A Humorous Look at Learning How to Be Still
by James Conti
As the first light of day enters our house, my wife and I commence our devotional practice, attuning ourselves to the spirit that is our source. Beginning with various exercises to stimulate body and mind, we soon advance to a deeper level of focus. Moving to our modest altar, seated with spines erect, we prepare to embark on a tour of higher awareness. But suddenly there's a glitch. Just as I am about to launch into long, splendid silence, a troupe of vaudevillians invades my brain and turns it into a gallery of comedy vignettes. Welcome to meditations I have known...
Wait, I've got an itch. Should I scratch it or try to ignore it until it consumes me?
...There, that's better. (Aum...) Easy does it. Just let go. (Aum...) See yourself as space. (Aum...) Nothing to hold.
Nothing to hold you back.
Hey, this is great. Everything's kinda floaty. Does that mean I'm doing it right? I think so. But who's to say? Perception can drive you nuts.
Ooops! Start again. (Aum...) I am. (Aum...) Yes. I am. More than I think. I am. (Aum...) I only wish I could figure out why there always seems to be more to figure out. Ego can drive you nuts.
Okay. Settle down. Give it a rest. (AumAumAum...) Speaking of conundrums, how come the more I figure out, the more confused I get? It doesn't make sense. Reason can drive you nuts.
There, I feel better. (Aum...) Got that off my chest. (Aum...) Now if I could just get rid of that voice inside my head.
Would somebody please put a sock in its mouth? I can't hear Krishna's flute!
Jeez, I wonder what time it is? I bet I've been here 15 minutes already. This is tougher than hauling rocks uphill. Why is my brain so unruly? Maybe it's wearing out. Is that the reality of aging? Reality can drive you nuts.
Okay. (Aum...) No sweat. Reality has no meaning in the end. (Aum...) All I have to do is dissolve into soul. Like mist into sunlit skies. Yeah, that's the ticket.
Hold it, I forgot to put out the garbage for pickup...
No big deal. Concentrate on breathing. (Aum...) Relax and think of nothing...nothing...straw...no... (Aum...) nothing...strawber...no... (Aum...) no...strawberry rhubarb pie!
Needless to say, the blissful state of samadhi, where all good yogis go when they reach transcendence, remains a distant rumor to the likes of me. At least there is consolation in the common experience and humor of my ordeal, and in the gradual gains I have made despite the ups and downs.
To no one's surprise, I am sure, I admit to being fairly new to the practice of sitting still and plumbing for depth. Reflection, as a personal discipline, is one I have tended to entertain on the fly, so I try to keep reminding myself: Rome was not dismantled in a day. Resistance is bound to arise. Let it be and relax. Alas, a battle with resistance is hard for me to resist. After a minute or two of letting it be, I am apt to wind up in a scuffle with it. Once upon a time, I swear, I had self-control. Now, instead, I am prone to mental incontinence! As comedian Gilda Radner's character Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, "It's always something!"
Yes, it helps to laugh. In fact, it becomes essential. After fifty years of wanton material indulgence, I am learning quickly that reform is a rather colossal undertaking. On the other hand, what else is there to do? Sooner or later, in this life or another to come, we all must turn toward home, and pursuit of temporal pleasures only prolongs the trek.
Like many Americans who are drawn to meditation, I was raised on a steady diet of Western religious values. At the age of twenty, I rebelled against the contradictions I saw, leaving the "one and only church" to seek a more liberal path. Atheism attracted me for while, flattering my intellect with notions of self-importance and liberation. Then I came to recognize that atheism, too, is just another form of religious faith. It required me to believe in its limited view.
Still, I could not return to a God of convention. Exploring the teachings of revered Eastern masters, Native American shamans, and proponents of quantum physics, I began to discover ideas that humbled and empowered me at once. Awareness of karma, reincarnation, and the oneness of all that is introduced me to truths I could understand intuitively, that is. Yet, until last year, my spiritual education seldom went beyond the mechanics of reading and conversation. Looking back, it appears I was trying to think my way to enlightened reunion with God. Hence the slapstick nature of my evolution.
By the time I enrolled in Beginning Meditation, I was a creature of logical patterns etched in tablets of Paleolithic design. My spirit was willing, but it hardly knew where to start. Perhaps you remember the movie Annie Hall. In one of its funniest scenes, an anxious guest at a Hollywood cocktail party is on the phone to his guru. "I forgot my mantra!" he laments, as if it were a badge declaring him cool. I, like he, have often sought to collect those badges myself. Dilettantes disguised as devotees, we create our own comeuppance.
Today as I move inward with increasing resolve, I realize how daunting the challenge is. Sitting in half-lotus posture on my designer pillow, striving to escape the gravity of my senses and darting thoughts, I wonder what I can do to quiet my chattering mind. Stuffing a sock in its mouth, although pregnant with cartoon appeal, is not a viable option.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the forces of ego contend with the forces of soul for the very essence of man, providing the ultimate metaphor for our existence on Earth. Life is a constant struggle to rivet our focus and energies to God-conscious purpose. The good news is that the soul is destined to win. As Krishna discloses to Arjuna, humanity's eventual redemption is assured. The bad news is that the wait could be damn near forever especially for one so easily distracted as I.
There are days when ego works overtime to remind me of its despotic rule. At times I have prayed with well-chosen words to be released of its grip, but words, I am sorry to report, are as impotent to the task as hospital-menu cooking is to nutrition. Scoring points with God, it seems, has scant to do with verbal composition. Intellectual prowess apparently does not captivate God either. Shouldn't someone have mentioned that in school? I am realizing today that God responds to selfless service more than self-conscious success. In my four years at Stanford, I don't believe that was taught.
Of course, with all due respect, ego is quite a foe. Preserving its hold on the reins of human reaction is the only mission it has and, to my chagrin, it obeys no rules of fairness in demanding attention. One of its favorite tricks is to bombard my concentration with volleys of ludicrous minutiae. The other day, for instance, in the middle of one of my deeper meditations, bits of trivia, like flotsam from an ancient shipwreck, suddenly rose to the surface of my mind: Did you know that James Stewart was the real name of actor Stewart Granger? Imagine my joy at exhuming this fact from the archives of sunken memory!
Now I ask you: How is a person to guard against that kind of landmine interference?
Honestly, though, the serious question is this: How, in the name of intelligence, seeking for countless eons to gain communion with God, did we turn out so utterly conditioned to physical and ephemeral concerns? In the realm of cosmic burlesque, surely this ranks at the top of the list of longest-running gags. First we shoot ourselves in the foot; then, to relieve the pain, we shoot ourselves in the foot. Without a doubt we have mastered the art of the ultimate, self-inflicted practical joke. Gross matter has become our object of worship.
The problem is, we have sacrificed our innate, sacred wisdom to social demand, and thus we have grown addicted to perceiving cause and effect outside ourselves. No longer do we know the all-knowing that ever abides within us. Today we look to the stars and dream of establishing contact with alien life, oblivious to the extraterrestrial force the magnificent Divine we have buried in our very own souls. Meditation is the only means I know for achieving a dialogue with its infinite abundance of blessings and grace. This, at last, is clear to me. If only I weren't so out of shape in the exercise of my will. Laziness is the enemy now and impatience, procrastination, and Paleolithic patterns etched in my brain.
Nonetheless, this rambling complaint is intended to arrive at a single, inspiring point. Daily meditation, however clumsy and shallow it may be at first, is the most refreshing use of time that any of us can make. I know, because I've begun to see the results. A moment's glimpse of heaven's expanse is worth all the hours of slogging through swamps of tangled vines and mirage.
Given the misdirections of our past, our journey back to God is guaranteed to be testy, arduous and long. That said, a practice of meditation, patiently undertaken and sincerely embraced, guided by instructors who know the terrain, gives it a depth of meaning and joy that will nowhere be found in chasing worldly success.
In truth, we are not as we seem. We are not the wins and losses of our hard-driven lives. We are so much more. To reclaim your intrinsic self from your manufactured self-image is the only commitment of effort that really counts. It is also the only one that won't drive you nuts.
James Conti is a freelance writer living in Seattle. For inspiration, guidance, and fellowship, he attends services at Ananda Church of Self-Realization.