Truth: I want to be a calmer person. Desperately. I’ve always been a little off the charts emotionally, with my emotional thermometer prone to zig-zagging between the highest of highs and the lowest lows. Current times are making me even more unsettled. ISIS. Climate change. The shrinking of the middle class. Working in the vicinity of someone who is prone to fits of unpredictability and unrealistic demands and whose world view is the extreme opposite of mine. Realizing (too late) that I work in a field where many people check both their personalities and morals at the door. Renovating a 115 year old house and living with a friend for the last three months due to 115 years worth of dirt and dust flying around. These external circumstances have made me into the tense, overwrought, exhausted and fundamentally un-peaceful person who is currently typing these words.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that my average day feels like one long reaction — to the news, to my boss, to my mother telling me about my grandfather’s increasing forgetfulness, to a friend who is being jerked around by a man and needs to unload. I want to be the kind of person who can show up for all of these various people and scenarios but who is still able to maintain some kind of inner emotional integrity, some place of peace that is beyond all of it. I want to be Thich Nhat Hanh, damnit. However, since I’m unlikely to wake up a Vietnamese Buddhist monk (at least not in this incarnation), I really need to learn to quiet my own mind. Life isn’t going to stop, but I have to start stopping, even if it’s just for a few minutes every day. Hence, my quest to meditate.
Now, I’m not a total novice when it comes to meditation (or centering prayer or sitting in silence, call it whatever makes you feel comfortable). I got my first taste of it when I was 12 or 13 years old at summer church camp. No, we weren’t Zen Buddhists or Hare Krishnas; my family is non-exotic, standard-issue Episcopalian. Owned and run by the diocese of West Virginia, Peterkin Camp has been around for generations – my mom was a camper there herself as a girl. Peterkin is a refuge, a place of enormous natural beauty in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.
The camp schedule always goes a little something like this: breakfast, cabin clean-up, small groups for spiritual chit-chat, church, lunch, rest period and then electives all afternoon. During my years at camp, I’d done my fair share of routine electives: croquet, hiking, water polo, the Peterkin Peeper (the camp newspaper) and all different types and varieties of Arts and Crafts. But that particular summer at Intermediate Camp, there was an interesting addition to the Elective menu: Relaxation and Meditation. Always one for something new, I couldn’t sign up fast enough.
Our first afternoon, we gathered in the Chapel. The counselor in charge (was his name Chris?) wasn’t a regular – he was new to camp and to my worldly, twelve year old eyes seemed a bit gay and New Age-y all rolled into one fascinating package. We found a place to sit on the floor, our backs against the pews.
“First things first, everyone,” Chris gently lisped. “Find yourself a partner because we’re going to get started with foot massage.” I guess Chris decided that kicking off Relaxation class with immediate terror was a good way to begin. Pairing off at that age is already an experience fraught with anxiety – you look around immediately for your best camp friend (not in this elective), then for your next best friend (already taken), then the boy you have a crush on (wouldn’t be caught dead in this elective), then anyone decent (now, already paired off), and then you realize, too late, that you’re stuck with Roger, a weirdly large 12 year old who I always remember as drooling and having his mouth full. Roger shimmied over next to me and I watched, disgusted, as he untied his filthy sneakers and peeled off his gym sock. It was usually in the high 80s or 90s during those July camps, so I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Roger had then wrung his sock out onto the floor. “Come on,” Roger said to me, and I noticed that he seemed just as annoyed at being paired with me as I was with him. The gall of Roger! I wasn’t in the popular circle of kids at camp, but I wasn’t so far on the periphery as Roger. I kicked off my Birkenstocks and stuck my feet out.
“Now, you’re going to sit facing your partner and take their foot in your hand.”
I stared at Roger. “Hurry up, give me your damn right foot,” I said to him.
He hoisted his huge foot onto my lap and then he grabbed my foot and wrenched it onto his thick thighs. This was quickly moving from a Relaxation and Meditation elective to one of Medieval Torture. I stared up at the folk art cross on the wall and asked Jesus, “Where the hell ARE you when I actually need you?”
Chris taught us all about the pressure points in the foot, and despite his clammy hands, Roger proved to be an adept foot masseuse and somewhat eager to please. “How’s that?” he’d ask. “How about now?”
“Great,” I said. “Please don’t get your spittle on my toes.”
Finally, thankfully, the foot massage ended. Chris instructed us to find our own space on the chapel floor and to lie on our backs. I sprinted away from Roger and got a prime space right in the middle of the center aisle. “I’m going take you through a guided meditation and then we’ll all meditate in silence for a while,” Chris said.
There were those 1970s skylights in the ceiling of the chapel and I could look up and see the branches of the enormous oak that shaded the building. The chapel was possibly the only air conditioned building in the entire camp, and the vents blew cool air on my legs. Thank god I’d come to church camp because this was heaven.
“Now, close your eyes,” Chris said. “And we’re going to begin by concentrating on our breathing.” An eruption of giggles and then someone in the back made a fake fart noise. Bless him, Chris never wavered. It’s a brave man who signs up to teach a bunch of pre-adolescents to meditate. We learned how to breathe from the very pit of our stomach and to fill our entire chests up to the count of one, two, three, four, and five and then to slowly release the air, “as if you’re letting air slowly out of a balloon.” After we breathed for a while, Chris began the guided meditation which featured, I kid you not, a pink cloud that came down from the sky to surround each one of us and then whisked us off to our favorite place on earth.
“You’re in your favorite place in the world, and you’re very safe. Look at the scenery. Breathe in the air, notice what the air feels like on your skin,” Chris instructed. I pictured a beach, even though I’d never been to one in my life. I saw palm trees, and waves, and white sand – exactly like the screen savers on the IBMs in the computer lab at school.
“Now, I’m going to be quiet and I want you to rest quietly in your favorite place.” And from that point on, I can’t tell you exactly what happened. I didn’t fall asleep, but I was gone to a place inside myself. At one point, I felt like I was leaving my physical body, like I was pushing against it, trying to get free.
After a while, I heard Chris’ voice, instructing us to come back into our bodies. Once we came to from our meditative stupors, Chris had us gather round and informed us that though we’d only been meditating for thirty minutes (thirty minutes! I would have sworn it had been hours), that thirty minutes was really the equivalent of sleeping for two hours. “Now, go in peace and spread your joy,” Chris said. Dazed, we emerged from the chapel, blinking into the sunlight.
For the rest of the week, we meditated every day after massaging each other’s hands or feet or shoulders. Sometimes, Chris would play a CD of rain sounds but other times, we all just breathed in silence together. In hindsight, it was somewhat amazing and I wonder if there isn’t something to the idea that children are naturally more receptive to meditation because they have fewer blocks or preconceived ideas about doing it “right.”
Cut to my life now where I struggle to get in even five minutes of meditation every day. Lately, this has been taking place in a strip mall parking lot, right down from a Petco. I go at lunch time and find a parking place with no other cars parked nearby. I close my eyes and focus on my breathing and sit for as long as I can – my maximum is about seven minutes. Sometimes those minutes are nothing more than a battle in my head between the crazy part of my mind which likes to hop around and the part of me that wants my mind to be clear. Recently, I read an article that says you shouldn’t try to fight the thoughts that inevitably pop up. They’re like Whack-a-Mole games – they’ll just keep coming. You’re supposed to notice the thought and let it go. Something to try.
I think of the twelve year old me, so eager for a new experience, so open to the possibilities of life, so able to just plunk down on the floor and power down. I think of the me now – harried, frantic, prone to fits of rage and jags of crying, hands fluttering over the screen of my iPhone. How did that change happen? How does it ever happen to any of us? I don’t think there are any easy answers.
In the meantime, all I can do, all I will do, is breathe.