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As I turned the corner onto my street, I could see there were no cars parked in front of my house. I opened the storm door and stood, icy flakes soaking my hair, and wondered if I had my house key. I opened my bag and rummaged around, my hand seeking that piece of metal which would deliver me into warm sanctuary. My customary method for finding loose items in my trendy drawstring bag was to turn it over and dump the contents onto the pavement (table, bench, chair) for the advantage of a visual search. As I stood in that triangle between storm door and locked front door, I wondered if I would be reduced to scattering my belongings onto the cold, wet entryway of my home. It was late in the afternoon, on a gray, snowy day. Where was everyone?
I removed my glove for better traction on the items in my bag. And, sure enough, my fingers contacted the cold metal of my rescue. I unlocked the door and stood in the front hallway for a moment, listening for any signs of life. Brothers bickering over the ping pong table in the basement. Motherly rattling of pots and pans in the kitchen. Father-home announcement of a slammed truck door in the driveway. Water running, tv blatherings, dull murmurings of conversation. Nothing. I shut the door with the dawning reality that I was alone in the house. My home of five, without its usual sounds, was unexpectedly my own silent estate.
I could have rushed up the stairs to blast some Bruce Springsteen on the stereo I shared with my younger brother. I might, on any other day in which I found myself queen of the castle, have dashed into the kitchen and heated up the last of the frozen pizza in the toaster oven. Or commandeered, with no opposition, the television to watch what I wanted to see, unencumbered by other opinions. I chose none of those options. Instead, I opened the front door, removed my coat and hat and sat down on the stairs facing the doorway and gazed out at the falling snow through the storm door.
This was the first time I became aware of savoring a moment of peace. My first meditation, you might say. At that time, when I was a teenager dwelling in a bustling household, I didn’t have a label for this experience. I simply sat on the stairs and watched as snow flakes came down in the front yard of my family home and allowed my mind to settle. The opportunity was unplanned, but the seizing of it was decidedly intentional. I sat in a dark, quiet house on a snowy afternoon and allowed the day to fall away from my consciousness. I’d had no instruction. I had only my own discovery. I was on my way to finding the best way to tame the internal circus that occupied my head. Perhaps this is why I remember the moment so many years later.
I learned the name of this practice much later in life when I took some college classes in my early thirties. I met Diane, a fellow student. She was my mom’s age and I admired her for attending the university during her “senior” years. I would, twenty-some years later, be doing the same thing and end up laughing at my previous description of her valor. As we became closer friends, Diane asked me if I wanted to learn yoga. Seriously, I did not know anything about yoga. Wasn’t it for exotic people in foreign countries? My limbs were spindly and my joints were too tight to move in bizarre directions. I had little body awareness. But, I had recently started running and working out in an attempt to boost my immune system after a prolonged illness. I was not a particularly robust person or fitness enthusiast. My body and I were in the process of negotiations toward good health, so I thought yoga might be worth trying.
To start my first lesson, Diane had me sit down on her living room floor and explained how to meditate as a prelude to asana (physical) practice. As we sat and breathed, a realization seeped into my consciousness. I’d done this before! But without all that breath-following stuff. I had followed snow, or clouds or sounds. It was a real THING I had been doing all along. I was not yet connecting how those quiet moments, which I had sought on an irregular basis since that snowy afternoon of my childhood, were a part of that bendy, stretchy thing I thought of as yoga.
After learning some basic poses and a new way of meditating with Diane, I decided to take some formal classes at a local yoga studio. This offered me new insights into the practice. Not only was I moving my body within a structured regimen of movements, I was also practicing meditation habitually. In that place my world expanded. I began to discover the many styles of yoga and the various rituals which constituted the title of meditation. Don’t get me wrong, I was still awkward, stiff as a cadaver and continued to wrestle with the internal circus that was my mind. It was many years later that I learned that none of this mattered. Being good at yoga had nothing to do with how much of a Gumby I became or how much torture I was willing to put up with by sitting in lotus pose or how long it took until my mind became one with the universe. The “good” was merely the fact that I was practicing forms of awareness to the benefit of my being.
There was, though, in my early attempts, nothing more frustrating than believing people were judging how badly I was meditating. How exactly would they have been able to arrive at this conclusion? It might have been because I am somewhat of a twitchy person and have trouble sitting for long periods of time especially in a room full of other people. In the wild, uninformed meditations of my youth, I frequently reclined and watched the clouds. My eyes liked to focus on something in what I might now call trataka (gazing) meditation. I wondered during classroom practice if I might nip outside to lie down in the parking lot. But then, everyone would know I was unable to follow directions, so I toughed it out. The guidance given was to allow what arose during the sitting to be acknowledged, then released from my consciousness. This is not always an easy thing to do.
I could never figure out what to do with my mouth. Lips parted, or pressed shut? I only mention this because my meditations brought on an acute awareness of saliva. At first, as I became more relaxed in my sitting posture, I had to close my mouth to keep drool from sluicing over my bottom lip. Let that go? No way. Not this one. Knees whinging, the grocery list, a lock of hair tickling my nose, wondering if anyone was watching me. All these distractions could be easily dismissed–except that last one. So I decided to keep my lips sealed with just the right amount of tension to allow some preservation of dignity. After a minute or so of determined damming, I felt the spit rising in a pool behind my lower teeth. Oh no, I was going to have to do something! So I swallowed that tsunami in what I perceived to be the loudest and most annoying working of the throat ever to be heard in a yoga studio at meditation practice. My eyes were closed against any dirty looks from my fellow practitioners. I took a moment to send them a “Let it go” vibe and returned to my own situation. Was observing the present moment meant to lead to liberation from attachment to the whirlpool in my mouth or perhaps, my perception of drowning in disapproving stares no matter how I handled the situation? I eventually learned that everyone struggles with these kinds of distractions and nobody is paying attention to me and my present-moment challenges when they are working on their own.
As I tried different styles of meditation, I found that I liked methods that ask me to focus outside my body such as a teacher’s voice in guided meditation or that gazing thing I used to do. I discovered walking meditation, where I had to keep a tiny bit of my energy focused on not tripping over my own feet. Then I moved more inward with chanting (really my favorite thing) and loving kindness. Finally, through my free-roaming practice among these various styles, I found my way back to a simple mindfulness meditation.
I carried this practice forward into my years of teaching yoga and meditation. My happiest moment as an instructor came when I taught at The Women’s Home, a residential program for homeless women. Some of my students approached me one day before class and I briefly wondered if they were there to tell me to cut the meditation time and increase the active stuff. It came as a bit of a surprise that my students, so unused to closing their eyes in a room full of people to concentrate on breath, had been in a play over the weekend and used meditation to calm their nerves and ground themselves before their performance. I felt as though they had given me a precious gift, another moment to treasure always.
Likewise, I have used meditation practice to get me through those tough instances of fear, sadness, chaos or loss, and kept up a regular practice… until the pandemic, when my daily routine was interrupted. My habits changed. I stopped meditating for a while. I could not work up any enthusiasm for sitting meditation. I was already sitting far too long during the long days of isolating and felt the need to move instead. I relied on my morning tai chi practice to provide me with a concentrative state of mindfulness and that seemed to be enough to carry me through those trying times.
I eventually returned to practicing sitting meditation with the intention of delving deeper into the experience. Unsurprisingly, it is not exactly easy for me with my creaky knees and my propensity for drooling. My dog barks and the circus clamors to write the next blog story. As I let go of these usual distractions, I am able to unlock that door and move into the stillness once again. Finding a group meditation feels like the next logical move for me in the ebb and flow of my mindfulness practice.
Back on that snowy day, when I was a teenager alone in my house, I unexpectantly found a new peace. Then, one by one, my family members came crashing through the door charging that space with their own exuberance. I welcomed their familiar energy and knew, even then amid the household whirl of activity, that whenever I had the need and opportunity, I would be able to find that quiet place within me again. It hasn’t always been easy or convenient, but, with continued practice, I know I’ll be pretty good at it some day. Not Carnegie Hall good, mind you, but Hobbit House good anyway.