Being alive, feeling truly, fully alive, as though your life depended on it, is the result of a healthy meditation practice. In fact, after developing the habit, this vividness of being becomes the side-effect which lingers with you, eventually becoming your default state of being. That’s if you don’t get all caught up in trying to meditate! So it would be correct to say you can’t meditate if you’re trying to meditate, or to quote Yoda “Do or do not, there is no try.” But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves…
I first discovered meditation in 1996, in fact it actually discovered me! But that’s a story for another time. At any rate, I was in my late 20’s living a dream life in the most famous city in the world, New York City! I had a career in high fashion, there were celebrities, models, art, parties and the rest. My life was on the brink of my first major implosion. Everything I was trying to do was producing the opposite result. My career became my jail, my dreams became a painful reminder of what I was NOT and friendships triggered feelings of isolation. My self-image was as dark and all pervasive on the inside as it was a shiny pretend facade that I polished on the outside. There was something creeping into the world I had created that threatened to demolish its foundations and I didn’t want to see it. The cracks were obvious to those around me but I couldn't hear my friends concerned voices and to admit any of it would be like smashing the floodgates open, and that would just be inviting the thing I feared most.
It was at this time that I found myself walking into The Three Jewels, a Tibetan Buddhist bookstore and Tea House in the Lower East Side – it was their opening day. I really don’t know what it was that moved me to walk in, but I did and it was an impulse that I’d be grateful for for the rest of my life. They offered FREE or by Donation meditation classes and I jumped right in, ready to treat the symptoms – imagining that once I meditated I’d be “cured” of the pressure building. And “cured” I was, but not in the way I imagined.
I learned to sit and on the first sit, the young monk said: “if you think your mind is “yours”, if you think you have control of your mind, then let’s focus your mind on your breath for 10 rounds of inhales and exhales without letting your mind move onto anything else but your breath.” Sounds easy right?
I thought this was stupid! The monk was stupid, maybe this was a bad idea, why were people so stupid? But I couldn’t get up and walk out. I was sitting at the front of this stupid class, with a whole bunch of other stupid people who were wasting time counting their breaths! How could this possibly help anyone! I had real work to do! Since I was stuck sitting there I decided I could show them up. I would out-perform all the other breathers. So I started focusing my awareness on the sensation of air moving into my body through my nostrils.
It was surprisingly invigorating. I was re-discovering the pure sensation of breath for the very first time. I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten how air fills our lungs and oxygenates our bodies, this most basic, natural exchange between the world and me. I had been doing this since I was a child. I imagined my childhood lungs filled with air. I remembered being a child – I could see myself playing outside, feeling the air on my face, my friends around me laughing and joyfully playing football cards in the sun. Then, out of the blue, a voice interferes with my experience. “If You find yourself wondering from the sensation of the breath, just gently bring your attention back to your breath again.” I hadn’t lasted more than one inhale. I don’t know how long I was lost in my wondering thoughts. I tried again, and then again. I left the Three Jewels that day “cured,” of being lost in the symptoms. In its place an infinitely more powerful thought arose, “if I do not control my mind…then what does?” This question burnt in my mind enough to keep me returning to The Three Jewels day after day, learning the basics of an active meditation practice. The practice put a stop to pretending. Twenty Years later, I sit on a cushion at The NEW Three Jewels, teaching all kinds of New Yorkers not to try to meditate, because an authentic, congruent and meaningful life really does depend on it.
Author: Hector Marcel is an accomplished change management professional and Buddhist teacher based out of New York City.