Learning how to be
My first experience with meditation, outside of movies and television, occurred in high school. An older friend of mine who I played Dungeons and Dragons with, and who I always thought was kind of weird, liked to meditate on the ground outside the choir hall. My honest instinct was to poke fun at him for his habit, but I never did, likely because I was so baffled by the whole affair. I think people have a tendency to make fun of things they don’t understand, but this was so bizarre to me I didn’t even know how to tease him properly about it, so I just left him alone while he sat in the dirt and hummed to himself every day.
As trivial as this encounter with meditation was, I think it’s one of the primary reasons I was more open minded about the practice later in life. I judged my goofy nerd friend for meditating in high school, so when I encountered it as an adult having a similar dismissive knee-jerk reaction felt childish and silly.
While in college, I read a book by a German professor named Eugen Herrigel about his experience with Zen Buddhism called “Zen in the Art of Archery.” The book, published in the late 1940’s, was one of the West’s first popular introductions to Eastern philosophy. I found it interesting, but at the time the interest never went beyond a kind of academic curiosity. For me, reading the book was a neat way to learn a little bit about a culture and a religion that I didn’t know much about, and nothing more.
Some years later, I seriously took up the hobby of disc golf, if it is even possible to “seriously” take up a hobby like that. After playing for about a year or so, I grew frustrated with my skills. I felt they had plateaued. I suspected my troubles were more mental than physical — I would find myself letting bad shots get to me, which would upset me and cause me to make more bad shots later in the round.
In disc golf, just like in traditional golf, there is no such thing as a perfect game. Mistakes happen. You miss an easy putt, you end up off the fairway, behind a tree, on the wrong side of a hill, and so on. But golf isn’t about being perfect — it’s about working with imperfection. My biggest problem (aside from my lack of innate skill) was that I could not do that reliably. In my search for a solution to my poor mental game, I discovered the book “The Inner Game of Golf” by Timothy Gallwey.
Much to my surprise, Gallwey’s writing about calming and focusing the mind and body sparked a memory. I had read these ideas before, years ago, in “Zen in the Art of Archery.” Apparently, the secret to improving your golf score is, more or less, practicing Zen Buddhism. This gave me a practical reason to learn more, which inspired me to engage the subject in an new way. I became fascinated with Zen Buddhism, meditation, and mindfulness. I started reading other books, including “Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart” by Mark Epstein, “10% Happier” by Dan Harris, “Buddhism is Not What You Think” by Steve Hagan, and a collection of Buddhist stories and parables called “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.” And then I reread “Zen in the Art of Archery.”
It took me over a decade from introduction to being willing to give meditation a try, but I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Much to my surprise, as simple as the task of sitting silently and focusing on one thing intently (usually the breath) sounds, it is stunningly difficult. Trying meditation made me realize how constantly distracted my mind was, and how quickly I became frustrated with myself for my lack of focus. This is part of the process, though. Distraction is normal. The hard part is non-judgmentally acknowledging the distraction and returning to the breath. Just like in golf, where you have to recognize what went wrong with a bad shot, and then return your focus to the next throw instead of beating yourself up for the mistake.
I continued to meditate. I slowly got better at not getting so angry at myself for my lack of focus, which, interestingly enough, made it easier to stay focused. I joined a Buddhist meditation group that meets once a week and I practiced at home in the evenings for the rest of the week. (Most people who meditate swear by waking up earlier and doing it in the morning, but mornings and I don’t get along, so all attempts at trying it this way failed miserably.) It hasn’t been a huge time investment, typically just ten to fifteen minutes a night, five or six nights a week. The group meditation goes longer and includes walking meditation and some chanting.
I have been meditating regularly for about a year now, and I still very much feel like a beginner. I continue to struggle with keeping my wandering mind focused, but I am better than when I started. Some sessions are great, and some are tough, but I have more good sessions than I used to.
The benefits of my practice are subtle but many. I focus on tasks more effectively. I handle stress better, I don’t get annoyed as easily, and I don’t get mad as frequently. When negative feelings and experiences do happen, I tend to react in a healthier, more measured way. Amusingly enough, my disc golf game has improved, mainly because I am not as quick to frustration, which helps keep me from getting on the mental downward spiral to bogey land.
One of the nicest benefits is the ability to effectively claim moments of calm whenever I need them throughout the day. And the more I practice, the easier it is for me to get to those moments. Stress doesn’t go away, but these moments lessen the damage.
Once, I invited a friend along to a session with the group I practice with on Sunday evenings. About five minutes in, I was thrown out of my meditation by the sound of my friend snoring. I opened my eyes and there he was, legs still crossed, laying on his back, sound asleep! I was embarrassed — I invited this guy along and now he’s snoozing through the whole experience? What would the other attendees think? Would they judge me for bringing along a sleeper? I nudged him awake and struggled to get back to meditating.
After the embarrassment of the moment passed, I wondered if I was wrong to judge my friend for his meditation nap. Is it possible that he was just really good at clearing his mind and relaxing his body? As calm as I can feel during a session, I have never fallen asleep. Maybe people like my narcoleptic buddy don’t need things like meditation. Maybe I should be asking him for tips.
I don’t know if the changes in my internal life are perceptible to anyone but me. It’s quite possible that they are not. Even if it is noticeable to others, though, it’s not like I have gone through some drastic transformation into a completely new person. ABC anchor Dan Harris reasons that meditation has made him approximately ten percent happier. I like this number and I more or less agree—meditation has had a similar impact on my life. If you think about it, changing one thing in your daily routine and being able to see a ten percent improvement isn’t a bad deal at all, especially since all I was really after was a way to lower my disc golf score.