My first meditation experience happened in New York City at a Zen Center in 1998. I had lost my mother about two years prior and I was still deeply sad and totally confused about what happens when we die. I wasn’t satisfied with the explanation that “we go to heaven” which I learned at Catholic school. Nor was I content with the psychological blanket and anti-depressants that my therapist offered. I wanted serenity, clarity, and understanding that resonated with my personal experience and gave me tools that I could use to heal myself.
Sitting in a dark studio, facing the wall, watching my mind, and being terrified of the monk pacing behind me with a stick (used to hit people who were falling asleep) was neither enlightening nor comforting. Determined, however, to discover the secrets of this ancient practice, I kept searching for teachers and methods that would meet my needs.
Over the course of the last 16 years, I followed this longing to ashrams, yoga centers, universities, and exotic locations like India and Tibet. With each course, each teacher, each session, I learn a little bit more about the infinite depths of meditation. My relationship to meditation as well as my understanding about the practice have transformed repeatedly like an ever-changing kaleidoscope revealing new insights and dimensions that continue to inspire awe and wonder on a daily basis.
I never get bored with meditation. I never think that I could be doing something “better” or more “productive” with my time. Mediation yields such positive results which impact all aspects of my life — that I firmly believe in continuing to explore and indulge in it.
For the past few years, I have been teaching meditation to undergraduate and graduate students. Most of them are on the beginning of their journey and are as lost and confused as I was when I was staring at the wall in the Zen Center in New York. I try to synthesize what I have learned on my journey and offer it to them as guidance – a loose map of the territory. Of course, no two paths will be the same, but maybe they can learn from some of the wisdom and insight that I have collected.
Firstly, I encourage my students to find teachers and practices that inspire them. There are as many kinds of meditations as there are kinds of music or art or automobiles. There are practices to reduce stress, improve concentration, explore higher consciousness, connect to spiritual deities and gurus. Not all practices will work for everyone. While it is unproductive to keep shopping for a lifetime in the marketplace of meditation, it is beneficial to try several kinds of meditation until you find the one that fits. For me, I love Kundalini Yoga meditations, Buddhist meditations and Mindfulness meditations. I find that Kundalini clears out mental blocks and subconscious obstacles, Buddhist practices increase my sense of devotion and loving-kindness, and mindfulness practices keep me grounded and present in the moment. Other forms of meditation include Zen, Transcendental, Insight, QI Gong, Guided Visualization and so on.
The next thing to consider is how you track your progress and measure your success with the practice. It may a great feeling to be spacing out and daydreaming of lotus flowers during your meditation, but if you maintain the same destructive emotions and bad habits when you are off the cushion, then you are not benefiting from the practice. Mediation should infuse your life with more serenity, awareness, kindness and reason. It should increase your compassion for yourself and others. This may not happen immediately – it may take months or years – but there should be some personal transformation if you are doing it correctly. One way to track your progress is to keep a meditation journal and review it frequently to observe your progress. Teachers can also provide great insight into your strengths and weaknesses as a practitioner.
A third observation that has been critical for me is integrating the practice into your life. If you are doing meditation correctly, then it should become a way of life and not just an escape that you take for a few minutes, hours or days. One of the common misconceptions about meditation is that it is just a form of relaxation. Meditation can be relaxing but it is also hard work. You are cultivating your mind so that you can be more adaptable, flexible and aware of the way that you interact with the world. If you have a lot of aversion and distraction on the cushion, then you are probably experience the same qualities in your relationships or work environment. Meditation gives you an opportunity to learn about yourself so that you can make positive changes and grow as a person.
Finally, I think that it is vital that you trust yourself and your practice. Self-doubt is a factor that plagues a lot of practitioners. Am I doing it right? Why do I feel so much emotion? Is this really working? and so on. During my sixteen years of practice, I have felt anger, anxiety, sadness, joy, happiness, restlessness, stillness, calmness, fatigue, transcendence and other kinds of feelings. Meditation is a full-body experience. It impacts your thoughts, emotions, energy, worldview and more. The inner world is as vast as the galaxy and there is much to explore. Like any journey, there will be euphoric experiences and devastating ones. When you discover that you have been carrying a lot of negativity, you may feel self-judgement or condemnation. You may also feel waves of pride when you quiet your mind and connect to the oneness of the world. Don’t get attached to any of it — ride the waves like the rising and falling of the breath. The less reactive you can be, the more you will experience the equanimity of accepting reality as it is, and being at peace with whatever is happening.
I recently completed a 90-day mindfulness meditation training and a 10-day silent retreat. In a few short months, I did more than 200 hours of meditation. My family and friends had dramatic reactions to my practice such as: why did you do that? how did you survive? what’s the point of doing that? and so on. I shared with them how much it nourished me and inspired me. I encouraged them, just as I assure my students, that meditation is a healthy, beautiful practice with infinite possibilities for growth and transformation. Not everyone will dedicate as much time and energy to meditation as me, but even if you dedicate yourself to 10 minutes a day, you will see positive changes that permeate all aspects of your life. Your problems will seem smaller, your gratitude will expand and your capacity for loving all the contradictions of the world will grow. I found so much more on this path than I expected back in the summer of 1998. And I can only imagine what the future holds.