“ Not you,” my Pilates teacher said.” I never would have expected you to meditate”. And I almost never did. Well, sort of. Years ago, mindfulness was suggested as a way to calm my bouts of crying at the dissolution of my job and the tyranny of my boss I had so loved. But perhaps at that point in my life, I was not ready. Yet even almost ten years ago, I recall doing a perfunctory search and the times and locations did not really work for me, so I passed it by.Besides which, the furthest I had ever pursued any self help was a book that boasted it could build sister relationships.
But with the thought that a regular planned meeting meeting with an old friend could restart our friendship,we decided to pursue a class together. However, she in all seriousness decided to opt for a three hour Mindfulness class with a shrink on Fridays ( when I paint); and I found a “ little” program at the North Y for 1 ½ hours. Truthfully, three hours seemed to be a tremendous commitment: just sitting for that extended length of time I feared daunting.
And my little class has surprised me. I, whose idea of self-help was a cynical read of loving your sister better by a Montreal author who herself had been able to cement relations with her own sib!That had been the extent of my psychic journey, in spite of both my daughters suggesting that perhaps my outbursts of emotions could use some taming.
The little group meets in a silent space of a room and best of all, its glass windows face a wooded hill where there are trees and squirrels and grass. It is the perfect backdrop when we close our eyes and practice the John Kabot- Zinn mountain meditation. We might almost be on a retreat in the forest, not just north of Steeles Avenue.The instructor’s voice guides us through a contrast of seasons, from streams of sudden showers to shining flowers and we sit still, listening to her voice penetrating deeper into ourselves who have become the mountain.
Meditative body scans commence at our feet, reminding them to breath as we climb upwards towards our skulls, and eventually outwards to our world of sounds. I am a visual person so when we speak of paying attention when we are out walking, it is not a far trip , for I am always caught up in the sound of the birds hidden somewhere close, the skin on the silent stream, the unexpected duck who is chaperoning her one little duckling on the pond. I notice the withering grey of the wilting foliage and the dogs who bound ahead of their owners, off their leashes. Fortunately, there is a hidden path that winds through North Toronto : perfect for an after class ramble. Best of all, there are few journeyers, safe for the odd bounding animal and other grey- haired older ladies in coats buttoned high up their necks.
I reflect that my little class has, as our teacher has explained ,provided us with a variety of strategies to calm, to elevate and focus our thoughts deeper. Her explanation of external meditation makes me aware that when I am caught up in the mystery of music at a concert and I gently close my eyes and am transported beyond my physical space to the seamless unity of mind and intense body sensation of sound, I am in deed, practicing mindfulness… I straighten my back and make all the other attending patrons and distractions disappear.Only me and the music, absorbing and soothing, curling around and into my ears as I’m drawn closer or pushed further in my reverie.
It has almost been the same for visual art as I dissolve and am swallowed into the paint , emerging refreshed and renewed, aghast that I have hands and eyes. However, instead of being surrounded in serenity and relaxation, I experience extreme wakefulness, energizing excitement as my intellect challenges me and brings to the surface learned art information , classes, critiques and criticism so that I am fully interacting and engaged with the art work. I feel alive in the present, charged.
Now it occurs to me that there are two reactions: one involves my mind; the other involving sensations, viscerally, melting and melding . That is why the Abstract Impressionists grab me -directly by my emotions so I sink into Morris Louis’s unprimed canvas or Mark Rothko’s layers of paint. Rather than intellectualizing over the reason and technique of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, I am able to sweep away intruding thoughts, memories, making the screen before my eyes blank, calming my head, body, nerves, just feeling and immersing myself into the image ( or lack of same) before me.
However, even when I have lost myself, my ego in the fullness of music or paint, my oneness must sadly dissipate. And I yearn for it, much like the Tibetan bell that signals the end of the meditation in my instructor’s room. Of course, such experiences cannot endure forever. And I am in awe that my good friend Barbara meditates a full hour a day, unlike my 10 paltry minutes that seem to leap with gladness when the voice on the internet suggests we now slowly wiggle our fingers and toes and return to the outside world.
Once our teacher whose name( real name?) Felicity entreated us to focus on the sound of the ringing of the Tibetan bowl and I felt as if I were suspended in between the golden rungs of the bowl, shimmering and expanding out into the air. It also connoted for me biblical images as goats and sheep might be summoned by their masters in so many days passed by old weary bearded prophets or shepherds hitting a small gong.
Mindfulness is in the news, perhaps the latest trend that has been around forever, but has finally emerged into the public vocabulary, a cute buzz word,now made legitimate rather than a Beatle fascination on the 60’s when the mop tops followed their personal gurus to India. I anticipate its meaning will be skewed as it passes into the ambiguous public domain.
Even The Baycrest Hospital in their literature proclaim mindfulness as a technique that may aid depressed and chronic pain people. Another new item addresses the topic via a headband called the Muse that will gather and focus one’s thoughts. Didn’t we all once believe we could levitate objects and power up our thoughts? From laughable kooky to money- maker, a seriousness now accompanies a product loosely based on being mindful. How ironic, I must, demure. Yet, I ruminate that perhaps meditation does calm me, and another word “ neuroplasticity” has legitimized unbelievers justifying what Tibetan monks knew so long ago.
I converse with my friend who is a psychoanalyst and he reminds me mindfulness comes from the Buddhists who , unlike the Americans set on their ridiculous golden dream of power and finances, understood that life is about enduring and suffering and for women, it is birth, childbirth, aging and dying that form the cornerstones of existence.He comments that the documentary Queen of Versailles underlined that the accumulation of wealth does not produce the comfort and ease of living happily.We both chortle a little as living in the now may be unreasonable :as my questioning Felicity about not confronting a pain or conflict when it actually arises, but instead walking away, calming oneself before addressing the issue actually dismisses the NOW. My friend the shrink relates an example from the recently dead psychiatrist,Oliver Sacks , whose brain- damaged patient continued to repeat the sequences of raising a cup to his lips, putting it down, questioning had he drunk-and routinely and systematically repeating the actions, never moving beyond the now. This is not what what we yearn for.
What I enjoy about my friend Sandy the shrink is that we explore contexts, both big and small, sane and insane, tipping and tilting the picture so that we can discuss ideas from many, many perspectives. Perhaps this why his patients adore him.As always there is the paradox, the near and the far, what works , what does not. And again I am pleased that my mindfulness teacher has provided our group with diverse ways to think and cope and consider, encouraging thoughtful discussion while presenting her understanding according to her own teachers.
A few times I have thought of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, a poem, we were once required to study for our Grade 13 provincial exams so long ago. The concept of time that figured so strongly in Eliot stayed with me , along with the last line Shantil, shantil, shantil,: the peace that passeth understanding. I think this is truly the aim of mindfulness.
They say, nothing is new under the sun. But perhaps, rather there are times when we actually hear what has been said to us time and time again, and we were not ready to listen. For some reason, unexpectedly, we hear the tap on the bowl and it calls us.