motherhood

Buddha Under the Big Top

How Meditation Changed my Life, One Circus Act at a Time

My dad was a psychiatrist—an old school one who believed equally in the power of medicine and talking things out.  When I was a teen and started showing signs of anxiety and depression the natural course of action as prescribed by my parents was drugs and psychotherapy. These methods helped a great deal early on, but as an adult I found myself overly dependent on tools that no longer empowered me. So, four years ago, seeking something different I found a therapist who introduced me to meditation.

I began a practice as she directed, meditating for ten minutes a day, but it didn’t go as I hoped. I was fidgety and distracted, wanting anything but to sit in that chair. On day two I declared to my husband, “I suck at mediation.”

I returned to my therapist frustrated, and embarrassed.

“Hmm…” she said, thinking for a moment. “Why not try just meditating for a minute a day instead?”

Well this should be easy, I thought.

But about a week into my one minute practice, I still felt itchy and dissatisfied. There was no bliss, no joy, just total frusteration. It had become clear in my mind that I would never be a candidate for Buddhahood. So I quit.

However two years later, still plagued with discontent, I decided to try it again.  I ordered a book from Amazon: Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook by Ram Dass.

The instructions for sitting meditation were simple: Set aside time each day to be alone in the quiet, keeping the length of time and location where you meditate consistent. Then sit yourself in a comfortable position, close your eyes and breathe. There wasn’t much more to it than that. Ram Dass suggested at first focusing solely on the air going in and out of your nostrils and nothing else. Every time your mind wandered, bring it back to your breath.

This time I started a practice in a different mindset. I went in to it knowing that a wandering mind was part of the game.  I understood now that there was no such thing as a good or bad mediator. Knowing this completely changed my experience.

So, for the past two years, every morning, I have sat cross legged in my special chair, eyes closed, timer set for twenty minutes, simply breathing.

Usually the first few moments of mediation are quite lovely.  I’m fresh and ready. I’ve got my mind focused on my breath. Life is good.  But then inevitably, a thought wanders in. If I’m going through something rough, this will be the time that that murky, uncomfortable feelings rear their ugly heads and I notice negative thoughts come to the foreground.

But I’ve learned to not give these thoughts or emotions any energy. Like Ram Dass instructed, I simply bring my awareness back to my breath. My thoughts inevitably wander again, so I do the work, bringing them back again, gently, with love. This back and forth may happen ten, twenty times in a sitting, but I’m learning that it’s not the “sparkly” movements  that are important, it’s the returning. I see meditation sort of like going to the gym. Every time you lift that weight, or do another sit up, you’re making yourself stronger.

On some days as I sit, I’ll admit, I feel really good, connected to everything, but lots of times it’s just me with my monkey mind in high maintenance mode. On those days I become convinced that there is in fact a three ring circus residing in my head. Not a real one of course—but some days I wonder.

The trick with my inner circus however is in the awareness. I remind myself that I am in the stands, not part of the show.  On these days, the key is in knowing that the fate of the world is not dependent on whether the tight rope walker makes it to the other side or how many clowns that day will get sprayed with seltzer. It’s all just a show. So, as I breathe I remind myself (no matter how hard those clowns are working to bring me into their antics) that I’m just the observer.

The tigers of my mind may be jumping through flaming hoops and a multitude of mental clowns may be trying to fit into a tiny car, but I gently, through my breath remind myself that what happens down there does not need my immediate attention.

During meditation this morning, in the center ring of my mind was a doozy of a performance. Right there (dressed in a sparkly leotard) balancing on a high wire was a looming thought:

How am I ever going to survive summer break with the kids home?

In my primary reality where I see myself as a writer and a mother, thoughts like this hold a hell of a lot of weight. In this realm, not only do I have a book to write, but I also need to make sure the kids don’t drown each other in the pool or spend the next three months eating nothing but Hot Pockets.

Important stuff, right?

But the truth of the matter is, in the realm of meditation, as I breathe slowly, the identities and jobs I subscribe to are not even real. In the moment I am nothing but my breath, a quiet observer in the stands of an otherwise chaotic big top. How liberating it is to be able to let go of all my worries, even if sometimes it’s only for a moment.

I’ll be the first to admit, lots of days my meditation doesn’t end in sublime moments of rainbows and bliss. Some days I’ll check my meditation timer three or four times, fighting the urge to get my day moving.  As with everything, some days are harder than others, but I am learning that the effort itself is what is key.

In spite of the “work” required for mediation,  good things have come from my practice.  I’m not sure outsiders would even notice, but it seems that I don’t linger on negative thoughts quite so long. I forgive quicker, love stronger. And more often now, when I’m on my morning walk and the light hits the leaves just right, I find myself pausing, quietly watching, wrapped in an effervescent sense of joy.

Don’t get me wrong, I can still be cranky, obsessive, jealous, and moody, but somehow these circus acts don’t last quite so long. Problems arise, but now I’m not as frequently a victim of my own circus mind.

The number one thing I’ve learned with meditation is compassion for the self. For those of us who tend to be self-critical, perfectionists, or fixated on deadlines and time, mediation provides an absolute freedom, as it trains you to forgive and let go. Like a mother gently guiding her child away from trouble, when we wander, we gently bring ourselves back to a place of safety, over and over. In the moment of the breath, there are no standards, no anger, no judgement, just a loving, subtle sense of calm.

I used to take all that noise in my head very, very seriously, but now, during meditation I often find myself smiling at thoughts and ideas that used to be seem like a really big deal. Believe it or not, the pageantry of my own mind is quite amusing. These days, when I see an image of Buddha smiling, I can’t help but wonder if he grins, not because he has reached the pinnacle of self-awareness but because he is also a witnessed of the “Greatest Show on Earth”–I don’t know, maybe these are one in the same.

Many of us put this notion of spirituality on a pedestal. Enlightenment is a serious thing, right? I used to think in order to find inner peace I needed to be solemn and only the right books, the right mediation cushion, and the proper string of mala beads, blessed by the Dalai Lama himself would bring me salvation.  I believed that whatever this ‘bliss and oneness thing’ was, it was far from my reach. But it’s not.

Happiness is always just a breath away. It resides in all of us, in that precious moment of finding our center time and time again. I now mediate when I’m peeling carrots, sweeping the floors, listening to music, kissing my kids goodnight.  All it takes is the awareness that you are not the circus of your mind…just a happy observer, finding joy in the moment of being you. All you have to do is breathe.

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Life Beyond the Minivan

life beyond minivan

When I was about ten my mom got me a book called What’s Happening to Me by Peter Mayle and Arthur Robins. It was pretty much the hippy parent’s guide book to puberty, complete with cartoon sketches of sperm and girls in training bras. I remember my friends and I would flip to the pages of girls and boys in their varying states of puberty and marvel at what we would become in a few short years.

The thought has crossed my mind that it wouldn’t have been cool over the past couple years if the guys who wrote that book had made a version for us forty year olds, you know: “So You Want to Buy a Motorcycle: Revelations of the Midlife”, with cartoon drawings of 40 year old women getting their kids out of the minivan, or men test driving convertables.

For me, and I think a lot of women, the metamorphosis in our 40s is less about changes in our bodies (though that is happening as well!), but more it’s a transition from our mundane existence into finding our true selves.

My life is good. It always has been. I have a wonderful husband who listens to me and provides for the family as much as we need. My kids are smart and clever and (relatively) well-behaved. We have always enjoyed family dinners, vacations together, evening bike rides in our quaint little beach town, but a few years back something inside me started tugging. Actually it did a lot more than tug, it shook me to my core. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and the room would feel cold, my heart beating deep in my chest, in what felt like an out of body experience. It was as if some external source was telling me “You needed something more”. I had no idea what was going on.

During my days I’d look at my husband, my kids and feel riddled with guilt. How could I even entertain the idea of being anything but a mom and wife to these good people? Yet as the months passed I kept feeling it, this calling, a yearning for a life beyond carpool lanes and grocery stores.

Pretty soon my thoughts began to wander and I started planning imaginary escapes to far away places, scheming more and more on ways to get away. These were all fantasy of course, but their presence in my mind became so prevalent that it took on a sense of realness.

Meanwhile my life outside the house was getting more and more exciting. I had made lots of new friends and my writing career was budding. I was more socially engaged than I ever had been before, but as I did this I became more detached from my family. It was clear that I was happier when I was out and about, then when I was home.

One day, in the midst of this change, I visited a friend who is a hypnotist. During hypnosis she did a basic healing exercise where I was asked to visualize the blood in my veins going to and from my heart. As I followed her words something remarkable happened—it felt as if my heart had burst open with joy, like a warm white light was glowing from my center and I was filed with an overwhelming sense of wellbeing.

For days afterwards, I swear I felt like I was a teenager who had just found herself a new boy friend, totally in love, but not with a single person, with everything! The people I met, the songs on the radio, the play of waves on the shore were all divine.

Unfortunately after a few days the sensation wore off, and I returned to my sense of isolation. So, with guilt as my constant companion, I went into therapy hoping to bring myself emotionally back to my family. Talking to someone worked in the short term but inevitably I always returned to a state of yearning.

Around this time I bought myself a motorcycle and taught myself to ride. This was a wonderful, empowering outlet for me. So, I continued with my writing career, took regular walks on the beach, and kept tapping into things that brought me to a place of wholeness. Peace became my prerogative.

Around this time I took up mediation and fairly quickly I was able to tap into that heart center that I found in hypnosis. On command I was now able to awaken that inner joy. My daily practice became an exercise in simply being love.

As I read spiritual books and quotes from the masters I realized that the thing that had been calling me had always been my own heart. It was a call for joy. A call for divine love. I awoke to the possibility that maybe conditional love had driven my life thus far….an unhealthy play of give and take, neediness and want. I was seeing how flawed these sort of relationships were and was learning that unconditional love, even in small bursts, was completely possible.

Of course, knowing a truth does not make releasing old habits easy, so one day, still steeped in the muck of guilt and desire, I told my husband I wanted to get away alone. One night. I reserved a room in a bed and breakfast about an hour out of town, packed my bags and rode my motorcycle away from home.

While I was there, I spent time alone journaling, writing letters to the people I love, listening to music and crying, purging myself of the twisted pain I left back at home. In the morning my host, (who I’m pretty sure was an angel), fed me and shared her stories of travel and motherhood. She was both a spiritual being, deeply connected to that same love I was uncovering, yet also wonderfully present and grounded as a mother.

As I watched her cook breakfast for her guests while pausing to wipe dirt from her two-year-old’s face, I had an ah-ha moment.

I had compartmentalized my spiritual awakening, separating the divine sense of yearning and adventure from my plain, seemingly mundane sense of family. All this time I resisted my role as a wife and mother, opting for something outside myself.

As I rode my motorcycle home that day I felt a change. I got it. Life is not always about outward adventure, it’s not always about attaining the next big goal, sometimes it can be (and more often is) beautiful and subtle.

What I had been searching for was actually with me all along. Love is within, it is in the details of a leaf, the creases of your lovers eyes. There is nothing wrong with looking outward, there’s nothing wrong with yearning, in fact desire is what pulls us forward, but it’s when that yearning, that sense of seeking takes possession of you that the problems occur. When illusion and desire become your master, the path home is obscured.

What I have learned on this journey is that Love is alive in EVERYTHING…it’s not out there waiting for you on top of some big mountain, or hiding in some deep cave or in some sacred book or some magical mantra. It is right there, in the mess of cracker crumbs that your child left on their chair, in the completed art project hanging on the wall, in the playful teasing of a friend, in the greeting of a stranger, or the dance of clouds across in sky.

The call I heard those nights a few years back was not of some external being telling me to run away, but instead it was my own heart asking me to find my source.

As I walk this daily path away from fear and towards my heart center I am reminded that guilt, worry, jealousy, anger are all just spoiled children vying for attention in my mind. They need not be given power. In fact the less we give them, the quieter they become.

Love is calling. Listen to its song and you will be free.

Peace is in your palm.

In Love,

Becky