The Challenge of Facing Everything

When I began meditating in 1968, I was 18 years old and working my way through college. Each morning when I arose, I would meditate for about 25 minutes, then get something to eat, do some homework, and go off to school or work. Then again in the afternoon or early evening I would find a space somewhere – the university library, my car, an empty classroom, a tree out in the central park, and meditate for half an hour. During those two half-hour sessions, in addition to experiencing great inner peace, I relived every traumatic experience that ever happened to me. Seated there on the chair, the lawn, or in my car, I would see and feel and hear and smell and taste everything painful, everything that made me shudder, every overwhelming event, every conflict, every loss, everything that ever made me hate myself or anyone else. Usually the first memories to come up would be tiny things from that day – the small shock of seeing an angry driver on the road, or worries about a job interview or test coming up. Then, once that door was opened, any memory from any time in life was fair game. All these emotions streamed through me and I witnessed them without resistance, but also without being detached – I felt everything down to the last molecule.

As great as meditation was, I would never have found time for it if I did not experience an improvement in my ability to function after meditation. For example, for days before taking a test, my mind would be filled with planning for the test, during what seemed like the entire meditation. It would be breath, breath, a thought of the test, mantra, mantra, another thought of the test, along with a tense feeling in my body. In this way I released the worry about tests and actually started to do better on tests than I did at home. I started to be so relaxed about taking tests that I became a clutch-hitter, someone a bit too relaxed who was actually improved by adding the tension of performance of record. In every arena of my life, work, play, love, and sex, I found myself functioning way above anything I had experienced before. And because of this, I got the sense that in addition to meditation giving a shape and an impetus to my life, I also felt that my daily life contributed to meditation. If I would go out and really go for it in life, then I would have much better, deeper, more entertaining meditations at the end of the day.

There was always pain of some sort: the pain in the muscles from fatigue, the slight pain of visualizing a test or job situation and worrying about whether I was prepared for it, and then the kind of pain you feel when you think about a conversation that went awry, the pain of entering the body fully, entering the heart, entering the senses, inhabiting the skin fully. The most consistent pain was from the myriad little ouches that came with realizing that I could have done better here or there – Oh, I see now, aha, I see the big picture now and if I had seen that then, I could have acted differently. A kind of after-action debriefing, a review of the previous day's actions, with the silent awareness part of the mind acting as a coach, firm but not mean. Ruthless and also gentle.

After facing the pain, relaxing into the tension, surrendering to the attacks of my conscience, and witnessing the many thoughts zooming around, there always would come a gush of relaxation, a sense of relief and peace and acceptance. This inner quiet always seemed to come at unexpected moments, often just after the tension seemed unendurable, after I looked at my watch for the third time in three minutes wondering, "Is this over yet? Can I get up out of this tedious waste of time?"

I learned that this process was self-regulating to an amazing extent. The catalyst inviting the emotional and physical release to happen was that I was relaxing, opening up to myself, and being willing to feel. This seems obvious if you think about it, that if you relax, you let go of tension. And when you let go of tension, you become aware of what you were tense about. You feel it, see it, hear it, and your body asks you repeatedly if you really want to let go of that tension. That's the process. There does not seem to be any way to relax on a deep level without consciously letting go of your holding pattern. And if you ever tense up and distrust the process of release, or feel that you can't handle it, this very act of tensing cancels the meditation process.

This is a profoundly healthy process. You get a chance, each day, to get perspective on your life as if you were sitting on a mountain top, or just had a near-death experience. And then ding, it's dinner time and you are sitting in a chair in the den, stretching. Meditation is always a challenge, always a surprise, and always rewarding.

My general experience of meditation, from the beginning, has been that it is a time and a situation in which you remember everything you have forgotten, you feel everything that is in your heart and body, you face everything and confront everything. Your own inner essence calls you to pay attention and to not turn away from being with whatever comes up. This whole process occurs because you invite it and allow it, and relax into it. There is a self-regulating quality to the confrontation, because if you tense against a thought or an emotion, you won't feel it – your repression will be activated.

So the rhythm of relaxing and releasing stress happens because you let down your guard. Why have you let down your guard? Because you have come home to yourself, and when you are at home, you are at ease, and if anyone in the house wants to talk to you, you listen.

The only way to avoid this process would be to never let down your guard, and to make meditation into something other than being at home in the self. Some people, it turns out, do just that – they make meditation a very complicated affair so that they never have to pay attention to their real experience. If for example, you don't want to feel your real pain, which could be the pain of loneliness, the pain of not living your creativity, or the pain of losing someone you love, you could go out of your way to make meditation artificially painful, by sitting in an uncomfortable cross-legged position that hurts your knees. In this way, you could meditate a little but be distracted by a self-induced pain.

So it turns out that if you make meditation a sort of unnatural process, and impose the wrong kind of rules on yourself – if you try, in other words, to do someone else's meditation, then you will never relax utterly and therefore never allow your deepest tensions and fears to come to the surface and be released. Books on "how to meditate" are full of instructions that will drive you crazy and make it impossible for you to meditate. For example, Patanjali begins his famous Yoga Sutras with the line, "Yoga chitta vritti nirodha," which is often translated as, "Yoga is suppression of the wave motion of the mind," or "Yoga is making your mind blank." Yeah, right.

Being able to meditate requires a skillful connection to yourself. If you simply take to heart the often-heard connection of meditation=slowing down the mind, you will probably become unable to meditate and enjoy it. The mind does not move slowly. Maybe the minds of ancient people living in tiny villages in rural India moved slowly. But if you think you are supposed to slow down, you are going to wind up at war with nature.

(By the way, I am just writing all this now, early July 2005, and posting it to the web unedited. I wrote this book originally in 1978, and submitted it for publication, but did not know enough about the publishing business then to get it out. Then I lost the manuscript, and accompanying notes, about 1000 pages of typing I did in the late 70's. So let me know if you see typos, or want to give feedback. My first drafts of stuff are sometimes hard to read.)
The Rhythm of Meditative Experience

I noticed a pattern to my meditation experience, a rhythm to the adventure of each 20 or 25-minute sitting. I meditate because I need something, a better perspective on my life, more energy and focus to carry out my plans, and to attune my senses so I am more alert. So I am on a quest. Then all kinds of obstacles show up: I need to find a quiet place to meditate, I need to make time for it, and then as soon as I close my eyes, I have to face all the noise in my head about my to-do list, and anything I forgot to put on it or attend to. Then the individual items on my to-do list play musical chairs and have a struggle about who gets which position on the list, each one shouting, "No, I'M more important than the other!" After sorting through this noise, which feels like a chore or a task, then there would be a reward, an intitial relaxation and a gush of pleasure, a sense of Ah, I am on my way. But then deeper pains would come to the surface to be felt.

The general pattern of any one meditation was something like this:

– 0 to 5 minutes: settling in, catching up with myself, relaxing and sinking into the seat, feeling my fatigue, noticing the thoughts coming and going.

– 5 to 10 minutes: Feeling in to the deeper worries, struggles, energies and dynamics of my life. Letting go of the muscle tension involved in "guarding myself" or blocking out experience. Settling in, settling in, and confronting everything that made me feel unsettled. Occasional sublime moments of pure transcendence, no thoughts at all, just pure serene expansiveness, feeling at one with the whole world. These would be so intense that their delight would permeate every area of my life, even though I immediately forgot about them.

– 10 to 15 minutes: A descent into some deep dark hell where I would face my worst fears, often things I had lived through, sometimes images of people I had terrible experiences with, sometimes vague feelings of fear of darkness, death, or being torn apart somehow. Five minutes of this can feel eternal, let me tell you. And then almost always, the intensity of this darkness would resolve itself into something else entirely – relief or rejoicing or quiet ecstasy. Opening up the floodgates of joy to just be alive. But this only happened after facing the fears without resisting, just letting it all wash through me.

– 15 to 20 minutes: A sense of relief, the emotional equivalent of sweeping up the garage floor, just cleaning up the debris left over from the descent, paying attention to any remaining feelings of unease or fear or tension, starting to get excited about the day ahead of me, beginning to plan where I was going to go and what I was going to do, savoring a sense of deep peacefulness and pleasure.

Then somewhere around 25 minutes I would slowly open my eyes.

That Unfinished Feeling

Once in awhile, perhaps once a month or so, the "facing my fears" process would not be finished at the 20 minute or 25 minute mark, and I would be completely unready to jump up and zoom off to work or class. I would have to sit there for another 5 or 10 minutes to allow the feelings to finish themselves. If I did not, then the "unfinished" feeling would persist, and I would be in a bad mood for most of the rest of the day. So I learned to just stay there until I was done, and at the same time knowing that there really would be hell to pay if I didn't show up at the golf course to mow the greens of the first 9 holes before dawn, or show up at the EEG lab to wire up the day's subjects.

Almost always, the cycle of experience in meditation would resolve itself and I would emerge refreshed and good to go, ready for whatever was up that day – work, love, play, rest, travel, study, – in any combination and permutation. Over the months during 1968 and 1969 I picked up a variety of tricks to help make the transition from the inner world of meditation to the outer world. My girlfriend was very savvy about this, and from her I learned about painting mandalas – you just draw a circle, or circular shape such as a flower, and start painting. She would also sometimes soak in a hot bath before meditating, a habit I adopted. Sometimes I would do a few minutes of Tai Chi, other times I would pick up a paintbrush and work on a mandala-like image, or I might go for a swim in the ocean, or go to the garage and take a hammer and break pieces of wood. There always seemed to be a way to take the energy, however rough, and shape it into something useful. Necessity is the mother of invention, and my necessity was I had to make a living, I needed to heal myself, and I wanted to get a B+ or A- average. Those were my demands on myself, so I just figured out a way to make it all work, the way that people everywhere do. And I had a lot of coaching, teaching, workshops, therapy and mentoring to help me integrate my experiences and take them in stride.

Anyone who meditates has to learn to deal with this kind of thing, and there is some fine balancing of priorities involved. When my friends dropped one of the balls they were juggling, I could tell at a glance from 50 feet away, and I am sure they could tell the same about me.