Paul and I don’t go to church, but every Sunday we have “spiritual time” in which we read something, discuss it, then meditate for fifteen minutes. So far we’ve read True Love by Thich Nhat Hahn, good portions of Huston Smith’s The World Religions, and we’re currently working our way through Sakyong Mipham’s Turning the Mind into an Ally, the title of which I thought for the longest time was “Turning the Mind into an Alley,” which makes a little bit less sense.
When we first started spiritual time, we only read and discussed, but everything we read seemed to be saying the same thing in different words: meditation is the key to spiritual enlightenment.
I know meditation is mostly seen as a Buddhist thing, or a yoga thing, or a granola-hippy thing, but really it’s at the heart of every major religion, even Christianity. What do you think Jesus was doing out there in the desert for forty days? Probably meditating. How did all those saints hear the voice of God or become enraptured with the spirit? Maybe because they were able to clear their minds and truly listen.
So, even though both Paul and I had tried and failed many times in the past to keep a meditation routine, we decided to try again. This time, together. It’s easier to meditate when someone else is doing it with you, and it’s harder to skip a day of practice, too. We’ve even stepped up our game recently to meditating three nights a week.
The other night we sat down on the floor and set the timer. I pressed start and made a gong sound, like I always do, and we both closed our eyes.
And it suddenly came to me how much meditation is like writing…
There are a million different books about meditation and a million more about writing. But reading about it is not the same as doing it. You can gather all the sage-like advice you want, but still, sitting down with your mind or a blank page is going to be hard. Nothing you read can quite prepare you for the experience.
In these books on meditation or writing, you’ll read all sorts of rules and learn about all sorts of methods. I’ve read thatI should keep my eyes slightly open while meditating; I’ve also read to keep them closed. I should focus on my breath, or a candle flame, or a mental image. (I’ve also heard that focusing on a candle flame will damage my retna.) I should imagine my breath as a snake, or a wave, or a ray of light. I should lie down, I should sit in lotus position, I should sit in a chair with my feet on the floor. I should meditate with sacred ash on my third eye. I should do alternate-nostril breathing. I shouldn’t meditate on a full stomach. I was once told I have to meditate every day or it “won’t work.” In the same way there are so many rules about writing, and the only real rule is: do what works for you.
But I’ve also read that there’s no “right” way to meditate. And I think the same is true about writing. You close your eyes and focus on the breath. Thoughts come. You notice them — you try not to judge them! You try to let them go. Time goes by, your mind drifts, and you wonder, but am I doing this right? When is something spiritual going to happen? Why am I doing this anyway?
It’s the same way when you sit down to write. You try not to judge the sentences that come out. You wonder if they’re any good — if you’re doing it right. You wonder if anything will ever happen with your writing — publication, money, respect. You wonder why you’re doing this difficult and lonely thing anyway.
And so, in the end, there is no right way when it comes to meditation or writing. There are some methods that work better than others, of course, but all the methods lead to the same goal. You are doing it, you are trying, and that’s all that matters.
Even though you are on a path, try to let go of the idea that it will lead somewhere. I know how hard this is. You want to know that one day your book will be published, or that one day meditation will lead to a less stressful, more enlightened life. Otherwise, why would you being doing it, right? But you can’t get hung up on the place you want to go and neglect the place you are now or you’ll never reach your goal. Instead, do it for the experience you have in the very moment of meditating or writing. It’s not always fun or interesting or easy. But it’s an opportunity to go inside yourself and see what’s there, and that’s important. Whatever happens later on doesn’t matter for now. Try to be proud of yourself for the fact that you are doing it in the first place.
And then the timer sounds, and I realize, oh crap, I’ve spent a chunk of my meditation time following one big thought about how meditation is like writing. Sigh. It sure ain’t easy. But I’ll try again soon.