The Reluctant Meditator
They pitched it so well I couldn’t wait to start a meditation practice. I was nine, maybe 10.
I was raised in San Francisco in the Sunset District in the sixties. We lived with our grandparents on 46th and Travel. They were our parents in word and deed, but not in biology. They cooked our meals, and gave us baths and put us to bed and nursed us when we were sick and because we were little, we were sick often. They provided our care, protection, and love. We did not call them Mom or Dad, but they were Mom and Dad. They were our parents. They took us to school, took us to the Doctors, took us to the Beach, to the Dentist, to the Bowling Alley, to the ice cream parlor, to Golden Gate Park, Sunset Beach, The Zoo, Camping in Tuolumne and many hot Summer Days at Johnson’s Beach on the Russian River. That is where my Grandmother had her last outing with us and where she was shot by an accidental discharge of a Darenger gun with a 22 Calibur bullet. There wasn’t a week that went by without an outing with them. I say them, but it was mostly her, my grandmother. They both did it, but she was the face of it and the heart of it, for me.
The Trolley ran right in front of our house in the Sunset. The only way we could tell the difference between it and an Earthquake was it’s rhythm and duration. Earthquakes were erratic and hostile, the Trolley was loud, safe, and predictable. We were four short blocks from the Great Highway and Sunset Beach. We could hear the Ocean’s soft purr in the distance and feel the moisture of the salty mists. It was foggy often and with the fog, the background music and the lulling sound of the fog horn. I would lie in bed at night and be rocked by the sounds and vibrations of the trolley. It shook the house as it rolled by every 1/2 hour. I would gently slip into sleep by the meditative sounds of the Sea and the fog horn off in the distance. The dark warmth of street lights reflecting through the fog cast a slight glow in the room. Those were peaceful easy days that abruptly came to an end after five years in their care, with the tragic death of my 50-year-old grandmother from a gunshot wound that ripped through her body and all of our lives. One little tiny 22 caliber bullet that shredded every vital organ in her soft, voluotuose, nurturing body, and it shredded the lives of at least 10 people, including me. One day I was being lulled into a meditative sleep in a home where I felt safe and loved and adored by the Tolleys Cars, The Ocean, the Fog Horn, and by my Grandparents. The next day, I was shattered into the abyss of grief, a loving memory so strong, it has lasted a lifetime.
One of my Uncles was a serious meditator, he’d gone to India and studied with the Maharishi it was said. I don’t know this to be a fact, but I know he’s still an avid meditator.
My mom was a just kid, that was one reason we lived with our grandparents. She was twenty-one and already had three children and no big paying job skills, and it was the mid-sixties, not a lot of opportunities for women, another reason we lived with our grandparents. Kids are expensive. My father was an abusive alcoholic who had abandoned us, good thing really, because he was violent and another reason we lived with our grandparents. My Kid Mother and my Uncle, The Meditator, decided we needed some help transitioning into our new grief-stricken lives because we’d all been shredded and shattered so he suggested she take us to be taught meditation.
Dress nice, I remember hearing. Finding clean clothes was a problem. My hair had gone from well kept, to an unruly, farrell mane, full of knots. I hated the ripping my grandmother used to do to my hair which was done every single day that she was alive. I did not know until years later that love felt a lot like a tight ponytail. I either had a very tight braid, or ponytail, or French twist, or bun, or curls. I had my own personal hairdresser (my grandmother), who spent at least a half hour a day on my hair.
I can’t find clean clothes, or clothes that fit. It has been a year or so since her death and we have grown. I went from having my own personal seamstress as well, who made me suits, and dresses, some made from wool and blouses made from silk to clothes bought off the rack at Sears. When she was alive all I wanted was a pair of jeans bought at Sears. I didn’t understand I could always have Sears, but I wouldn’t always have her. Now, at 9 it is left to me to figure out how to fix my own stringy, split end riddled hair and to make my outfits look clean and well fitted so I could learn meditation, so I won’t be shredded anymore.
I grab my mother’s pic comb she uses for her perm, out of the hair infested, toothpaste-spattered bathroom drawer. The four of us share this bathroom. My hair is in knots, a rat’s nest, impossible to untangle. I start from the bottom, little by little I work my way up toward the top of my head, like she used to brush it. It takes a long time. My scalp is oily, but I don’t know yet washing my hair will solve that. I take the pointy part of the comb, try to eyeball the middle. I drag the point from the back of my head to the front of my scalp, I press hard, I have a lot of hair to get through.
Somewhere on Funston, cross Street Anza, we pull up to a four-story house. It’s massive. An Indian man in a White Cotton Indian Kurta Pajama answers the door and guides us up through all the many flights of stairs to reach the top floor. His clothing I find odd, because it’s unfamiliar, even though I was raised in San Francisco, our neighborhood was mostly Irish Catholic. Why a dress and pants…?, I think. We go into a room where we are asked to wait. I quietly wait for my turn. The room is dark, except the picture window facing toward the Ocean. I am leery, I don’t feel safe in the world with adults I don’t know, well really, I don’t feel safe with the many that I do know. I am leery of everything by now. It’s been a rough year since her passing. The very nice pajama man says he’s going to teach me how to meditate. I do not know what it is, but I think he is going to tell me a secret to solve all my problems and I have a lot of them now. A secret that is going to make sense of all of it, a secret that will make it all OK, because I am not OK. I am counting on life being better because of this meditation, it needs to be, it couldn’t possibly get worse. I was surprised by how bad it was since she died. This has to help, I hope hard for. I am too old to believe in magic, but I secretly do, and too young to use reason. I don’t know what I am in for.
He gives me a word and says I need to say it over and over again in my head. My word is a top secret word, he tells me, and that I can’t tell anyone the word, not ever, ever, ever. After, because of my experience I think, I told everyone that would listen, although I felt guilty about it later. Although I was already in whole lotta trouble with God and his Devil, this pajama guy and his little word were nothing compared to the Eternity I was going to roast in Hell anyway. I had already made the biggest enemy on the Spiritual Plane. It was my fault she died, I was sure of it, and I was going to roast for it. I was raised Catholic and I believed in lightning bolts. I was up the road the day she took the bullet with a boy I had a huge crush on and we were kissing. My crush on him got her killed. I liked him better than that I liked God and that was a sin.
The word the Meditation man gave me was ING…it wasn’t even a word at all, it was half a word. Why couldn’t I have be given a real word? A word like, hope or blessed or love or joy or forgiven, I know nothing about these words anyway, anymore, but I know a whole word that plays over and over in my head and often still does. Fuck! Fuck, I got a stupid half word from a guy in a dress and pants! I will add my half word ING to my favorite word fuck, another reason I was in trouble with God, and there is not much you can’t preface with the work Fucking. Now there is a useful word, still is. After all that pitching my Mom did I had huge expectations. He gave me the word, showed me how to sit, what to look at, how to focus on the word and the breath and left the room for five minutes. At three minutes I was on fire with rage. The word unleashed the rage. I couldn’t get the rage back in until I started drinking which was when I was 12 so it wasn’t long off. Only a few more years with the rage and smoking helped the rage a lot too. I started smoking at age ten.
I didn’t have a relationship with feeling words and feelings or an understanding that they come and go and that I don’t have to do anything with them. I can just honor them and the faster I do that, the faster they are on their way. They are like dogs that just want to be petted, they will relentlessly hassle me until I completely surrender myself to the endeavor of giving them affection. Once I do that they are gone. It is the same with feelings. I didn’t know they can’t kill me and they aren’t real facts either. Although it feels real, that they are that powerful, but it isn’t true, because I am still here despite many many overwhelming powerful feelings. If I got mad, somebody, usually an adult, got madder. I learned quickly, anger wasn’t OK for me to express. I cried a lot alone in my room, other wise I’d have to give a long and justifiable explanation for my tears, lest someone feel blamed for them, or responsible for them, or my feelings caused someone else to have feelings. Feelings were something to be ashamed of, even joyful ones, and they were something I must hide or I would have bigger problems than feelings.
I knew from a very young age feelings weren’t safe to share, none of them. I saw people throw and break things, I saw people scream and yell and hit. That is how I felt after sitting for just three minutes saying that stupid half word to myself. I wanted to break everything, especially that man in his pajamas with his word. That was my introduction to meditation.
Years later when I was 22, I got into the program and got sober. The second half of the 11 step says we ought to practice meditation. I put that off for 20 years, before I ever sat down again to meditate. I did everything possible to avoid meditation. I called meditation reading a daily meditation book, by the way, that’s not meditation, that’s reading a daily meditation book. I called meditation walking, what I was, was distracted on my walks. I called meditation yoga, nope that was yoga. I called meditation painting, nope that was painting. It is said that if one isn’t happy joyous and free in the program then there is a hole in one’s program and I had a big fat gaping hole in mine. I knew exactly where I balked. I was afraid of the rage. I was afraid to face my feelings without distraction. I was afraid I’d unleash the Kraken and kill someone. For real, I was raised with violence and that made me violent. I finally reached enough pain where I was willing to do sitting meditation even if it killed me or someone else. My head used to tell me, “What is this going to do for you, besides waste your time and frustrate you?”.
I have been hearing about meditation my whole life. I have been avoiding meditation my whole life. It is as crazy as resisting oxygen and water. 10 years ago, I got into a grave amount of pain, because I was making the mistake most people do. I was trying to suppress certain thoughts and feelings, which in turn strengthened them, which created a storm of mental obsession, which created the grave discomfort. This discomfort created so much pain, I began to doubt my reality. I have the affliction of the ISM and I am aware that my best thinking got me into a lot of the bad situations I encountered, but it wasn’t truly until this moment that I hit a bottom with my own thinking. I had to admit that I was powerless over my mind and it was causing me great suffering. During that time I saw the title of a book that shot out at me, “Turning the Mind into an Ally”, by Sakyong Mipham. I promptly bought it. I devoured it all and I began a sitting meditation practice of 20 minutes a day, religiously. His booked helped me lay down my judgments about meditation and it’s purpose. I still read it. Sakyong Mipham is my Meditation teacher. No need for me to share or explain his method. His book says it all. I did the practice for a couple years and just like with everything else, when things start going well, I stopped. I slowly coasted back to bad habits, so slowly that I did not see it. Coasting in the program is the equivalent of going downhill and the bad habits I took on, so far, consist of shitty food, not enough exercise, prayer, meditation, loving self-care, commitment to well-being over my comfort. Meditation is uncomfortable for me, but so is exercise and every day when I go to my seat I am strengthening my ability to walk away from a thought, a story, a fantasy, a feeling, a habit, a bad relationship, and to learn to self-sooth with calm and breath. I dedicate 20 minutes a day to sit in the presence of my HP and let him do the much-needed work on my battered spirit, because life is an ass kicker for everyone and mine has been especially rich.
The last few years have been a bigger ass kicker than normal with 5 kids all moving off and trying to fly right, (give me toddlers any day), 3 big dogs, working fast a full time office Manager in a small town Chamber (which is riddled with the Monday Morning Quarterbacks, folks that want to tell you and the world that you are getting it wrong, but don’t bring a solution), running my photography business and having a cop for a husband, that gets hurt a lot. It has been a blur of one thing after another. I am still a bit shell-shocked. I believe I created much of my adrenal fatigue, from the gun to my head approach of self-management, which I came by as a young girl after my grandmother died, life changed and I had to adapt quickly and efficiently, gun to the head management got things done, but it also ate away at my peace and kept me in a stressed based state. I was trained with pressure and in turn I did it to my kids. It takes a long time to wake up. A life time. I thought I’d been rolling with it all pretty well until January 2015. Life hit me, well all of us, square in the face. A close young friend killed himself, just 16. Then our teenage daughter attempted a month later and then almost died of anorexia a month after that, where she was given just two weeks to live. We spent the next 18 months fighting that disease with all that we had, which felt like nothing, in and out of hospitals. It compressed our marriage until I was sure there wasn’t one. All while in the middle of perimenopause and then another kid went off the rails. In between, Ian had 3 catastrophic back injuries and the last one he had was three fractures in his t8 t9 spine. Two days after his accident I had my first panic attack that landed me in the ER, and because I don’t take mood or mind alterers, ever, meaning no mommy’s little helpers of the Xanax or Ativan (they are Benzos, highly addictive), originally they were Valium and the Big Pharma changed the way the marketed them because they were killing people. So no, these aren’t for me ever, as I would eat them like skittles. I have had all 34 symptoms of pri-menopause and it’s awful BTW, but the deal breaker for me were the panic attacks. It was so bad I had no choice but to go straight back to my meditation seat. Literally, it felt like die or meditate. What choice did I have, use benzo’s or meditate? And to use for me is to die. It has taken 200 days straight of 20 minute sitting mediation, plus my daily practice of 20 minutes of Qi Gong and heavy exercise to get to a place where I feel comfortable, calm and peaceful more than I don’t. It worked because I work it.
If prayer is talking to God and Meditation is listening, I took this to a whole new level and sat there in half lotus, while his little metaphorical Cinderella Mice and Blue Birds worked on me like I was The Dress, the ugly step-sisters had shredded up. I would sit and breath and focus and cry out my greif…and it went from daily crying to a few times a week and now it’s once or twice a week. Through meditation, I found I am grieving and it’s just as it should be. I have to make a new life, the one I have lived for the last 32 years is over. I found I needed to get out of the Briar Patch (The Chamber, all thorns no roses for me), as Brene Brown suggests when working with anxiety. Get rid of anything that hurts, so I did, relationships too. I quit my stressful job and that took care of about fifty percent of the stress. But with the shit show of Peri-menopausal hormonal mutiny going on in my body, crazy hormones can mimic all kinds of medical issues. Palpitations, anxiety and panic attacks read like heart issues, so I have had to do all sorts of medical diagnostics, a month of heart monitors. Then an endoscopy for the raging reflux from too many big babies and a shot sphincter, the one in my esophagus and stomach, not the booty, that one is just fine, thank you very much. A colonoscopy for the polyps, 3D mammograms and sonograms for the for the cysts, because hey, it just isn’t real peri-menopause without the cysts and they look like cancer sometimes. These diagnostics are a daily, standing in the corner waiting for the cancer or heart disease spanking. Which, so far, looks like I am well. Mediation got me through all of them without a panic attack. When a fearful thought comes up and it gains momentum and starts to create anxiety, because I meditate, I am able to remember to slide into the crack of the safety of the breath, which grounds me into the present moment, where I am always safe. It may take five times of deep breathing and focus, and then my mind has moved off the obsession and onto something else, because that is what minds do. All of this was mixed in with a big fat dash of the Empty Nesters Syndrome. I looked forward to it a decade ago when I was in the thick of unruly asshole teenagers, I paid it no heed, and now I am like a dog whose puppies have been stolen and no one is more shocked and horrified by this frantic grief than I, hence the constant crying, I am grieving a lifetime of building a family for the last three plus decades and it’s all changed now to, it’s pretty much just me. Plus, estrogen plummets can cause the crying as as well. The crying is OK, when I am done crying, I will be done crying, I can wait for her, as long as it takes, she’s been through a lot. I thought I’d glide right through all of this empty nest stuff, I still obviously suffer from magical thinking in many ways, but without meditation, I believe I might have completely cracked. I got derailed for sure. Life happened. I’ve been a mom since I was 8, everything and everyone came first since I was 8, a whole lifetime of, in the service of other people’s feelings, wants and needs, until I didn’t even know what I felt, wanted, or needed. Now it’s mostly just me and meditation is helping me not be so confused by that. It asks me to get intimate with all of it, and I am.
Last week I woke up feeling anxious and I watched the thought roll in, “Meditation will help with this”. That was new, I still dread it, but I do it. That’s courage. I like it now. It’s a practice, like King Fu, sometimes it’s tough in here, but I am starting to see and feel the benefits. The Dali Lama says that after 60 years of daily practice it’s still hard, but I know what is harder, life without meditation. Things are now going better and I hear that voice say, “We can skip it today”. No. I will not skip it again, and also I will not be using the half word.