Hi, my name is Jenni, and I am a multitasker.
A few years ago when I was struggling to get through the meditation requirement for the Dedicant's Program, you might have seen me on any given morning sitting uncomfortably before my contrived altar, eyes squinted closed, trying not to think about the zillion things I had to do that day, focused on growing roots out of my posterior and having a star beam blaze a path into my brain.
Now that I'm a Dedicant Priest and my teacher insists that I meditate for a minimum of three minutes a day - every day - you might see me literally sitting on my hands, eyes closed, and furrows in my brows as I try to focus on "the now." Meditation has never ceased being a struggle for me. So just as I struggled with Algebra but found I made a pretty good Algebra tutor, I figured it might help some folks who also struggle with meditation if I shared some of my experiences.
I used to always worry that I just wasn't any good at meditation and I'd never get it. I have trouble sitting still for any period of time; my feet go to sleep if I sat in a lotus position for more than two or three minutes; my mind drifts everywhere; I have a hard time even keeping my eyes closed. Meditation feels like a chore or a punishment - like when my mother used to punish me by sitting me on a stool in the corner and setting the timer for 10 minutes. Torture! Sometimes I despair of ever being able to meditate properly. That is, until I realized the only way for me to meditate "properly" is to do so in a way that works for ME.
One day, while I was still working on my own DP, a friend pointed out to me that I can always meditate when the situation calls for it - particularly in ritual. I can be in trance mode almost as fast as you can say "ground and center." Ergo, she reasoned, I must be getting practice somewhere. Maybe I was practicing in ways I didn't consciously deem meditation? Eureka! I practice meditation when I am doing something else that does not require the complete focus of my mind but I can't do anything else simultaneously. How typical of me! Why would I ever do one thing at a time when I could be doing three or four? Since then, I've identified two discernable types of trance and meditation that I use regularly: The first involves focusing on nothing in particular and getting lost in the nothingness (or, as I prefer to think of it, "zoning out"). With the second, I focus on one thing and get totally wrapped up in it. Like so many other learning experiences in my life, I found I really could do what everyone else seemed to find so easy to do - I just went about it in a different way.
Mindfulness: Contemplating Nothing
Focusing on nothing was a task which daunted me for years until I discovered that I do so all the time, and I suspect everyone else does, too, with some frequency. The best example for me is while I am driving for a long period of time on a route that requires little attention. When I find myself on such a drive, I go into a sort of attentive trance, not consciously directing my thoughts, but allowing them to mill around in my head, sorting themselves out almost of their own volition. Now I certainly don't recommend anyone take up meditation while driving, but anyone can reach a contemplative state while driving. I've discovered a huge benefit in doing so as I'm one of those rare persons who doesn't succumb to road rage. I'm not so involved in my driving that I ever get upset about it - - my mind is only partially occupied with driving, and I'm very relaxed.
There are certainly lots of other opportunities for "zoning out" - the bathtub zone, the front-porch-at-dusk zone, the commuter-train zone, the trance-music zone, etc. (I'm sure folks can come up with dozens of other examples.) It's not so much what you're doing as the fact that you're really doing nothing that makes the time so valuable. The point is that you are a captive audience to "the now." Thoughts and sensations drift in and out of your consciousness just as much as necessary, though you don't necessarily get bogged down in any of them. I find that all those thoughts and sensations tend to sort themselves out and prioritize themselves naturally. As I sit on the front porch, I notice the neighbor's music for only a moment; it's the song of the bullfrog in the pond across the street that comes to the forefront, probably because that song has something to tell me, not the neighbor's stereo.
Of course, on rare occasions, I get so lost in the moment that I neither hear, feel, see, smell nor perceive ANYTHING. I treasure those moments most of all. I really miss smoke breaks. They don't work for me without the cigarettes; I just don't relax. I used to sit outside on the back steps listening to the birds, tasting the air on the wind, and generally tuning into the world around me. I prefer to think of this kind of meditation as a "mindfulness" exercise, rather than focusing on nothingness. It simply involves relaxing and opening up my mind and senses to be totally receptive. Often I do this sort of meditation immediately after prayer, because I think an important part of prayer is listening. Sometimes, these meditations just quiet my mind. Sometimes they lead to contemplation of all sorts of things: daydreaming about my future, thinking about my ancestors, working out the outline of a story or essay I plan to write, or planning work and rituals for my grove. Sometimes what I experience I can only describe as epiphany. At such times, I've written some of my best poetry. Sometimes it simply brings great, joyful tears to my eyes. I daresay that these meditations are some of the most fruitful and satisfying meditations of all.
I used to experience another less spectacular instance of this focused meditative trance when I would type from dictation or copy. Typing from long tapes of dictation or pages and pages of boring copy can be very relaxing. I used to get so deeply involved in the task at hand that my mind would be totally open and empty, not thinking at all about what the document says, and no effort whatsoever into the kinetics of my fingers on the keyboard or my foot on the dictaphone pedal. I could just close my eyes and shift into a sort of clerical cruise control, unable to see, hear, or smell anything around me - pretty much off in another world. This is as close as I ever come to being so involved in a trance that I think of "nothingness," yet ironically, it is while I am totally focused on a single task, simple and automatic as it is for me.
Immersion: Contemplating Everything
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We are all inextricably connected to each other and to that which surrounds us. By consciously focusing on the connections we have with the world around us and joining our essence with the 'All,' we become more than just ourselves - we become a part of our community, our environment, and our universe. I refer to this type of meditation as "immersion," because it involves surrendering one's individual consciousness to become absorbed in the Whole. For me, the most powerful of these meditations occur in ritual, when my mind becomes so tuned into what enfolds before me that often I'm not aware of anything but the ritual and its participants - the Kindred, the Community, and the Earth - in a way that excludes perception of so called mundane reality - people joining the ritual late, traffic sounds, or the airplane passing overhead. Because the Universe is a dynamic and mutable force, immersion meditation is not something one would do quietly or sitting still. It requires - by definition - active participation. My favorite form of immersion meditation involves listening to music and singing and/or dancing along with it. My soul has always spoken and understood the language of music more so than any other form of communication.
Sometimes I listen carefully to discern the different instruments or voices in music which create the whole, but more often, I listen more holistically and feel the music as an aching, soaring catharsis deep within me - I see, hear, smell, and feel nothing else but the music. It is the most uplifting, exhilarating type of meditation I know. I once attended a zikr workshop sponsored by the Sufi folks in Columbus, Ohio. This type of meditation opened entire worlds of consciousness to me. The zikr is a form of meditative trance which involves some sort of movement and chant. Whirling dervishes are the most readily recognized users of this type of trance and meditation. One of the simpler zikrs I remember involves a group of people sitting around in a circle, each in a half-lotus or lotus position, knees almost touching the persons adjacent. The chant was an exaggeratedly aspirated "hhhhoo," and the movement simply turning one's head from side to side.
The idea was to imagine the essence of your soul concentrated in your breath and passing it with the syllable "hoo" to the center core of the soul of the person to either side of you. After maybe ten minutes of this exercise (it is difficult to have any sense of time during zikrs), the souls of every person in the circle had been passed around and shared, and we were all the stronger and refreshed (these being totally inadequate adjectives) for having shared them thus. Sometimes I do consciously involve myself in a more guided, spiritual meditation. Instead of the Two Powers, I imagine a small, but powerful flame deep inside the core of me expanding, diffusing, and spreading around me like an aura. I especially like to do this when I am driving in heavy traffic where other drivers seem to be particularly impatient and grumpy. I focus first on myself and my breathing, calming and relaxing myself. Then I allow those feelings of calmness and well-being influence those around me. It really does seem to work to help relieve tension in the drivers around me!
Finally, I want to describe one last form of immersion meditation I use when I am walking or exercising. It involves matching the rhythms of my body with my movements and with any external rhythms I perceive. When I was younger - and could still jog comfortably without feeling like every step was jolting my body to pieces - I would always use a specific song in my mind to pace myself -- ELO's "Evil Woman" was one of my favorites for a long, steady, sustained run. Nowadays, when I swim, I find a stroke which suits the rhythm of a particular song and set the pace of my stroke and breathe to that beat. My favorite workout is on the elliptical machine while wearing headphones and a lively CD playing. I love the music SO much, that I can't help matching its rhythm. I've found my heart rate is lower when I work out to music, time goes faster, I have more energy, less soreness... and oh, when those endorphins kick in! I get so lost in the movement and the music, I totally lose track of time and all conscious thought whatsoever.
These methods of meditation are what have worked best for me, and I found them as a process of experimentation, elimination and back-door contemplation. Whether you're just learning to meditate or have done so for years, find a method of meditation that works best for you. Try the Two Powers meditation - honestly, open-mindedly and over enough time to really give it a chance - before you do anything else. It is a terrific starting point, and for many folks, one of the best meditation techniques there is. (If it ain't broke, don't fix it!) If you find it really isn't your bag, take the time to contemplate why that is. (Find out what's broke and fix it!) Try different techniques, and if necessary, tweak them out until you have something that's custom-made for you.
Hey, if I can do it, anyone can.