Friday, March 20, 2015

A Moment of Serenity

I've dabbled on and off with meditation for years. I've never gotten good at it, and I haven't put a solid effort into learning, but I find it interesting and enjoyable nonetheless. My first exposure came at a gymnastics camp during middle school, when we were led through relaxation/visualization exercises as part of the camp activities. It wasn't called meditation, probably because meditation is a loaded word that turns a lot of people off, but that's what it was.

Meditation just means being present. It means slowing down the relentless stream of thoughts that pass through the mind's eye. If you can slow down your racing mind enough to engineer a pause in the stream and a realization that you're watching your own thoughts, then you're meditating. Congratulations. There's nothing magical or mystical or religious about meditation. It's simply an awareness of your own mind and a break from the constant bombardment of conscious and subconscious thoughts.

Since I've read all about the benefits of meditation (proven by science; not just based on my personal beliefs), for a long time I've wanted to get a more regular practice going, but the easiest thing for me was to just meditate when I already had a brief period of time where I was isolated and had to sit still. Specifically, the sauna after the gym. I figured since I'm already gonna be there for ten minutes, and sauna is a good way to get into a relaxed state, I might as well make it even better and try some meditation.

Last week, I had a truly amazing meditative experience that I wanted to share. I had meditated in the sauna for about ten minutes, just concentrating on my breathing and relaxing, and it was just normal, nothing special. As I usually do, in true Scandinavian style I followed the sauna immediately with the cold tub. So I'm sitting there in the cold tub, and it was particularly cold that day, probably around 45-50F (7-10C), and all of a sudden, I noticed something interesting about the ripples in the water. I let myself explore it, and immediately all my senses heightened and I was completely enthralled by the patterns on the water. The best way I can describe it is it felt like I was high (or so I hear...). The "resolution" of the water increased dramatically, as did my other senses, and I felt supremely calm. Now, some might think this was a survival reaction to the cold water, but it wasn't. I still felt the cold. After seven minutes or so, I went back to the sauna, and immediately started exploring this meditative state. I looked around, noticing details in the wood I had never previously seen. I turned my attention to the auditory landscape, and took delight in teasing out all the myriad sounds that are always there but never really heard: the mechanical clicks and clinks of the heater, splashes from the hot tub, the sound of flowing water, fragments of conversation. I turned my attention to my skin, which was alive with feeling as the blood rushed back to the surface to heat it up after the cold tub. I listened to my heart, hearing it echo in my chest, and feeling the slight sway of my body with each beat. I felt calm, I felt happy, and I didn't want to leave.

Eventually, I showered and got on with the rest of my day, but that feeling of peace and calmness stayed through the day. I tried to replicate it the next day, and the following one, but wasn't able to. Perhaps because I was striving. Perhaps it was just a fluke.

But something stuck. The simple act of focusing your attention is something that is so easy to "forget" to do, because the mind is perfectly happy to just keep on generating thoughts during every waking moment. But this ability to stop and focus is incredibly liberating and powerful. Just the other day, I passed an abstract sculpture in front of my otherwise nondescript apartment building and realized that I had never really looked at it. For nearly a year I had passed it every day, but if asked to describe it, I would have had to dig into the recesses of my peripheral memory to remember what it truly looked like. So I just stopped and stood there for a minute simply looking at this sculpture and taking in the details. Again, I felt calm. You might laugh, but I felt like I had done something meaningful.

Look, everyone's busy. Everyone's always got somewhere to be, something to do, something on their mind. We feel like meditation is a "waste of time" because we're not doing something. But at a deeper level, I think we're afraid of stopping for a moment because we might find something inside our minds that we don't particularly like. It's so much easier to just run on autopilot and let our thoughts direct us, and many people spend their whole lives doing just that. But that sense of "being", of just non-judgmentally observing, is a truly transcendental experience that has the power to change lives.

Even if only for a second.


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