Yesterday, my youngest stayed home from school. I didn’t want to alter my routine too drastically and he is old enough now to be accommodating and to entertain himself quite easily. I said I was going to meditate for twenty minutes, and he was okay with it, especially when I told him to bring his little mini-super-hero figures into my office so he could play while I meditated. I told him he could make noise, but please not to ask me for anything for those twenty minutes (genuine emergencies excepted; but the beauty of having an office is that the kids already know that rule about interrupting me).
He played for the first ten minutes or so. Then I heard him leave. I heard him come back. And it got very quiet. I knew he was in the room with me, but I didn’t know what he was doing.
When I opened my eyes at the end of the exercise, that’s what I saw: see photo above. He was meditating. He had chosen to sit cross-legged with his hands in a prayer position. This is not how I sit when I meditate. He wasn’t copying me; it was the position he chose on his own. When I asked him about why he’d chosen to sit that way, he couldn’t explain it. He had a few questions about the voice in the computer (I use a guided meditation app). Who was that man, and is he real, and can other people hear him too?
I have a couple of observations about meditating. I love it. Or maybe I only have one observation. That’s it. Clearly this is something my mind takes to; reminds me of running, a bit, how when I found the running, it seemed to answer some question in me that I hadn’t known was there, silently being asked.
I love following the tracks of my thoughts into a corner of the mind where I am suddenly falling backward into deep snow and staring at an enormous open sky, in awe.
Even today, meditating alone (with dog snoring at my feet), with my mind in a state of apparent dissatisfaction–even today, I loved the exercise. Why?
My mind flitted today, ran everywhere, often to places I did not want to be.
I kept returning to breath and that helped, but didn’t cure what ailed my mind, its anxiety that I was doing everything wrong.
But you know what? Even while I worried, I knew on a deeper level: This is not an exercise interested in right or wrong. Do it, and it counts. You will learn something, every time. Not necessarily something big and astonishing. But something interesting–it’s waiting to be found, every single time. Today’s exercise was a good reminder to the frustrated, dissatisfied self: you won’t always think you’re doing a good job at the tasks you’re doing; maybe you’re even right about that. But the real work isn’t confined to a single instance, it’s in the accumulation of many instances. It’s in repetition of effort, and returning again and again to the discipline you’ve chosen to get to know more deeply. You can’t know in advance where it’s taking you. You don’t know exactly what you’re making. But that’s the beauty and the mystery.
“I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am bliss, I am, I am.” —from the song “I am the light of my soul”
These are the words that came into my head as I finished today’s meditation, which was for thirty minutes. It amazes me that I am now able to sit still for thirty minutes. Me! Sitting still, doing, apparently, nothing but breathing. Today, as I was falling into and out of my breath, feeling the stillness and comfort of my body, I heard a car zoom by on the street outside, and I had a strong and joyful sense of the world going on around me in its whirl and bustle, and yet here I was, still and at peace. Still and at peace and not necessary. That sounds odd. It’s what I felt.
It was a very peaceful feeling. I felt the world whirling on around me and without me and it didn’t need me to whirl too. I could sit here in stillness and all would be well; maybe I even understood in that moment that sitting here in stillness was as important as all of the whirling I do.
I have filled my life up with responsibilities and cares. I love being in motion, driving somewhere with somebody to something, or setting goals for myself in everything I do, from swimming lengths to running miles to lifting weights, to the word count I keep track of with pleasure on my new novel. I am also keenly aware of the needs that must be met to keep this family operating in a healthy and happy way. The dog hair that must be vacuumed. The meals planned and prepared.
So it is somehow profoundly soothing to also see the flip side, to recognize that I am not as necessary as I tell myself. That if I am busy, it is because I’ve chosen to be busy, not because busyness is essential to my being. That there is always room to sit still for a few moments and breathe, and pay attention.
I feel hopeful today.
I am hopeful about my writing. I am hopeful about my children and my relationship with each of them. I am hopeful about what meditation is bringing into my daily life. I am hopeful about practice. I am hopeful about today. And right now.
icicles on Aggie
Daily meditation, in slightly increasing increments of time, has given me plenty to think about … even while I’m practicing standing a small distance away from my thoughts, trying to observe rather than control or judge them.
The thinking never really stops.
Here’s an observation applicable throughout the day, and in parenting situations too. The physical state of the body greatly affects the mind’s ability to focus. Obvious? Yeah, I know. I spend a lot of time discovering the obvious. Or, more accurately, rediscovering the obvious. You’d think you’d remember all the wise and useful things you’ve learned, at great cost, over years of experience, right? Well, I don’t seem to. I need reminders.
Yesterday, I struggled to sit quietly for the full twenty minutes, and not only because I could hear my kids rolling around wrestling and mock-arguing in the next room. I struggled because it had been a morning without much activity. I’d snuggled a grumpy kid in bed, read the paper, eaten breakfast, sipped a coffee. All was ease and leisure. And then I sat down to meditate and my body, it turned out, was flaring with unshed energy. I hadn’t noticed! If I’d noticed anything, I would have said I was feeling a bit grumpy or anxious—I would have interpreted my physical state as being a state of mind, as if the two were quite separate.
Those twenty minutes felt endless. I was crawling out of my skin with wanting to get up and move.
This morning’s meditation, by contrast, felt easy. I was alert, steady, and twenty minutes flew by, so quickly that I couldn’t believe it was already over. The difference being quite simple, I think: this morning I got up early, and exercised. My body, by the time I sat down to meditate, had shed plenty of energy and was prepared for quiet and stillness, and therefore my mind was capable to quiet stillness too. This is more than enough reason to get up early and exercise, in my opinion. (I set my alarm for 5-ishAM, five mornings a week, and for that habit to stick, I need a good reason, frankly.)
I applied my new-found/re-found observation yesterday when the kids were practicing their instruments. The six-year-old was getting frustrated and impatient, so I sent him running a loop around the house—once, and then twice—pretending to time him. (Side note: funny how much he loves being timed for activities; maybe the opportunity to lay down a “best time,” no matter how arbitrary, is endlessly exciting.) Anyway, after setting a new course record, he sat back down at the keys, panting a bit, but with a much happier spirit. Same for the nine-year-old violinist. (She didn’t need to be timed, however.)
It made me appreciate that three out of four kids walk to school every morning, and the fourth kid usually gets up to do some exercise before breakfast.
Makes me ask, too: How often is our physical state affecting our mental state, and we’re completely unaware?
six-year-old asks the big questions on the chalkboard wall
I’m thinking of not trying to be the best at everything.
I’m thinking of cutting myself some slack, maybe a whole lot of slack.
I’m thinking of what my inner life would look like, were I to celebrate my successes, and accept my failures.
I’m thinking of exploring even more closely the work that comes naturally to me.
I’m thinking of not wishing I were better at [fill in the blank].
I’m thinking of letting myself attempt things for which I have no discernible talent.
I’m thinking of taking pleasure in the wonders of life as it exists right now. Right now!
The sound of a garbage truck idling outside the house. The icy blue sky. The brightness of sun on deep snow. My feet in warm socks chilly against one another, toes touching. Life. Breath. The way my kids head boldly out the door every morning to take on the world in their own brave ways. The way my kids crash through the door every afternoon and shout a greeting, Hey Mom! Are you here? The ebb and flow of multiple conversations washing over me. The smell of dirty hair and of clean hair.
I’m thinking of frightening things that have no good answers and I’m thinking of prayer and of love.
I’m thinking of how brief I am. I’m thinking of the spaces within myself. I’m thinking of atoms and of stars.
I’m thinking of how much I like hanging around laughing and talking about stuff that doesn’t matter, that has no substance, that is lightness itself, utterly irreverent, in moments that mimic forever.
I’m thinking about not being the best, or even distinguished, or even accomplished, or even any comparative description at all. I’m thinking about being.
picnic table sled run
Holiday yesterday in Ontario: Family Day. We celebrated by having a really fun weekend together, not doing anything much out of the ordinary. There were five soccer games, four of which were coached by us (Kevin, mainly). The truck stopped working in the extreme cold; thankfully, we belong to a carshare, and have friends whose cars still turned on, so we got around where we needed to go–and went nowhere else.
I was running this morning with a friend (yes, running! slowly, but without pain). She mentioned that in just six weeks or so we’d be leaving our state of hibernation. Can I admit something? I’ve really been enjoying the cold and the dark this winter. There’s a peacefulness to hibernating, to inhabiting the season. I can feel it settling all around me. Permission to sit in front of the fire and read.
Or to listen to podcasts. This holiday weekend, I spent a lot of time folding laundry, cooking, and washing dishes — far more than I needed to, but I need to do something other than snack while listening to podcasts. First, I tuned in to one recommended by a blog reader: On Being with Krista Tippett. I wanted to hear Mary Oliver’s voice. Listen, if you’ve got time. It’s totally worth it. And then, having discovered that it was possible to listen to podcasts whilst doing dull tasks around the house, I recklessly started listening to Serial, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages — just couldn’t figure out where “listening to podcasts” might fit into my schedule. I’m probably the last person on the planet to discover this show, but I can’t stop listening. Can’t stop! I need to bake some bread or something today …
Other hibernation-season activities ongoing …
daily meditation; writing; story-reading; playing ukulele while the 9-year-old practices her violin (at her request, I must add); reading with six-year-old and listening to his philosophical observations about life (especially while reading Calvin and Hobbes together); watching old episodes of Friends while doing physio exercises; spontaneously making plans with friends–yes, socializing!; and cross-country skiing, which I was lucky enough to do with a friend in the cold and the dark one evening last week while a kid was at soccer practice, an hour of genuine bliss
This sounds like a Grade One writing topic, but hey, I want to know: what are your favourite things to do in the winter? Do you like hibernating? Or are you longing for light and mud and spring?
〉 A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry, by Mary Oliver
bought on impulse from Amazon when shopping for photo albums for Christmas gifts
* Mostly, I just want to give you quotes from this book, which is wonderful. It’s slim, precise, measured, and deeply practical: a book about the poetic craft, with useful examples to illustrate the vocabulary necessary to discuss a poem. If I teach again, I will have my students buy and read this book. I am only sorry I’m so late in finding it. Here is a taste.
I was drawn to this section because she speaks of meditation. It is a different way of looking at the practice:
“We experience the physical world around us through our five senses. Through our imagination and our intelligence, we recall, organize, conceptualize, and meditate. What we meditate upon is never shapeless or filled with alien emotion—it is filled with all the precise earthly things we have ever encountered and all of our responses to them. The task of meditation is to put disorder into order.”
Oliver is a believer in patience and will, time spent in honest labour. She quotes Flaubert: “Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation.” She says:
“What a hopeful statement! For who needs to be shy of any of these? No one! How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them. … You can attend to them, you can do better … When people ask me if I do not take pleasure in the poems I have written, I am astonished. What I think of all the time is how to have more patience, and a wilder will—how to see better, and write better.”
How to have more patience, and a wilder will….
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