Many of our students have never meditated. We introduce them to the practice in an easy, non-threatening way. To inculcate a healthy practice–and to build a bridge to conflict-transformation work–we ask our students to keep a meditation/reaction journal, and then to use ideas developed in the journals as the basis for homework writing assignments.
A meditation/reaction essay by Gabi Rivero:
…My meditation has been really hard to bear. Most days I would sit down, close my eyes, and just feel something hurt and not be able to get past it so I would stop early, or I would be too anxious about something to focus properly. Luckily, the day came where I managed to push those things away.
As the snow fell, I decided to sit in my cozy chair and meditate. My neighbors were playing loud music, so I looked up a meditation playlist, grabbed my headphones, and set on my way to a more mindful place. A short while ago, we read about the five hindrances, and since then I have really been trying to get past them, to no avail. The good part is that practice makes progress; in this session, I progressed. I really focused on my breath and clearing my mind in order to allow room for me to feel whatever had to be felt…
This session of meditation was completely in my hands. Maybe it was not my hands, but I was 100% aware of what was in my head and what I was trying to accomplish. My body was not so much in my control, it was like it needed to release energy on its own, and so I eventually let it.
Desire is the first hindrance we discussed. What I desired was to find something other than my back pain. I wanted to take over the little swaying and head movements that my body was doing, but once it fought me back and kept me from moving to the left to center myself, I let it go, I resisted taking control. Once I took a deep breath to let go of control, my body swayed left and stopped aching and freezing when moving.
The next hindrance is ill-will, or aversion. Although I am not super sure if I had any to begin with, I had some thoughts about a conversation I had with my husband the night before. We had not fought in a long time, and all though this was not really a fight, it had made me mad at his friends again. While meditating, I kept seeing male silhouettes and felt my jaw tense up. I somehow got it to really relax and the guys I imagined seeing just vanished from my mind.
Sloth and torpor came hand in hand with my worry and then restlessness, because I felt my body completely give up. My back dropped, arching over my crossed legs, and all I saw was darkness. It felt like I was falling and flying all at the same time. I felt panicky because it was like I was searching for something, like I lost something very valuable and could not find it anywhere. Eventually I started think about how birds must feel, hawks especially.
Doubt hit me along with the thought of hawks. I had no clue what I was looking for, so what was the guarantee that I would find it? Then it hit me. Hawks have amazing eyesight. They can see small little prey that move really fast while so high up and moving themselves. Hawks never know exactly what they are out there looking for besides something that might be food, or something they need in order to survive. The key is that they will know it when they see it, then they go for it. That is exactly what I allowed myself to do. Once I was ready, I would know what it was that I needed to get myself back up.
Then, like a switch, my back shot up and started circling! My head also tilted back a bit so that I was looking straight up, my eyes able to pick up on the bright lights that were right above me. When I first hiked up a mountain (I think it was Camel’s Hump in Vermont) it was amazingly eye-opening, the same way that this moment was for me, literally. I opened my eyes slowly and looked at the time; I had been meditating for 21 minutes.
You are an excellent writer, Gabi. I really enjoyed this essay. I feel I have gotten to know you well through these writing assignments. I think that you will be happy, later on, that you have so internalized the lesson of the Five Hindrances that you can use it as a road map for a mental journey toward understanding, as you have done here. Other students over the years have used the Hindrances as a given, a prompt for a meditation essay or a final paper. I especially like how you did it, and how you used the energy contained within each hindrance to move on and get to a clearer place—a place of contentment and the end of your spine’s discomfort.
The climax of your story for me (and I guess for you) came in the thinking about the hawk. As I say, you have absorbed the Hindrance lesson from our class, and it can be a lifelong friend for you. In turn, I receive from you this incredible image of the hawk—in the future I, too, will think of my own focus in meditation with the help of this image of a circling hawk, with super sharp vision, scanning down there to see the thing I need to survive! And not even knowing what it is while looking, just certain that I’ll know it when I see it! This is such a wonderful metaphor for meditation! I’m going to remember it forever. And it fits with my own visualization, developed over a long time, of the spiraling-down process in meditation. Now it’s not just a spiraling down. It’s more than that. Now it’s the circling hawk, ready to grab the morsel it needs, right now, before the twenty minutes (or 21) are up! Thank you so much! —Peter
A meditation/reaction essay by Joanna Marcus:
Memories: The Past, Present, and Future
Meditation has made me think a lot about memories. What does it mean to hold on to a memory? Can memories change? This is something I have struggled with since losing my older brother, Noah, two and a half years ago. I have had this enormous fear of forgetting memories of him. Shortly after he died, I decided I would keep a memory book and write down everything I could remember of him. But in the chaos and heartbreak of those weeks, I never got around to making that book. I remember feeling so angry at myself for not writing any memories down. What if I had forgotten everything already? What will it be like in ten or twenty years when time has passed? I truly believed that the closer in time I was to a memory, the clearer it would be. I thought it would only fade more and more from there.
My perception of memory has changed a lot since that summer Noah died. I am starting to experience that my way of remembering grows and transforms over time. Memories come back to me at different times and in different ways. A simple object, or something I do or hear can bring up a memory. Who knew that a bottle of fluoride mouth rinse could hold such significance (other than preventing cavities…)? It is such a seemingly simple thing, but when I look at a bottle of fluoride mouth rinse, it brings me back to the many games we played trying to make each other laugh and spit out the fluoride. When I eat a meal that he liked, I think about how much he loved food. When I hear someone tell me something I already know, I think about his invention of the word, “Brookler”, the word for someone who tells you something you already know…
It is a beautiful thing how a simple object, or food, or saying has the capacity to hold so much. Perhaps memories are like feathers floating around, and every so often one just lands on you. They are always there, in existence. Time does not fade them. Instead, over time we might think about our memories in a different way. At one moment in time, a memory might hold more sorrow and pain than happiness. At another moment in time, however, that same memory could elicit more laughter than it did before. The feelings and presence of memories might shift and transform over time, but that does not mean the memories are not there.
The other day I watched a concert performed by the Brandeis Lydian String Quartet. One of the pieces, String Quartet No. 5, a premiere written by composer Andrew Waggoner, is a beautiful depiction of memory transformation across time. The piece was written in memory of his dad, and in the piece’s program notes, Waggoner discusses how the music represents the human experience of memory. It is a two-movement piece. The second movement, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkeness (for Dad), acts in parallel to the first movement, Every Sentient Being. He describes how when we access memory, part of of the memory’s clarity and accuracy is traded for our deepened emotional connection to the past. Over time we move beyond specifics, but our love and feeling for the memory is strengthened. The piece illustrates this idea musically through the second movement’s expansions and echos of the first. We hear these echos, yet the emotional flow reveals itself to be different.
I find it interesting how meditation has created this space to reflect on my fears, comforts, and questions about my memories of Noah. In the context of what I have heard about meditation (outside of this class), I have gotten the message that meditation is a practice of staying in the present moment. It made me question whether it was ok that my mind made its way to this idea of memory while I was meditating. I thought to myself: Isn’t memory a thing of the past? I’m realizing, however, that memory is not just a thing of the past. Memories live in all of us, whether we are thinking about them or not. Not only that, but our actions and interactions in the present moment will become memories in the future! I find it beautiful how the past, present, and future are connected and intertwined around every little memory made, and this gives me great comfort in knowing that my memories of Noah will never fade.
Part of the Instructor Response:
Wow, what a fabulous essay, Joanna! There is something truly magical about the form, content, and development of your essay. It’s clearly a meditation essay. I feel, from your writing, that you are ready and willing to cast a wide net in your contemplation. You bring in your grief about Noah, and your wish to freeze memories of him in some unchanging amber. You make the leap to associations with music. You analyze what a memory actually is. You allow significant metaphors to amplify your thinking: feathers, and then some almost-living intertwining thing… You are a wonderful writer, Joanna, so I hope you are planning to use this talent in your choice of profession. But beyond that you are wise, too, with a genuine ability to get beyond limited ways of thinking about grief, pain, memory, and the mind’s capacity to occupy, simultaneously, layered levels of time…Thank you! –Peter