – in – out – I never noticed how some of the whorls on this chest look like a big brown bear peeking out from behind a tree – my boyfriend’s flight leaves shortly, I wonder if I’ll hear from him – I hate my hips; they’re so tight. I can’t even sit right for meditation – maybe I’ll take the long way to work tomorrow so I can pick up an iced coffee – wait, I’m supposed to be focusing on the breath. In – out – in – can you imagine if I tried to do this at my parents’ house on Long Island, with the telephone ringing off the hook and people knocking down my door – I should text my boyfriend and say “have a good trip” or should I say “have a good flight?” – oh, shit – the breath – in – out – in – out – how many minutes do I have left? – I’m not sure I can do this every day – maybe I should set an alarm on my phone to remind me to meditate every day – what am I going to do with the cats so they don’t distract me? – how long do I have to do this before I feel better? – I think I have to pee.

And this was just the first 30 seconds.

A few days later, I was visiting Susan Piver in her new home. She had graciously agreed to introduce me to the Shamatha meditation she describes in The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. First we sat and talked about why now was the right time to start meditating.

Almost as soon as I opened my mouth, I was crying on her couch as her slim, gray cat gingerly stepped across my knees. I told Susan about my decision to stop drinking (at the time it was almost three years ago) and how that had been a way I filled the empty spaces in my life, empty spaces I still found very troubling. I told her how I’d fallen in love with a man I dated several years ago and had recently gotten back together with and that I realized it was the first time since I’d stopped drinking that I had felt such love for someone. I told her how I felt as if I was on the precipice of something potentially great and at the same time extremely dangerous, like jumping off a cliff with a parachute that hadn’t been quality tested.

"It’s not surprising that you feel this way," she said, "you’ve opened your heart to someone and that’s good. You want to learn how to remain open and have stability."

Exactly! I knew I didn’t want to close my heart; that’s no way to live and certainly no way to be in a relationship. I just didn’t want to walk around feeling like my heart might explode inside my chest at any moment.

We moved into Susan’s office where she also keeps her meditation shrine containing photos of the Dalai Lama, her own meditation instructor, and some prized objects. She lit two oil lamps and we took our seats facing the shrine. In a quiet, steady voice, Susan provided instruction on body, breath, and mind, how the back is strong while the front is soft, how the breath is drawn in and sent out through the nose, and how the mind touches lightly on the inevitable thoughts that pass through but releases them and gently returns the awareness to the breath.

My eyes fell lightly on a spot just inside the border of the silk cloth lining the shrine and I sent out and drew in my breath like waves rushing the shore and then receding. In those ten minutes, I wasn’t thinking about whether I should be anywhere else. I wasn’t thinking of work or email or Facebook or to-do lists. I’m sure thoughts came and went – I can’t recall any specifics – but what I felt was a sense of calm that had become quite unfamiliar. I was hooked.

Before I left, Susan’s one piece of advice to me regarding my daily practice was to just relax – not zone out or will my mind to be blank but to be however I am, whether sad or anxious or happy or boring.

The next day I sat alone on my bedroom floor, pillows sticking out from every which way to support my butt and ever-resistant knees. I programmed my newly downloaded iPhone meditation app for 10 minutes and set about meditating.

It was different that time. Rather than feeling like the ebb and flow of the tide, my breath felt choppy, like the water in a rip tide. And thoughts swirled around my head like circling birds after a Looney Tunes character has taken a fall. It took almost the full time before I was able to calm them down. But I sat through my practice and every time my mind wandered, I tried to begin again.

During the last 6 months, I’ve experimented with meditating for 5 minutes a day or up to 30, with doing it in the evening and first thing in the morning, and with practicing alone as well as with a group. It hasn’t always been easy or fun or clearly beneficial. Like any practice there are good and bad days but all of them seem necessary.

To the cushion I go…

Jenna Hollenstein is the author of the blog Drinking to Distraction, where she writes about quitting drinking, what she lost, and what she gained.

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