Meditation and Seeing

Me, glasses, no makeup. 

Me, glasses, no makeup. 

Today, at age 44, I got my first pair of prescription glasses. They have progressive lenses and make me feel like I have motion sickness when I walk. My depth perception is off. I knocked them off my face while opening the closet door in the bathroom.

On the other hand, I see a lot more clearly when I'm standing still, especially far away, but also at middle distances. Gone is the somewhat fuzzy, romantic view of the world I had previously. Everything is sharp and clear. Sometimes this is good (I can more easily identify the birds in the yard) and sometimes less good (our cat-scratched couch looks a bit worse than I thought it did). Also I saw some dirt I've never seen before. Someone really ought to dust the baseboards. 

I'll get used to all this. I wear sunglasses almost every time I leave the house, so I'm already used to having glasses on my face. I read that the motion-sickness part will go away and I'll adapt to looking through the lenses. As a bonus, I think some part of my brain remembers being able to see this well and is like, "sweet, I'm 20 years old again!" Being able to see better = feeling younger = amazing!

How does this relate to meditation? First, I got something I didn't realize I needed (glasses, a meditation practice). The new thing felt strange at first (wobbling around, sitting on the floor doing nothing). The new thing made it possible for me to see/feel things I hadn't before, both good and bad (birds and dirt, patience and sadness). And finally the new thing promises to be more and more useful as time goes by. 

If you asked me which of the habits I've built into my life I least want to give up, I would choose meditation. I'd choose it over exercising, journaling, eating right - even decluttering. Meditation does so much for me - keeps anxiety and depression at bay, leaves me peaceful and happy, and generally makes everything else in life a little bit easier. Meditation makes it easier to make better decisions and see things generally more as they are, and less how I want them to be or think they should be. Just like the glasses. 

Except that I have no idea how meditation works. I don't know that anyone knows (here's a good article about that). But it sure seems to be helping. 

Today I meditated for an hour. I changed positions after 45 minutes because my left leg was numb. I forgot to follow my breath so, so many times, like most of the times. I was sweaty for part of the time, sad for no reason for a little bit, felt nearly weightless for a while, sad again, and then my back itched. At one point my left elbow hurt like someone had stabbed it. And I felt calm and peaceful when it was over. And life is not any different right now than it was before. The only sure way I know I've made progress is because when I first started, I could barely sit still for five minutes, and a few months ago my leg would have been numb well before 45 minutes had passed (I've read that the numbness is a nervous-system thing and gets better with time, which makes no sense to me, but okay). Despite this lack of evidence of change, though, things have changed. Somehow this process leads to good things. 

In his book Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana describes meditation's effect on the brain with the analogy of letting the mud settle in a pond. If you keep stirring around (thinking), the mud never settles and you can't see what's there. But as the mud settles and the water clears, it's easier to see what's present. Thoughts are busy work for your brain. Stop thinking for a second and the real work can begin. At least, that's how I'm thinking of it now. 

Extend this to your enemies in order to release yourself from their negativity. 

Extend this to your enemies in order to release yourself from their negativity. 

He also says that beginning meditaters often think they'll quickly have the answers to everything in life, but what they end up with is a better way to take out the trash. One day you realize you're in the wrong job and you make a change. Later you realize the couch would be better on the other side of the room. Suddenly that coworker you couldn't stand doesn't bother you at all and it feels freeing. Who knows what's coming next? Maybe a way to get someone else to clean the baseboards. 

I never know what I'm going to get, or even if I can attribute what I get to meditation, but meditation makes me feel clear-headed and allows me to avoid getting caught up in my thoughts and feelings. Everything passes - emotions, physical conditions, thoughts. Everything. In some ways, meditation is watching things come and go, without following along. It's nice to not feel like I need to react to every temporary condition that comes along. Wait and it passes. Not only that, but once it's past, it will probably seem unimportant. 

In the first year of this blog, I attempted meditation and mindfulness four times: Week 9 - Let's Meditate, Week 27 - Mindfulness, Week 31 - Oprah & Deepak 21-day Meditation Experience, and Week 46 - (another) Meditation Experience. Although I got something out of every one of those weeks, nothing stuck with me. 

A year and a half after that last attempt, I had my Aruba Anxiety Experience (which sounds like a bad cruise ship shore excursion), as I talked about in my post On Failure and Change. That was last September. I've meditated all but three days since then. According to the Insight Timer app I use, I've meditated on 279 days, for 143 hours and 55 minutes altogether. Sometimes that seems like a lot, and other times it feels like hardly anything. I'm still very much a beginner, but I've come a long way from where I was a couple years ago. 

Bonus bunny feet, courtesy of my friend Hilary's bunny Miriam.

Bonus bunny feet, courtesy of my friend Hilary's bunny Miriam.

I still have anxiety sometimes. I try to observe it, let it run its course, but not react to it. For example, I have a long-standing fear of accidentally burning down the house (thanks a lot, elementary-school Fire Department presentations) and a history of returning home to double check that I turned everything off. Once when I was in college, I made the decision to move after I dreamed my apartment building burned down. I've mostly stopped having these worries, but yesterday I was pretty thoroughly convinced I'd left the gas stove burning when I went to work. Despite my previous experience, which tells me those convictions are always, always wrong, I really wanted to go home and check. But I didn't. I just felt that way for a while, then I forgot about it. When I returned home, the burner was off. As I knew it would be, even while I was worrying it was not. 

Will I ever be enlightened? Probably not. But if I continue to feel better at the rate I'm going now, I think I'll be content in my life, even rather happy and satisfied. I've still got so much to learn. Right now I'm reading books, and at some point I'd like to go on a meditation retreat. I haven't settled on a method. I've used guided meditations sporadically and found them useful at times (especially if I can't find a quiet space), but I prefer to just sit and follow my breath. I have no idea what I'm doing, but it seems to be working all the same. 

What I'm trying to say is that if I'm getting as much benefit out of meditation at this point, so close to the beginning, you should try it, too. It's not easy, but it's not exactly difficult, either. There are no tests. You don't have to remember anything. But the benefits! 

It'll be just like getting your first pair of glasses.