Humbled by Meditation

This post originally appeared as part of a series of blogs for Yoga Tree and Pete Guinosso

Remember the Trains

I was full of nervous and excited energy on the first day of Lighting the Path Yoga Teacher Training. I found a spot in the Peacock Room at Yoga Tree Telegraph, and grabbed a bolster,  knowing only that our day would start with an hour of meditation.

Pete started our morning with a Four Directions ceremony. Calling in the Four Directions is a way of grounding, physically and emotionally. The ceremony acknowledges the energy that comes from the air and the earth, as well as the important, vital elements of water and fire. Sage or sweet grass is burned and intentions for the day are set. When done in the intensive setting of training, the thoughtful solemnity of the process also highlights themes that will be tracked in the asana portion of class.

Pete Guinosso calls in the Four Directions. Photo Credit: Scott Finsthwait

 After the ceremony, we settled into our seats for the first meditation of training. That first morning, our focus was simply on feeling the breath coming in and out of our nose as we sat for “just 20 minutes.”

Twenty minutes. A cake walk, I thought. I can do yoga for hours! I have done Ana Forrest intensives and lived to tell about it. I am going to nail this meditation thing.

Pete started by asking those with experience in meditation to offer any advice that they could to this newly forming community.

A fellow trainee offered that we should think about meditation much like waiting at a train station. Passing thoughts were like watching trains come and go: We let them pass. We stay where we are. Another train comes by. We let it go.

I tried to keep this in mind as I closed my eyes to begin. I fidgeted with my hands. Palms up. Palms down. I immediately regretted keeping my long sleeve shirt on. I was already sweating in the heat of the room.

It seemed like it had been 40 minutes when I winked open my right eye, like a cartoon bear waking from hibernation, slowly looking around.

Thanks, Pete, for turning the clock towards you. My one lifeline – gone!

Everyone had their eyes closed, even Pete. Had Pete fallen asleep? What if he was asleep and didn’t wake up and we sat here for three hours?

The trains! Remember the trains!

I have never been so happy to hear the meditation bell ring three times – our signal to open our eyes, and reset the room for the two hour asana practice.

With just one meditation under my belt, I knew it was going to be a long six months.

The Drop It Method

Several weekends later, during a morning break, conversation turned to that morning’s meditation. I had really struggled, and didn’t feel like rehashing what I felt was my paltry attempt at clearing my mind.

But everyone else had already shared, so there were expectant faces waiting for my opinion.

Well, I’m working what I call the “Drop It Method.”

That was the name I had given to my current style of meditation. Much like when a dog has something it shouldn’t have in its mouth and a frustrated owner says: DROP IT!  When I’m holding on to thoughts, I tell myself the same thing: DROP IT!

In truth, I was alternating between mantra and dropping it. This amounted to the following soundtrack in my mind: Present. Possible. Peaceful. Positive. (the blissful mantra I wanted so badly to focus on), punctuated by “DROP IT!” when a thought would creep in. Thoughts that, on any given morning, ranged from wishing I had eaten more breakfast to elaborate, existential worries about my place in the universe.

It was a humbling experience to struggle. Much like my yoga practice had been for me in the beginning, meditation was awkward, hard, and frustrating.

But the structure of the training meant that I couldn’t give up on it. We were asked to do 5-10 minutes of meditation a day throughout the training, in addition to our weekend work.

Pete had been teaching us a new meditation method each week, getting progressively more advanced. We experimented with a wide variety of Buddhist meditations, including Tonglen and Metta Meditation. By week seven, I was able to sit with my thoughts (mostly) without flinching. But I was still using the Drop-It Method.

Letting Go on the Ground

It was on a business trip, during one of the last months of training, when I finally learned to really love meditation.

I had worked a full day that started with an early flight. I still had to do my meditation for the day, and it was well past my bedtime. My back was hurting and I knew that sitting up would frustrate me.

I was determined not to fall asleep. I positioned myself on the floor (yes, the hotel room floor) and I put a pillow under my back like a bolster. I set the time on my iPhone to 10 minutes. I put one hand on my heart, and one hand on my belly. I started breathing and pushed “play” on the mantra in my head.

And there, on a hotel room floor in Chicago, I finally let go.

I had dropped in, and I didn’t need to drop anything.

When the iPhone beeped, I wasn’t ready to stop.

I finally knew what it was like to hear the silence of my own clear mind. I was at the train station, sitting on the platform, and I didn’t even need to watch the trains.

Pete’s morning intensives taught me that there is no “right way” to meditate. Like most things in life, the practice of meditation takes just that – practice. It was the tools, and discipline, of Lighting the Path training that led me to this point.

I still meditate often, and I love to meditate while lying down. It is not a daily practice, but it is a frequent one. Meditation is a method of mindfulness that I employ with great intention in various settings.

The greatest gift that I received from the six month focus on meditation was permission to do what makes sense for me. 

There are times when I watch the trains, and there are times when I still need to tell myself to drop the thoughts as they pass.

Meditation doesn’t have to be a fight with our thoughts, when it can be a compassionate homecoming with who we really are.

It is worth every moment of practice to get closer to peace.