Learning to Meditate

It was clear at the end of last year that even though I was freed from the shackles of corporate life, I was almost no better off emotionally than I was sitting in my corner office with the stress of my old job. I had changed my career after thirty years, and moved my whole life, but I was still working myself into a frenzy.

By returning to Hawaii, I was coming back to a place that represented both paradise and a bit of self-imposed purgatory. There were less things to distract me from myself here in paradise, but the very things that were creating stress in my city life, were also pleasant distractions from my own neurotic thoughts.

I had met virtually every goal I set out to do in my personal and professional life, and yet, I was still on an emotional rollercoaster as I continued to search for purpose and meaning. I realized that it is the way I am wired and I needed to do something to break this pattern of anxiety and negative-thought patterns.  

So six months ago, I finally did something truly radical (or, well, radical for me.)

I started taking meditation classes.

Interesting to say the least.

Transcendental Meditation (TM) ads had been popping up on my Facebook page and a number of things occurred to me. I had been studying to practice meditation for years. Various friends throughout my life had always said to me, "You should try meditating." So I did yoga, pilates, acupuncture, massage, read books on meditation, bought apps, journaled, periodically sat quietly and even said, "Om." I continued to read every self-help book on diet, anxiety and negative- thought patterns.

I had basically done everything EXCEPT actually meditate. I had tried to meditate a few times, but sitting quietly for 20 minutes in an upright position actually just made me anxious, uncomfortable and almost had the opposite effect that it was supposed to. When I had attempted to practice, I would find myself distracted and then immediately beat myself up for "not doing it right." So I gave up.

But TM training proposed to give me specific instruction, a mantra and I wouldn't have to "mindfully" monitor my thoughts, watch my breath or sit in a specific kind of position. I would be coached, given my mantra and I would be on my way. The hard part is the doing it. It is a "practice" not an arrival... or a thing you check off a list like a boob job.

After years of doing everything "meditation adjacent," I was going to try the brand name. Move into the actual zip code. Invest in the Mothership.

I contacted the TM organization to find an instructor on the island.  There was only one.  She teaches out of her home, so we set up a time to meet for my first session.

In some ways, my teacher was straight out of central casting. She was older. Somewhere between 60 and 70. She had bright blue eyes and spoke in soft whispers.

She was warm and friendly and clearly loved what she does. She was also completely bald. No hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes.

I immediately admonished myself for judging my TM teacher.

Did I expect her to be beautiful?
Did I expect her to have a halo?
Did I expect her to have all the answers?
Did I expect her to be brilliant?

The answer is yes. I expected her to have all of those qualities and more.  I had a lot of questions for her.  Questions like:

Is religious chanting is a form of meditation?
Is kneeling and praying a form of meditation?
Is long distance running a form of meditation?
Is taking an afternoon nap is a form of meditation?
What came first yoga or meditation?

My teacher couldn't answer these questions. She was surprised by the specificity of my questions and my desire to create these connections. I wanted her to connect all the dots of my cursory knowledge of religion, spirituality and alternative healing. She was not equipped for this conversation nor did she care. She was there for only one thing: to teach me how to meditate.

The Transcendental Meditation way.

I listened to her lecture and did as I was told. She performed a "gratitude" ceremony in Sanskrit. The ceremony felt longer than it should. The incense was particularly smoky and in my face. Although I was supposed to keep my eyes closed, I smelled something burning, so I discreetly peeked through one eye just in time to see the altar cloth starting to catch fire. I suggested that maybe she should throw some water on it. She stayed on script, patted out the fire, and went about her business finishing the ceremony.

We then sat on her sofa in her very rustic house. It was funky and eclectic. She sat next to me on the sofa. Her watery blue eyes were big and highlighted by the turquoise blue top she was wearing.

I was given my "mantra." One word. No meaning. "It's a sound," she said. We had to repeat it multiple times out loud in a normal voice, and then a few more times very softly, and then I was never to say it out loud again. I asked her how to spell it. She said she didn't know.

She had never seen it written. She was given thirty mantras to memorize and dispense to her various pupils. She selected the one that was right for me. I don't know how she knew what that would be. She asked NO questions about me. She literally knew nothing about me, except that I was a woman, and I was sitting in her living room trying to learn to meditate.

We "practiced" saying the mantra silently for a few more minutes and then we did a full 20 minutes of meditation. There were leaf blowers and lawn mowers rattling in the background. The incense continued to pollute the air with an unusual amount of smoke and an overwhelming scent. My mind was racing. She didn't give me instructions on how to breathe or even what to do with my hands. I had to pee and I had an itch on my nose. I wasn't sure if I was permitted to shift my weight and get comfortable or not. I kept saying the mantra in my head. Trying to figure out the spelling and where the syllables were in the pronunciation. My mind was racing with images and thoughts, judgments and doubt. I felt like I was in a prison and was so distracted by the smoke and the noise of the gardeners.

This was NOT what I was hoping for. Where was my peace? My enlightenment? My joy?

Finally, it was over. She asked me in her whispery voice, "How was that for you?" I told her, "Painful." I told her that all the smells and sounds of the environment were amplified like a horror movie. I was not comfortable and didn't know if I was allowed to move. Although I repeated the mantra for the ENTIRE 20 minutes, the images, thoughts and worries never left my brain. Now I remembered why I had never meditated more than a few times for a few minutes. I think it's easier to get a root canal. At least they numb your mouth and turn on music.

She smiled a toothy smile. "Perfect," she said.

What??? How is being physically uncomfortable and never quieting your thoughts perfect? She said, "Whatever happens happens. The mantra is always there to help guide you away from those thoughts if you would like." No. The mantra was like a badly subtitled movie. The various spellings that I had given it laid over the images and thoughts that raced through my head. I was neither relaxed nor energized. I did not connect to my teacher, her environment, my meditation experience, or my mantra. In fact, I had to think about it for several seconds, before remembering what the hell my mantra was.

If that wasn't bad enough, I was supposed  to practice on my own that afternoon, and I still had to come back for three more sessions.


Why couldn't we just use "Om?"

I knew that mantra. I liked that mantra. Why did I need a mantra that I couldn't see, remember or spell?

So I went home.

Guilty for being judgmental.

Worried that I had fallen into some kind of infomercial scam. (Because Hollywood celebrities, "Swear by TM.")

But that afternoon, as instructed, I sat on my bed β€œto practice on my own.”  I have this beautiful, serene bedroom, which I spend absolutely no time in except to sleep at night. So, finally, I was going to take advantage of this beautiful room and try to meditate.

My little white fluffy dog, who follows me everywhere, was eager to sit on the bed with me. I had asked my TM teacher about meditating with my dog on my bed. She said, "As long as he doesn't disturb you during the 20 minutes. Dogs are loving creatures, but they can draw the energy away from you." So I told him, "If you can settle down for 20 minutes, you can stay with me while I meditate."

I sat down and closed my eyes. I folded my hands in my lap and my little hyper, poorly trained dog laid down at the edge of the bed and closed his eyes too. He sat like a little angel and was as quiet as a mouse. There was no incense blowing in my face. There were no altars about to catch fire. There were no leaf blowers or lawn mowers shrieking off in the distance. Everything was still and peaceful.

It was the greatest 20 minutes I can remember in a long time.