John S. Shealy is a Louisville, Kentucky-based psychologist who has written much about meditation and mindfulness, an act he and countless others liken to taming a wild horse. Our mind, he writes, "loves to run fast, wildly chasing after first this thought, then that sensation, then on to the next bit of stimulation and on into the sunset it runs." Meditation is an attempt to keep the wild horse that is our mind from distraction for just a tiny, quiet spell in hopes that we can saddle up and ride it to its full potential. But of course achieving ultimate calm in the face of this whirling blur of chaos called life is close to impossible.
This is likely because we approach meditation in the wrong way from the outset, often lusting for a quantifiable result. Many come to meditation because they believe it will help in some way, as though it is a master key that will unlock all doors. It is and it does, but it's subtle, a complicated paradox. Through meditation we're trying to develop a skill that we believe will make us better people, but the whole point of meditation is that there's no particular result to get to. And yet, in a very peculiar way, you're able to get better at achieving this non-achievement.
This is so contrary to the way we operate in other areas of our lives—always trying to get something, go somewhere, be someone. In the West especially, we're saddled with an ambition that teaches us that if we can just get X, Y, and Z, we'll be happy, life will be good, we'll have reached a place of contentment. But meditation teaches us that there is nowhere to reach, the outer world isn't some sort of chessboard where we can use our inner powers to manipulate those outer conditions and satisfy our desires. The inner and the outer are the same thing. Our outer experiences are actually supposed to help us master our inner life, and the other way around.
"Quite simple," as Shealy writes. "But let's not confuse simple with easy."
"My experience with meditation was the exact opposite of what I thought it would be."
For me, sitting still and thinking about nothing for 30 minutes is one of the most physically challenging and intensely painful activities I have ever attempted. It was a total body experience—I'm talking dripping sweat, hair and clothing completely soaked, every muscle burning, every bone aching, every part of me throbbing with such intensity that each pulse made me oscillate between total numbness and absolute sensation.
My experience with meditation was the exact opposite of what I thought it would be. I thought it was all about using your mind to get better at living. I thought it was supposed to accomplish something—to help me succeed in the outer world of ambition and action.
Perhaps that's why so many consult with gurus on this particularly arduous but simple journey, masters who can drop pins on the map of life for them. The appeal of that is understandable, but I'm not much for the idea of the gatekeeper. By the gurus' very nature, they have something you don't, and some supposed position of authority over this thing called life. There's a danger in placing oneself above others to create hierarchies and rankings, and invariably teachers can withhold and bestow information as they see fit as it pleases and benefits their own life or cause. The most valuable lesson a guru can impart is to help us realize we don't need a guru at all.
You can be your own guru simply by being still, aware, and contemplative. If clearing your mind completely is too hard, simply thinking hard in a concentrated way about anything can help clear the dust between your ears. This can be thinking intensely about a friend or a family member. Or a piece of cake. Or an elephant.
Meditation is simply a type of thoughtfulness, an active inactivity that seeks to simultaneously free us from the need to concentrate. It's a sort of nothingness that reveals an everythingness. These paradoxes define the texture of meditation, but in the spirit of contradiction, the point of meditation is that there is no point. Even this is also not the point. And though thinking about it hard enough (while not thinking at all) is enough to make your mind explode, I choose to rejoice in the absurdity of the entire pursuit.
Failing that, even striving to be more aware of our time on earth can provide little glimpses of clarity. This is it. This is real life, all around you. It's happening to you, and you're happening to it.
We're alive. If we could each just keep that fact in the front of our minds and in the center of our hearts at all times, we'd be giving that wild horse some much needed rest.
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