When I teach meditation, I often find myself clarifying the intention of the practice. I worry people expect that meditation is an attempt to empty the mind and, since this seems quite unattainable, why bother. I approach meditation as a way to be present with what’s happening in the mind. It’s more about awareness of what’s already there. In the process of deepening our awareness, we might also change our habitual partners of thought, but this shift is secondary.
Before I go further, I should clarify the idea of mental stillness or emptiness. The Yoga Sutras do discuss a state of practice that is of such complete focus that the mind essentially becomes completely still. I myself have never experienced anything close to this. My knowledge of yoga from my teachers and my own practice is of slowing the mind, not stopping the spinning completely. I’ve been challenged lately by a studio I teach at (female owned and operated!), 8 Limbs Yoga Centers, to avoid doing harm by considering the ways I might be participate in cultural appropriation of yoga in my teaching. Cultural appropriation is a huge and hot button topic that I won’t delve into here, but one way to think about it is that if I don’t understand something in my own body, I should avoid teaching it. So, I’ll speak to my own journey in meditation - what I learned from teachers I highly respect (that they in turn learned from their teachers and teacher’s teachers) and my experience.
I often ask myself a few questions when I sit and when I guide students in a seated meditation practice. Why do we pause? What is the use of sitting? Why is stillness valuable if all that seems to happen is an awareness of how busy the mind is?
“When we pause, allow a gap and breathe deeply, we can experience instant refreshment. Suddenly, we slow down, look out, and there's the world.”- Pema Chödrön
The pause Chodron speaks to is so important to me. I can’t tell you how many times my outlook and attitude can shift with a simple 30 second practice to stop and notice my own breath. I notice my own aliveness and the world I inhabit.
Sitting lets us just, first of all, recognize that we are this massive collection of thoughts and experiences and sensations that are moving at the speed of light and that we never get a chance to just be still and pause and look at them, just for what they are, and then slowly to sort out our own voice from the rest of the thoughts, emotions, the interpretations, the habits, the momentums that are just trying to overwhelm us at any given moment.” – angel Kyodo williams
angel Kyodo williams speaks perfectly to my experience. Sitting is valuable because I notice my thought patterns. I notice what has my attention, what I’m giving enormous energy to.
For meditation, and especially mindfulness meditation, is not the throwing of a switch and catapulting yourself anywhere, nor is it entertaining certain thoughts and getting rid of others. Nor is it making your mind blank or willing yourself to be peaceful or relaxed. It is really an inward gesture that inclines the heart and mind (seen as one seamless whole) toward a full-spectrum awareness of the present moment just as it is, accepting whatever is happening simply because it is already happening. This inner orientation is sometimes referred to in psychotherapy as "radical acceptance." This is hard work, very hard work, especially when what is happening does not conform to our expectations, desires, and fantasies. -Jon Kabat-Zinn
As Kabat-Zinn suggests, this attention to the present moment experience of the mind is not easy. It’s hard work. And yet it’s simple. It’s within reach of anyone willing to be uncomfortable and to let discomfort be our teacher. Sitting still is effortful and disruptive and powerful. It can change us if we can only make the time.
The Riveter Capitol Hill offers a meditation room to its members and guests for their own use, as well as guided meditation practice Tuesdays at 12:45pm with Wade Brill and Fridays at noon with Rebekah Papé.
Rebekah Papé is a writer, food and wellness consultant, yoga teacher, and The Riveter member. She teaches breath, meditation, and yoga asana on Thursdays and Fridays at noon at the Capitol Hill studio.