Taboos Against Healing
One thing you may find on your path is that in order to heal from something – a broken heart, a broken life, a broken leg – you have to dip deeper into life's abundance than you usually do. You have to ask for help, receive the help. You have to accept generosity. You have to TAKE. And this may feel utterly taboo. Who are you to ask for so much?
We encounter a threshold whenever we do more of something than we are used to. In daily life, there are many thresholds we come up against: how hard can we work, how many things can we mutitask, how much responsibility can we handle. Thresholds are not always unpleasant, they can be intensely pleasurable: how much love can you feel, how much joy can you stand, how much gratitude can you tolerate. And even when love is on the other side, the threshold is terrifying in some way. Meditation is very much like falling in love with life, and it has all the attendant intensifications of your senses and many thresholds to cross.
In mythic imagery, there are Threshold Guardians, fierce entities that make vast amounts of noise or rattle their weapons threateningly when we cross into their turf. They have to be outsmarted or dealt with somehow if you are to proceed. These threshold guardians present themselves as obstacles, but when you accept them, a way can be found around or through them. Whenever your leave your familiar territory and enter unknown terrain, there are various warning signs and signals. The signs say some version of VERBOTEN or TABOO or and the signals go AH-OOO-GAH or RING RING RING. They are asking you, “Are you sure you really want to cross this line?” In this chapter, I am giving the name Taboo to some of these Threshold Guardians.
In our Quest for healing, often we have to push through a threshold and do what we don’t like to do – we may have to take some time off, take a vacation, or share with a friend that we feel like a failure even though we look successful. Everyone can laugh at the other’s person’s threshold, but some people are very afraid of what would happen if they took a vacation. If there is a medical problem, we may have to go see a doctor, confess how much we hurt, let ourselves be probed, submit to being tested, read about illnesses, make decisions about which treatment is less horrible, join support groups, take medications. Each one of activities is uncomfortable in its own way, and constitutes a Threshold. Most people I know don’t like to do these things unless they really, really have to.
Meditation is attention, and we start at the threshold of inner and outer, which we know. We then plunge into ourselves, into territory which is ourselves but feels unknown. Our bodily sensations become intense in unusual ways, and that is a Threshold. Thoughts zoom everywhere when we release them from control, and this is a different Threshold. Because of this, breaking taboos makes for richly textured attention. Once you get used to it, it’s quite entertaining.
For example, in meditation you will find yourself resting more deeply than you do in sleep, and yet being conscious and enjoying it. This is going across several thresholds, because you are extending the range of your rest and the range of your attention. You will be paying conscious attention to things that usually only occur in your body during sleep.
In meditation we deal with things by going right through them. In myths there is often a lot of sneaking around things, but in meditation if something comes up, just face it, whether it be a demon or an angel. You transcend by going directly through. If pain comes up, attention is called to the pain. Attention wants to go right into the heart of the pain. If noise comes up, attention goes right to the noise, inner or outer.
One more tip. Never blame yourself when you encounter the Taboos, or other Threshold Guardians in meditation. Their purpose is to warn you that you are leaving familiar territory – be alert! Watch where you are going! Take conscious charge of balancing your impulses! When you accept this, the noise of the Guardians is transformed into awakening energy you will need on your journey.
Some people have a taboo against self-care. Meditation is caring for yourself. To have meditation be self-care not self-abuse, you have to confront these taboos. Against rest, intimacy with the self. The body likes to meditate.
Although meditation is healing in a general way, it is more healing if you make it responsiveness to your needs, not an imposition.
A common taboo we all run up against is the Taboo Against Rest.
The Taboo Against Rest
Meditation brings us face to face with the Taboo Against Rest in several ways. When we meditate, we usually do it at times when we would ordinarily be up and active – early in the morning and before dinner. It is unusual to be sitting with the eyes closed at those times. Everyone else is running around, watching people being murdered on TV, or sitting in traffic. There may be voices, sensations, impulses saying, “What are you doing resting? You should be doing chores!”
Our jangly culture often denies the need for rest. It is a time sickness, an incessant hurrying, which manifests in overloaded schedules and a continual flogging of the self to do more. We are a work-oriented society, worshipping adrenaline, and being busier than thou is the epitome of virtue.
An incredibly successful businessman came to see me. He had stomach trouble and joint aches. He had a real facility for meditation. The same brilliance and instinctiveness that led him to be so good in business gave him powerful access to his inner world. But he would fall asleep, every time we sat together. When he woke up, he felt peaceful, but he had a big sleep deficit and no record, in his entire life, of taking naps. Not only did he not take rest breaks, he had always worked through lunch, ordering something like sandwiches delivered, and sitting at his desk. If they would go out, they would talk and strategize over food. His day was always an unbroken series of meetings. He never got through the obstacle of sleep, which would have required a big shift. His whole identity was built on pushing through. Previously, he did this to provide for his family, but they had all long since been taken care of.
I know people who have made it through the sleep deficit threshold. It seems to require about 20 hours extra sleep, over a two or three-week period. As one woman said, “I thought I was going to sleep forever. I fell asleep in every meditation and when I woke up half an hour later I couldn’t move. I was totally gone. But then I started feeling lighter all day. My face looked much more rested too. The dark circles under my eyes went away. After about a month, I stopped being so sleepy in meditation and I felt really good.”
Meditation is about the laziest thing you could ever do. You are sitting there making a science out of doing absolutely nothing. You can read all the Zen you want, but when it’s your body, and you are as idle as you can be, sometimes you run head on into the taboo against laziness or rest. It’s the Deadly Sin of Sloth.
Rest is one of the body’s most potent resources to accelerate healing. When we are resting, the body can give over its energies to repair. We rest every night in order to rejuvenate and recharge for the following day. Sometimes a good night’s sleep feels miraculous, because of the way we feel when we go to bed and how fresh we feel when we wake up in the morning. When we are sick, we often have the urge to sleep more, take naps, and doctors often tell us to rest.
During meditation we are conscious, fully awake, and sometimes superlatively awake, in a heightened state of awareness. So we are in a situation of restfulness with alertness, and every thought stands out. We are not anesthetized, as we would be if we were drinking alcohol or imbibing some other drug.
The body enters a state of rest much deeper than deep sleep, and it does so very quickly, and this in itself brings up several aspect of the taboo against rest. This is often the deepest rest you have ever gotten, and it feels incredibly luxurious, just over the top luxurious. And it is, literally, the laziest thing you can ever do. It is not physically possible, unless you know how to hibernate somehow, to be more restful than in meditation. You are quite literally doing as little work as possible. That is why the body is so restful. So a variation, “the Taboo Against Laziness” has to be faced.
Something you can do to help your meditation practice is to catch up on your sleep or at least reduce the amount of sleep deprivation you suffer from. Go to bed a little earlier, take naps, take little rest breaks during the day.
The Taboo Against Pleasure
Along with the Puritanical work ethic, many people also experience a taboo against simple bodily pleasure.
As you relax in meditation, you will experience pleasurable sensations of many kinds as your nerves and muscles melt into relaxation. This often feels like being massaged and drifting in and out of a luxurious sleep. Lying down or sitting when you are tired is one of the sweetest sensations there is, and in meditation you are awake to enjoy it. There is an entire world of sensations there, as rich as what gourmet wine tasters experience with wine. This world of sensation is as rich as art and music, infinite nuances of deliciousness. Sometimes you response, from somewhere in your brain, will be “No, stop, you can’t enjoy this. This can’t be right.” These sensations often will seem like they are “too much.” Also it feels very odd at first to be sitting in a chair one minute and the next you are suddenly very relaxed. Such luscious sensuality can feel like being seduced, and this is exactly what you want. You are being seduced by the life-giving energies flowing through your body. Learn to not resist this healing flow. Sensations are not a problem, simply enjoy them. They will change continuously anyway.
Human reaction time is less than a second, and in that second, you may find yourself trying to fend off your own sensations. If you just breathe with the sensations for a minute, they will come to feel normal, just the natural pleasure of existing. Gradually you will build up a greater tolerance for bliss.
On a daily basis, indulge in the myriad little pleasures you have available to you. Delight in several such pleasures as part of your preparation for meditation and remind yourself that it is OK to enjoy.
The Taboo Against Aliveness
Meditation is a bath in life’s essence. Even though you are just sitting there, you can feel yourself shimmering, bubbling with life impulses. Because you are more open to yourself, you are letting more sensations of electricity flow through your body and this results in greater intensity of sensation. As you let go in meditation, your muscles relax and circulation increases, and there are odd tinglings and gushes of life. This feels very taboo, and seems like “too much” to almost everyone at first.
The quiet intensity of feeling your impulses is like looking into a car engine firing. When you have the hood down, it’s a quiet purr, but if you put your ear right up next to it, an engine is loud and sounds like a series of explosions, which it is. Cultivate your love of explosions – that’s life. An explosion is a fuel consuming oxygen and expanding into space.
One quality which sometimes emerges right away from the contact with the self in meditation is a rebellious expressiveness. This is your raw self, the one who says yes and no, defining yourself. This spark is the perfect balance for the mellowness of meditation, and if you deny it, your vitality will suffer. In order to heal, you may have to risk being more lively than your tribe, family, job, or relationships allow. The people who know you may have to come to rely on you being low-key, or always kind, or always giving. You have to break your own and their taboos.
Whether your injury is emotional or physical, one of the elements you may need to reclaim is your rage to live, which you may have lost as a child, or in illness. I say rage to live intentionally, because there is a quality of utter demandingness combined with zest that healthy adults and children exhibit. Aggression is part of it, being excited about life and reaching out to grab what you want, and move away from what you do not want. To live, we have to dare to disturb the universe.
By the way, you can demand things of your meditation, and you can feel intensely alive when you are meditating. You can demand, request, desire, pray that in 1/2 hour you will be restored and vivified. Then let go totally and let your body repair and prepare itself.
The Taboo Against Spontaneity
Whenever you meditate, be willing to be surprised. The opposite of control is spontaneity, and in meditation it is very useful to have an informal, natural, unconstrained attitude toward your inner life. The transition from control, which may be your usual mode for going through life, to release of control, is another Threshold crossing, with its creepy sensations to endure.
When you close your eyes to meditate one of the first things that happens is every little thing you have forgotten comes to awareness. You might have several minutes of “Oh no, I left the laundry in the dryer,” “Uh oh, I forgot to call Jennie back, she’ll be pissed,” “Whoops, I was going to drop by the mechanic’s on the way home, have him listen to that noise the car is making.” There is no telling how long this will go on – it depends on how complex your life is and how good you are at organizing your time. By the way, I recommend that all meditators study time management and have good to-do lists, because it takes a load off your meditation time. When you release control, your brain’s backlog of unprocessed to-do’s will take over, and there is no honest way to stop the process. You just have to let it sort itself out. When we are walking around and we remember something we have forgotten to do, it feels like a little hit, a tiny shock going through the body. When we are sitting still in meditation, all relaxed and attentive, the sensation seems more intense because we are right there inside it. As you get used to it, though, these kinds of thoughts become like rain on the roof – you can hear the constant patter, and it’s actually pleasant.
The process gets worse from there. After your brain gets through your immediate to-dos, it will start to work on long-range desires, “Oh no – I forgot to have kids!” “I want a real home,” “Hey, I promised myself a trip to Europe and I never took it even though I had the money.” All those things you have forgotten or successfully pushed to the back of your mind for years.
You may also have forgotten to give yourself time to feel, in which case you may find yourself crying and not knowing why, or shaking, or getting angry. If you let yourself be taken by your emotions, you don’t know where they will take you. The more you let go of control, the more your body will just do what it has to do to balance itself.
One of the first people I instructed in Transcendental Meditation was a physicist from Cambodia named Hla. It was early 1971 and we were sitting in the room doing his first 10-minute meditation and he started vibrating. His legs were jumping around, then his torso got in on the act, then his entire body was vibrating as if he were dancing to Elvis. I was totally unconcerned. I had just come back from a year of meditating, and been through lots of shaking. The whole feeling in the room was peaceful; I didn’t detect anything wrong, and there was no sense that he had an illness. So I just sat there and looked at the Pacific ocean through the window, occasionally glancing over at Hla, who by now had fallen off his chair and was lying on his side shaking. This went on for about ten or fifteen minutes. I maintained my totally blasé attitude and eventually he stood up, took a breath, and said, “I must have been going through a phase transition. Now I feel very different.” Then he sat down and we continued. I acted as if this were the most normal thing in the world, and he had a lively and calm meditation. Over the next year, he would occasionally vibrate while meditating, but he never considered it a problem. He owned the vibrating as his own life force freeing itself up.
If you are afraid of the spontaneous, if you don’t trust yourself, then you will not let go as much during meditation – you won’t go very deep, and so you won’t be as surprised by catharsis. This itself is part of life’s self-regulation; you only get what you are ready for. If you are getting it, you are ready for it.
What lets you enter spontaneous mode is trust in your body and your nervous system. The fear of releasing control, just letting the attention wantonly go here and there feels like an immense taboo. Scandalous!
Because of this, you will notice, many people make up elaborate rules about what they can and can not think of during meditation, and the feeling is not of inner freedom at all. Take these sort of restrictive rules upon yourself only if you really feel you need them, because they limit of flow of life considerably.
There is another issue of spontaneity. Some people are wired so that they will not or can not admit a new experience unless they have seen the map of it first, thought about it, decided to go there, gotten a compass, taken reading, and then they set off, step by step. A friend of mine is like this. He is extremely perceptive, has done a great deal of self-exploration, and is a very lively guy. But I notice over the years that he never opens up to an aspect of breath, movement, or sensory awareness unless he decides to and scopes the entire process out in advance. For him, allowing even a relatively minor change in the way he experiences breath is like moving, as in packing up your house and moving. It’s a major operation. A lesser change is like remodeling, maybe knocking down a wall. It’s a mess, and you’d better have a damn good reason for proposing he make a change.
I call such people map-firsters or top-downers. They will Refuse the Call until the Call comes with maps, logistical details, cost/benefit analysis spreadsheets, brochures, environmental impact reports, insurance policies and American Express cards. The Call then has to wait while the map-firster think all this through. But then, when he or she decides to answer the call, they have done a great deal of the work in advance. They memorized the maps while they were mulling it all over. They have rehearsed what it will be like and given their nervous system permission to wire in the new levels of perception.
When a person is a map-firster, their nervous system has its reasons, which I suspect are protective.
The Taboo Against Descent
In dreams and myths, there is the recurrent image of descent into the next level below, the underworld. In meditation sometimes you may feel as if you are falling. The sensation is similar to that which you may have felt when taking a nap or falling asleep, only this time you are falling into meditation. Get used to it.
Sinking down into meditation can feel a bit like depression at times. It is as if there is a vast pool of blackness calling you, and you sink into it. This blackness, by the way, is real – much of the universe is vast empty space. Even the matter your body is made of is 99.999% empty space, so it’s not like reality is solid.
Descent is also literal, in that if you have been living in your head, in meditation the motion may be to move into your heart or your belly for awhile. Particularly if you are sitting up to meditate, this is a remarkable transition. If you have been at work all day, using your brain, it is very odd to notice, ten minutes into a meditation, that your center of consciousness is now in your belly. This is short-term descent, in which your body is giving your brain time off from being the dominant center.
There are other descents one has to face in meditation. If you are disabled, you may have the feeling that everything has been taken away. If you are hurt, injured, or ill, you may not be able to do your usual activities. Your motion and pleasure may be severely restricted. You may have a loss of function or capability, either permanent or temporary. This feels like a small death, a loss, and the feeling is depression.
If you have gotten a difficult diagnosis or prognosis, you may have had a sinking feeling, followed by an overwhelming sense of fear. There is a hidden gift in the sinking feeling, because the fear makes us want to run around in panic, which doesn’t help. Depression makes us feel like sitting still and doing nothing, which is at least restful.
Descent is also about facing death. In the short term, every outbreath is a death. The body senses the possibility of death at the end of each exhale. Death comes very quickly, in just a few minutes, if we do not breathe in again. We usually flee from facing this, it is too terrifying. But all spiritual traditions say that being aware of one’s inevitable death is one of the best preparations for living a full life. It makes you cherish the preciousness of life, however much you have left of it.
Depression is a Call into your depths. Meditation allows you to follow that call, safely and consciously so that you can reach to the very foundation of your being and gather to yourself the inner resources that are your strengths. In one of the ancient Babylonian myths, Gilgamesh had to dive to the bottom of the bottomless sea to pick a healing plant. Sometimes you will feel that you are sinking endlessly. As you learn to trust and tolerate these feelings, afterwards you will find yourself renewed. If you need help trusting your descent process, I recommend seeking out a member of the clergy, a therapist or a grief counselor. Let them help you, and then when you are meditating, you will be more skilled in accepting your inner experience.
I remember one day, one period of my life when my meditations took me into a place of darkness. I was used to light and electricity, surf and sunshine. This was like being in a cave. Although in the physical world it was light outside, in my inner world it was dark, silent, vast, and Other. Curious, I watched as the cells of my body pulsated in their own rhythm, contacted the darkness, and began to absorb nutrition from it. Slowly, slowly, over months my body began to make friends with the darkness and to rest in it. I learned that the darkness is restful and renewing like no other element. It is a vital element of life. It was as if I had built my body out of enthusiasm, light. This fed me in a completely different way.
An Example of the Journey Fulfilled
There are plenty of people who have learned to meditate from one page of instructions, Benson’s basic steps that he derived from the TM Technique. When Benson, using his Harvard Medical School credentials and his impeccable scientist’s mind published his findings on the effect of meditation on health, the word really got out. Here is a case where these simple instructions, plus a warning from a doctor, were enough of an OW to set a man off on a journey of healing.
Steve was in his mid-forties and told me had been meditating for 7 years. His meditation was going well, and he was curious if there were something more he could be doing. I asked him how he started meditating. He said that he was a pharmacist, and after working in a pharmacy for awhile, he had the opportunity to buy a one and run his own. He built that business up and then created another. Then another. The money was great, but the risks were also, and he was under a lot of stress and he worked overtime to keep everything going. He went to the doctor for a routine physical and was told that he was developing high blood pressure and should start taking medication. He said, “Doc, I don’t want to start taking that stuff! I know what the side effects are. I see people taking those medications for their entire lives once they go on them. Those are my customers. There must be something else I can do!” The doctor said, “Well . . . you could try this,” and he fished around in a filing cabinet and came up with a flyer on how to elicit the Relaxation Response, taken from Herbert Benson’s book of that name. “Come back in four months and we’ll see how you are doing.”
Steve had his blood pressure tested a number of times in the next week on different instruments, and the results were about the same, so he knew it wasn’t just “white coat hypertension” he had. (This is the phenomena where being in a doctor’s office makes you nervous so your blood pressure goes up.” So he set his will that he was going to make his blood pressure go down without medication. So he started practicing eliciting the Relaxation Response – he didn’t like the term, he called it meditating – every day, for 20 minutes in the morning before work and again in the evening. He would just sit in a chair and repeat the word, “One,” in rhythm with his breathing.
About four months later he went back to his doctor and didn’t say a word about what he had been doing. He just went through the exam without mentioning anything about meditation. When the doctor remarked that his blood pressure was in the normal range, then he told him what he had been doing, and the doctor told him he didn’t need to take medication if he was taking meditation.
Listening to Steve, it was clear that he had made an intense commitment, with the full power of his being, to return to a health. He was an entrepreneur, daring, full of enterprise, and so he just decided to make meditation work for him. He showed up in the chair, day after day. I asked him what other books he had read, lectures, and he claimed to not have read any. He looked at some in a bookstore and they looked too complicated and didn’t appeal to him. He felt he didn’t want to ruin his experience, because he was having a good time. It was also evident that Steve, by the same token that he trusted his business hunches, trusted his instincts in meditation. He figured out on his own how to modify the meditation to make it work the best. For example, some days, he wouldn’t even go home; he would sit in the car in the parking lot and meditate before driving, then go get a bite to eat nearby, then go home. Other days he would soak in a hot bath before meditating. He learned to not push himself so hard and still get all the work done.
Very importantly, Steve understood how to learn from his thoughts. Not having been exposed to any of the “You are not supposed to think” rules floating around in meditation circles (almost every book has this in some form) he didn’t get into a habit of resisting the motions of his mind. If he sat to meditate and spent the entire 20 minutes planning, he figured it was time well spent; he still felt much better afterwards. He said that in fact, most of the time he meditates he is thinking, juggling, scheming, and being excited by life. He didn’t say this in one sentence, I had to draw it out of him. This was the only point in which he was uncertain of himself. Was it really meditating if he was thinking so much and enjoying it? I said yes, that entrepreneurs have a special dispensation from Buddha to scheme.
Steve also connected the meditation with his outer life in other ways. When he would find himself thinking of old friends during meditation, he would call them. When he would fantasize about a vacation spot or travel over and over, he would arrange a trip. He knew that he had to take vacations, it was part of his program to have a great life and be healthy into old age.
So when Steve said, “Well, how am I doing, doctor, do you have any suggestions?” I said, “No. Steve, this is the part where the teacher learns from the student.”
I did give Steve one idea on his way out the door – to find a massage therapist to come to his house and give him a massage then leave, and for him to meditate while in that delicious, languid state. I thought that might give him access to different regions of himself that he was hankering after.
Unlike Steve, many, many people who are actually meditating just fine think that they aren’t, because they have so many thoughts. This could be the biggest reason people give up on meditation, and it’s a false obstacle. Somehow, everyone knows absolutely that you aren’t supposed to think during meditation. People will drive a long way to see me, pay me a lot of money per hour, and then argue with me about it when I give them my laissez-faire attitude about thoughts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat across from a person who looked at me skeptically when I said, “It doesn’t matter what thought comes. Don’t resist. The content of thought is not important.” They are scandalized. In Steve’s case, he naturally picked up the skill set he needed in order to handle his experiences in meditation. He had played basketball in high school, and on the court there is always resistance. The other team’s job is to interfere with your shots. You dance around them, bob and wiggle and get your shot anyway. I suspect that he had transferred what he knew from other domains and constructed a healthy approach to meditation for himself.
Refusal of the Call
There are many ways to refuse the call besides denying the impulse to take care of your needs. You can refuse the call at any point. You can say, “That’s enough for now,” and take time to assimilate what you have learned so far, gather your strength for the journey ahead. Only you can determine whether you then wait too long before resuming your quest.
Other ways of refusing the call might be to deliberately set off in the wrong direction, or try to drag your baggage with you when you can only take what you can easily carry. Or you might refuse to face whatever immediately comes up to be dealt with. In meditation, the rules are simple, let attention go where it is called. Sometimes sensations call our attention, sometimes memories or thoughts.
Even if a student hears me say “Don’t resist thoughts,” and nods her head, two minutes later in the midst of meditation she’ll start trying to push out thoughts. I can tell by the furrowed brow, the stern scowl. This situation of trying to block out thoughts may lead to blocking out the very call to meditate, or stalemating the process. Refusing to let thoughts tell you what they have to say can be like covering your ears and screaming “yada yada yada” when the mysterious guide who has arrived to call you on the quest is attempting to tell you in which direction you are to start.
Phyllis was an attractive woman in her late 40’s. Her children had gone off to college and now that she had an empty nest. She finally felt she had time for herself. During her first session, she slipped into meditation very easily and would sort of dissolve again and again. I usually have people meditate for brief periods: a minute, then two minutes, three, then five. I only have them meditate longer when they can handle a shorter one without straining. When she opened her eyes after each of these, it was as if she was coming from a long, long way. I asked her to look out the window at the garden and tell me what she saw. She described seeing the light on the leaves as seeming magical, enchanted, Technicolor. Her whole being had changed; she looked like she just came back from a long vacation. Her whole body was suffused with a relaxed pleasure. We were a minute into her next five minute meditation when she started frowning a bit.
I asked her to open her eyes and said, “What are you experiencing?”
“Well, I was all relaxed and these thoughts started bothering me, so I was trying to shoo them away,” she said.
“Thoughts aren’t flies,” I said, “Even though they seem to buzz around.” I asked her what sorts of thoughts and she said, “Painful memories.” The situation, I gathered, was something like this: there had been a period many years earlier when she was very involved in the kids’ lives. She and her husband weren’t having sex, and she thought he was fine with it. She was fulfilled as a mother, and very, very busy. She found out many years later that he had been having an affair with a woman down the street, whom she knew slightly. The horrid images she didn’t want to see were old memories of the woman looking at her smugly, the woman looking trim and happy, the woman at parties at her house. Now, re-examining those memories, she found herself wondering if her husband had bought the woman that dress.
I explained, “Those kinds of thoughts come up to be healed. What’s happening is that you are relaxed, and your guard is down. So your body has decided to bring up something that pains you deeply, so that in the safety of meditation those feelings can be faced. Those are powerful feelings, and they have gotten lodged in your emotional body. It takes a lot of energy and tension to keep from feeling those emotions.”
When I said all this she started to have tears come to her eyes, then she angrily set her face in an expression that said, “I can’t,” or “I won’t”. At this point, Phyllis and I were at a stalemate. Or rather, Phyllis and meditation were at a stalemate. Her lifelong strategy had been to not let dark thoughts get her, that by keeping her house clean and keeping busy, she could avoid getting depressed. This was a great talent and it certainly got her through a whole phase of her life, but at the expense of blocking much of her emotional life.
I made up metaphors for her about how sometimes in meditation, you have to get down on your hands and knees and scrub, “and there you are in all this dirt and grunge, but it’s OK, you are wearing your old clothes, you can take a shower later, and then you will feel really good at a difficult chore that’s done, like cleaning out the closet or the attic.” I tried to sound as much as I could like an old, wise grandmother and said, “It’s not all looking at the beautiful flowers, dear. Think about what awful stinky stuff the compost is made of!”
Phyllis was at a crossroads; this was her time in life to explore herself, but her habit was to close the door on many rooms of her inner house because they seemed creepy. Full of yucky things, spider webs, old memories, and her anger. She was sort of hoping that meditation would be Valium, a tranquilizer that would let her keep on leading a cheery life even though her nest was empty and therefore didn’t provide as many distractions from her pain.
It may seem odd for me to say, but Phyllis is mostly right – meditation can be a pretty good Valium substitute, and a person in her position would probably not have to put up with a lot of difficult inner confrontations for years. As long as she would not resist thoughts, and let the painful memories surface and just cry during meditation, or shake with anger, she would most likely have felt fantastic afterwards, cleansed. I have worked with many people who were in this sort of situation, and watched over the years how they turn out, and I have learned to trust the process. All sorts of people, with no training in therapy, no particular psychological edge, figure out how it works.
Phyllis’ intent was to not get into fights with her husband about the old affair. She didn’t want to go way back into the past and invent misery for herself. She didn’t want to stay angry. What she wanted was to live really well from now on and have that be “the best revenge.” She didn’t want to be a victim and she didn’t want to be an angry crusader. She wanted to keep it together, have a good time in life, and take a lot of trips. She just didn’t want to feel “those feelings.” Phyllis had learned to keep a tight control over her thoughts and feelings. She vigilantly kept within a narrow range, so that she wouldn’t feel certain things. Therefore, she couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the simple rules of meditation I had proposed, which were to not control thoughts.
The only problem with this is that she was like a person walking around with a wound, and when the doctor (in this case, the healing meditation) touched it with antiseptic, she batted away his arm and said, “Ow, you’re hurting me,” and that was that. In meditation, the relaxation she had experienced to that point was brought into relationship with her hurt, and the two co-existed for awhile. That is the perfect situation for healing a hurt such as she had suffered. Even though it seemed to Phyllis that the thoughts were ruining her meditation, this was not the case. On the contrary, the painful memories were a sign of success, that she was relaxed enough to admit to consciousness what was really bothering her.
There is almost always a quality of pulling out thorns when you are deeply relaxed in meditation and the body starts to let go of the chronic tensions we impose on it, and heal itself. The sensations vary greatly, in the nature of miniature thorns, a wound being cleansed, or massaging sore muscles. Many people, particularly women, intuitively understand how to allow this process to occur and give themselves time to undergo it.
Phyllis was actually rejecting her own healing, at least temporarily. There she was, meditating beautifully. She was in good rapport with a teacher who had an inkling of who she was. She just needed to understand a couple of principles, and then be willing to cry and hurt and be angry in meditation until she got over it. But that was a big step to take in a single afternoon. There are different ways of looking at this. From one vantage point, She was resisting the process. But from another point of view, she just went as far as she could go in one day, her first session. And since it’s not therapy, it’s meditation, this was not at all what she was expecting to feel like.
You could say she refused the call of her inner life. You could say she wanted to dictate exactly how her healing should proceed. You could say she was torn between different impulses, and needed time to negotiate how she was going to satisfy these voices pulling her in different directions. Phyllis never came back, so I don’t know how she turned out.
But in the first 20 minutes of her first meditation session, Phyllis went through all of this, and she is not unusual. It often happens that the whole story happens within a few seconds of beginning meditation. You decide, then and there, whether to trust the process or not. Many people start going very deep in meditation almost immediately.
I have never seen or heard this being discussed, and no one other than me seems to notice this phenomena. I bring it up so that you will be more prepared to face what occurs during meditation. You never know from moment to moment what you will experience, but rarely is meditation like taking a number and then waiting years for an appointment with the healer. The calling you have been feeling in your heart to do something for yourself has already done the arranging. Just walk in.
The first few moments of closing the eyes, many women report the sensation of being pulled in many different directions. There is a moment of panic, and the impulse to try to hold on to something. The solution is to let go. This is just your brain at work, holding the world together. Almost all women I talk to about meditation mention juggling at some point in the conversation. They are juggling many different aspects of life, trying to not drop anything, and when they meditate they can feel their aching muscles. There needs to be “meditation for jugglers” training. In juggling, you have to let go of one ball, and as it arcs through the air you catch another. It is a profound teaching in timing, grasping and releasing.
When you close your eyes to meditate, you may find thoughts and feelings flying in all directions. It feels like a dozen jugglers in a Chinese acrobat show. It takes awhile as you sit there to begin to track the motion of all these impulses. One of the reflexes almost everyone has is to try to slow down thought, but this only throws you off balance. The attempt to try to control your thought or feeling nature is itself the obstacle; the thoughts are actually no problem. This belief that you have to control your experience is an article of faith with many people. You are presented with a choice when you begin meditating. If you want meditation to be truly, deeply restful and renewing, let your brain think whatever it wants to think, do what it needs to do, without interfering with it. To the extent that you resist thoughts, even a teeny tiny bit, meditation will not be very restful and it won’t be as healing.
The greater the pain you are in, the more your body will need to release it through whatever process it selects in the moment: crying, shaking, angry thoughts, falling asleep, bolts of electricity, or just a slow, careful, tending until every last hurt has been felt through.
I have worked with many, many people who cried during every meditation for months, even up to six months, before emerging renewed and feeling lighter and younger than they have for years. I grieve for the people such as Phyllis who I have not been able to get through to. But when I talk with therapists about this, they remind me that it usually takes months for people to open up and talk about what’s bothering them. They need the safety of a long-term relationship to trust themselves to bring forth their most troubling material. But for every person such as Phyllis there are two people who intuitively recognize the healing potential of meditation and willingly undergo the process of relaxation and catharsis, relaxation and catharsis.
If you have ever known a Phyllis, you know that such people tend to become depressed at some point. The darkness they have been blocking out so zealously finally wears down their obstacles, and in the depression they finally do some emotional processing of those awful feelings. You never know, though. Phyllis may have at some later point had a really “bad day or week” and gotten over it.
Sometimes we “get” things a month, or six months later, that we don’t understand or accept on one particular day. I have often had conversations with meditation students to this effect: “I was taking a hike in the woods, and I finally understood what you were saying about meditative awareness being sensual awareness,” or “I was watching a movie and started to cry during a scene, and then I realized why I cry during meditation, I am seeing a scene in my life that just really moves me, people I know, the beauty and tragedy of it all.” I myself often don’t really understand what my teachers are telling me, sometimes for months and sometimes for years.
Another thing about Phyllis, it would have helped if I were a woman, and a mother, especially one who’d had 3 or 4 or 5 kids who were gone. It would also have helped if I were older, and less of a California beach brat, with my emphasis on informality. For me to sit there and say, “Trust your own healing process” did not have as much power for her because our paths are so different. And she was right – there are innumerable nuances of balancing that a woman in her position needs to learn, and another woman would be a better guide for her. So although it seems as though Phyllis was rejecting her own path of healing in that moment, she may have been searching for a better context in which to learn to let go of her tight control structure.
This leads us back to the simplicity of the basic instructions for “how to meditate.” Phyllis refused in that moment to accept step #4, “When thoughts come, do not try to block them out. Simply return to your focus without pushing thoughts around.” She could have, then and there, just decided to learn something new. I have seen a thousand people do that very thing, and I have seen hundreds of people refuse to do that thing.