Every once in a while, I'll attend a Friday night meditation, run by Dharma Punx here in San Francisco.
The first time I went, I figured it would be like a yoga studio or maybe even a monastery - I imagined robes and shaved heads and floor cushions and people in yoga pants. I was certain everything would be white, the air would be temperate and infused with hints of lavender, mystical music would play in the background. I expected silence.
So, I was surprised/disappointed/stink-faced the first time I went, and it was absolutely NOTHING like this. It was in an old church, there was shitty carpet and rows of tiny chairs with only a handful of floor cushions. No one wore yoga pants, no one wore robes, everyone had hair, and nothing was white except for a good percentage of the people. It did not smell good. There was no Indian man in a turban playing the sitar. And it was loud as fucking fuck.
I figured that once the meditation began, a hush would fall, people would stop moving and forego the bathroom, no one would talk, and that somehow even though we were in the middle of an urban setting, the ambulances would know to turn off the siren as they passed, people walking outside would put fingers to their mouths and tiptoe by, and that the sounds of nature from the park across the street would trump the sound of, you know, San Francisco.
As I sat through that first thirty minute sit - a seasoned meditator, a meditation teacher - I found myself in total torture. The leader talked the whole time, people came in late click-click-clicking their heals into the floor, sirens whaled, drunk people yelled, and some guy who must have been wearing a paper outfit wouldn't/couldn't stop shifting in his seat.
At the end of the sit - which was 1,000% consumed by hate thoughts of fidgety-paper-outfit man and hate thoughts for myself for the hate thoughts I had towards fidgety-paper-outfit man - I pretended to come out of it in total peace. I slowly opened my eyes, took deep yogic breaths, rolled my head smoothly/spiritually around my shoulders, and casually glanced about as if I was "just re-entering reality over here, guys" - while really I was trying to inconspicuously locate fidgety-paper-outfit man so I could non-verbally chastise him. I found him, surveyed the outfit (not made of paper), made eye contact, and gave him a look that clearly said I know it was you, I HEARD you, and yes, you should be totally ashamed/self-conscious for wearing noisy clothes to mediation and fucking moving. He smiled, did a little nod, and made prayer hands.
As I left that night, walking home with a girlfriend, I went on about how amazing it was. Lying. And sometimes when we lie to ourselves we remember the lie. So, I returned the next week, and then realized all over again that I HATED Dharma Punx.
When I returned the third time in as many weeks, I found myself somehow looking forward to the sit. Not because I'm a masochist. But because if it was making me that crazy, I knew it had to be doing something really, really good. They say that "the change burns", and this was torching me.
On this third evening, I was exhausted, tired, cold, and for good measure, I was PMSing (which is a synonym for explosively angry in my world). As we were being led into the sit, a late-comer took the seat next to me, and I found myself in my absolute worst nightmare, WORSE than paper-outfit-man: runny-nose-won't-use-kleenex-snorts-snot-every-30-seconds guy. So there I was, "meditating" to the sounds of San Francisco, tardy people in loud footwear, and a never-ending phelgm-ball being sucked into a nasal cavity. I started to go down the path of five-alarm freak out. "Do I get him kleenex? Should I leave? What would people do if I just screamed?"
The leader began to speak.
Leader: "Notice the sounds you hear around you. Identify the sound."
Me: "Snot. It's the sound of snot and the sound of an inconsiderate, un-hygienic man spreading his germs."
Leader: "Identify the sound with a word, and then return your attention to center."
Leader: "If you notice that you are reacting to the sounds, notice that as well. Say 'This sound makes me feel annoyed. This sound makes me angry.' Don't judge how you feel as right or wrong, but notice how you feel."
Me: "This sound makes me so fucking angry. PULSING anger. And it makes me angry at myself for being unable to be compassionate. I'm a bitch who can't fucking meditate."
Leader:"Accept how you feel. Say 'I feel annoyed, I feel tired, and I accept I feel this way.' Just be the witness. Not the feeling. Be amused. Do not try and change how you feel or deny how you feel. Just be curious. Whatever you are feeling is perfectly okay. No matter what. Just be amused and return to center."
Me: "Huh." At this, I almost said "okay" out loud, because that's how certain I was he was talking just to me.
My torture during these sits had been caused not by the fact that they were happening in a big city in a room full of inconsiderates, but because I was not allowing myself to be okay with the fact that I was meditating in a big city in a room full of other humans. And my torture was further compounded by the fact that I was not allowing myself to have a human reaction to the other humans. In other words, I was not allowing what was actually happening, happen.
I'd been so consumed with what shouldn't be - the noise, the people being people, my reaction to the noise and the people being people - that I had missed the point of just being.
So I tried his way. I sat and observed. "I am fucking pissed that this man does not use Kleenex. I am ANNOYED that he came to meditation with a runny nose. I HATE THE SOUND OF SNOT. And that's okay little Holly." I even smiled at myself and my neurotic need for people to silently suffer colds.
It was one of those "aha" moments that Oprah talks about. All of the sudden, I fully understood that just because I felt like a bitch, didn't mean I was a bitch. All of the sudden, I completely understood that I got be be exactly as I was, and that the trick was to OBSERVE how I was. Not change it. In other words, in that moment I learned what it meant to let myself off the hook.
And then just like that, everyone got let off the hook. All of us. I went around in my mind. He gets his runny nose. Paper guy gets his crinkly jacket. She gets to whisper to her friend, the tardy mother-fuckers get to come in late, the pee-ers get to pee. And I get to feel like I want to kill all of them. No one is wrong.
This is the moment - the exact moment - that I finally learned after YEARS of trying what it really means to meditate (see image below).
This past Friday night I returned again, this time bringing a new friend (who just like me the first time, came in yoga clothes with lavender infused LuLu Lemon expectations.) We sat outside the door and turned our phones to airplane mode before entering, as some guy walked past and said "oh we have to turn our phones off?" People came late. There were sounds of children playing, and a band started jamming some 10 minutes in. A woman came five minutes into the sit wearing cowboy boots and walked across the hard floor to an empty seat for what seemed like 3 minutes. People used the toilet and flushed it and the sound echoed through the room. There was a fly above my head for the last 15 minutes.
At the end, my friend said "I can't believe how loud it was. And that guy next to you pulled out his rice at the end and just started eating it! But it was really good." And I smiled and wondered if she hated them all as much as I did.
Meditation - like everything - does not look like the cover of Yoga Journal or any magazine for that matter. It is not done in caves because we don't live in caves and for the most part, it is not done in perfect white rooms or ashrams, because we don't live in those things, either. It is done in the madness, in the chaos, in our life. It is hard to make time for, it is hard to do no matter how long you have been trying. Every crazy, bad, evil, sexual, neurotic thought will crop up, and somehow you'll get to thinking about that time Gabriel Moraza kissed you under the tarp on his parents boat when you were 6 even though you are repeating "Sat nam, sat nam, sat nam." Sometimes people will snort snot and walk around in cowboy boots and eat rice and pee while you are trying to do it, and sometimes you will want to physically hurt these people or do other unlawful things to them. And lotus position? Forget it. Just totally fucking forget it.
The point of meditation* isn't to escape the madness or be someone different or have someone else's thoughts. It's not even to achieve some state of bliss for most of us. The point of starting a meditation practice is to be IN the madness, to be in your own madness, and to some how some way, find away to be okay in it.