On meditation and failure

Practising meditation is probably the most useful thing I’ve done all year.

I first tried it 4 years ago. I was seated in a quiet room, comfortably cool, with a meditation practitioner guiding me through it. I focused on her words, my breathing, relaxing myself, and it seemed like it was going well, until suddenly I started to gasp for air — which made no sense because I knew I was breathing regularly and deeply — but my body just wouldn’t be sensible. I panicked, choked, couldn’t continue.

The second time I tried it, my body played tricks on me again. I was seated, unmoving, but suddenly it felt like I was leaving my body, twisting my torso 180 degrees to face the back of the room. My head started spinning, I gasped for air again, panicked, stopped.

That became a kind of psychological barrier and I didn’t try it again till 2015, when a friend told me about The Mindfulness Summit, which featured online interviews and talks on meditation and mindfulness for a month. While it was generally thought-provoking, for me it was just head knowledge rather than anything experiential.

This year, another friend told me about the meditation sessions at Kadampa Meditation Centre at Neil Road, and I decided to try it again. The 1/1/2 hours consists of 2 short meditation practices, with the teacher giving a sermon in between. The teaching follows the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, but even with the space and chants, the whole thing felt surprisingly areligious to me. You don’t need to be a Buddhist to practise meditation, the teacher would say — just try it for yourself.

The first time I tried it this year, I had that unpleasant out-of-body sensation again. I was seated on the floor, eyes closed, cross-legged with my head tilted slightly downwards, but suddenly it became this strange zero-gravity space and I felt like I was facing upwards though I knew I wasn’t. I actually hadn’t changed position at all, but I became too dizzy to continue.

These days, with a little more practice (though still very much a newbie), I think all that was my body going into shock. Just the simple act of closing my eyes and trying to focus on my breath was such an alien sensation, because suddenly alone with myself, I lost my bearings. It could be that on a subconscious level, my ‘monkey brain’, my chaotic struggling self was physically repulsive to my body.

My mind still can’t sit still. I focus for a breath or two, then my mind wanders off to tiredness, or hunger, or an idea, a person, a lingering emotion. Then I catch myself, try to return to sitting, breathing — but before long I get distracted again.

Sometimes, sitting there I also become aware of an excruciating tension in my neck or hands or body, which I seem to have been holding onto the whole day, maybe longer. It’s a physical pain, how was I not aware of it before? I then try to relax it — which also makes me wonder about my usual state of being. How often do I sleepwalk or race through life, barely aware of myself until strong emotions or jarring events knock me down? And when they do, do I just spin out of control?

These few years in particular have been years of failure, loss, poor decisions and rejection, in terms of self and relationships. This year, I also lost (or self-destroyed) my job, and with it, some sense of identity, community, self-esteem, purpose. Some days it felt like I screwed up big time, other days I got angry, and yet other days I felt fine and free. It’s so easy to veer from emotion to emotion. My usual coping mechanisms haven’t been all that bad, but external crutches can only go so far. It’s my self I have to live with — as we all do.

I’m still that same self, convoluted, with a lingering sense of loss and rejection. But I think the most valuable experience of meditation practice has been the exercise in compassion for myself, as I breathe, notice my distraction, mentally let it go, and then return again to my breathing, and that cycle of distraction. In a way it’s a constant failure, but also an experience — on a bodily level, a few times a minute — on how to fail and pick myself up again, again and again.

***

“And if images or sounds or sensations or emotions should arise, and if they’re not all that strong, if you stay connected to the feeling of the breath, just let them flow on by. You’re breathing. It’s just one breath. If something comes up with a bang, you get pulled away, get lost in thought, spun out in a fantasy, or you fall asleep, don’t worry about it. We say the most important moment in the whole process is the moment when you realise you’ve been gone — you’ve already been distracted, you’ve already been lost, you’ve already been gone — because that’s the transformative moment. That’s the moment we have the chance to be really different. So instead of judging yourself or blaming yourself or feeling like a failure, that’s when we practise letting go, and we practise beginning again. We let go gently. It’s what one of my teachers once called ‘exercising the letting go muscle’. We let go gently of whatever, and we shepherd our attention back to the feeling of the breath, with a full heart, with self-compassion, with kindness instead of rancour. And if you find you have to do that over and over again, it’s not a problem. Isn’t it amazing that no matter what, we can start over, we can begin again? We might end up very far far away for a good long time, and still there is that moment. We say that the healing is in the return, not with never having wandered to begin with. As we let go gently, and with great kindness to ourselves, we begin again.” — Excerpt from a guided meditation session by Sharon Salzberg