How does a normal woman–with no time and a mind with more browser windows open than bandwidth–successfully meditate? What if life itself is feeling pretty broken right now and the current struggle–the health diagnosis, work crisis, relationship breakdown–is overwhelming? Meditation is often something we save until we’ve truly exhausted all options or until we can do it “right?”
The answer is “ugly meditation” and overcoming three hurdles of a woman’s life to get there:
You can find purists about everything: food, exercise, design, career strategy, spirituality. They’re the ones who know the right way to do it, and won’t hesitate to tell you what that right way is.
Ugly meditation, unlike the ideal meditation of spiritual purists, happens between the cracks of life’s events, and sometimes it’s flung there like a messy application of mortar to hold things together. A little trauma, a little overwhelm, some fatigue, a family crisis: you need meditation like you need to breathe or you’re going to miss out on what life’s all about, because you’re too busy scrambling to keep your proverbial shit together.
Ugly meditation is when you stop waiting for the right moment, the right environment, better focus, enough time. And you just do it. Right there at the kitchen sink, you notice the water flowing over your hands and the sunlight on the rose bushes. For a moment, you stop making impossible lists of things you can’t possibly get done and stop arguing with your husband (who isn’t here right now, so why are you arguing with him anyway?) and feel the slippery dish soap between your fingers and breathe. That’s ugly meditation. It’s euphemistically called “mindfulness,” and it is available right here, right now, in the trenches.
What “trench” are you in right now? Can you breathe for a sec, noticing your body where it is in space right now? What are you waiting for?
I started meditating in my mid-20s, and I’m 47 now. I always loved it – it made me feel great, but I didn’t have time for what felt like a luxury. I had problems – real problems – and I needed to be thinking, rather than blissing out, to solve them. Then when I became a single parent, I really didn’t have time. I didn’t have a moment to myself to shut my eyes and tune out the world. I was on 24/7.
Then I got cancer.
Suddenly, I realized that I was waiting for someone to tell me I could be happy now, that I could set aside the time I needed to meditate and calm myself, to feel connected with something greater than myself when I was low, to cultivate my own happiness. I decided it was time to give myself permission; not time for someone else to let me off the hook for other responsibilities, but time for me to be responsible for my own mental and physical health.
This was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn in life, but it’s one of the most freeing: no matter who is standing in our way, it’s our personal responsibility to make a plan and implement it to get where we want to go.
Meditation is both the practice of taking 100% responsibility and a tool to help us do so.
This spring, we’ve had a male robin flinging himself at our living room window over and over again, for days on end. I realized pretty quickly that he saw the apparently aggressive bird in the glass and decided to put him in his place. He either succeeded or knocked himself out after about five days.
The meditation cushion is a little like that robin. We knock up against ourselves and experience all sorts of drama, with no one else present. That’s when the realization hits us, as we’re sitting there panting and sweating, alone: maybe I am the asshole in my own way.
Loving it All
Most meditation instruction makes self-love sound really sweet and selfish, like too many spa days and bon-bons.
To me, it’s a little more like the robin, lying there on his back, suddenly noticing that he has a pounding headache, but the sky is a glorious blue, and maybe he’ll just take a moment to notice both the headache and the blue.
At first, figuring out that I am the asshole in my own way may be a really horrifying realization. We may cry or feel very ashamed. But if we sit with that reality – either on the cushion or just in the course of the day, we may begin to find other emotions arising.
Humor. Compassion. Grief at the energy we’ve wasted fighting ourselves. Perhaps one day, contentment when we find we’re really no better or worse than everyone else. And then, maybe, love. Inexplicable love.
Because love is not just an emotion. The emotion of love can also arise from exercising the muscle of loving. What do we do with things and people we love? We pay attention to them. We nurture them. We extend kindness and interest in their direction. That is the act of loving. That is the very same act we commit every time we sit on the meditation cushion and experience ourselves. It’s not a coincidence that meditators eventually begin to feel kind, loving feelings toward themselves and others.
Someday, we may have the time and the energy to set aside long meditation practice times on proper meditation cushions. That will be exceedingly lovely when it happens. In the meantime, will you join me at washing at the kitchen sink, or typing at the computer screen, or crying in the bathroom for a moment of very real, loving presence with ourselves? It may be ugly, but it’s real.
Lora Freeman Williams practices deep compassion in her meditation and teaches others to meditate; she also works as a life coach and helps her clients to work with the material of their lives in compassionate and productive ways. She has extensive experience with survivors of trauma, eating disorders and cancer. She lives and works in Andover, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and their 10-year-old son.