As a novice meditator, I recently completed a ten-day crash course on meditative silence in order to see what all the hoopla was about. I used to think meditating was a bit over-rated—especially with how trendy it’s become and clothing lines capitalizing everywhere: if you’re not in your lululemons walking with your yoga mat in Santa Monica, who are you? But what I learned at my Vipassanna meditation retreat was literally breath-taking. It wasn’t until the fifth day I was certain I wasn’t putting myself through unnecessary torture and that the fellow 200 silent zombies around me weren’t suffering from cult mentality. I actually had that grand ah-ha moment during a 4am meditation where I felt a complete sense of calm. I wasn’t asleep. My mind, in all it’s chaotic and relentlessly loud rhetoric, finally became quiet. It was blissful tranquility. For the remaining days I learned how to discipline my mind through breath and how to better control my reactions in life. Here’s the hoopla I learned:
Hoopla number one: Let go of desire and aversion. With all of my expectations growing stronger every day since childhood I’ve been bombarded with reality and disappointments. (Like not getting that butler and two maids for my non-existent mansion by age 30.) I’ve lost people around me due to death or misconnection. (Three of my grandparents, a co-worker, one friend from college, and too many peers from high school have passed, and my exes are no longer Facebook friends.) Most of life is full of suffering whether you’re wealthy or poor (different gradients, noted) but it’s the reactions to all of it that matters. I can get angry when my car breaks down or laugh and take it one phone call to triple-A at a time. I can complain about the treatment toward the increasing homeless population or I could use my energy to assist. I learned that the less anger, fear, and pain I harbor in my reactions, the more likely my next actions will flow into more productive realms.
Hoopla number 2: Live in the present moment. Every breath taken is like a birth and as we breathe out that moment dies. Every moment holds new possibility and in each breath we are a new person. We can use that power to turn the tides and become whoever we wish to be. Sounds too easy, but what if it was? Maybe that’s the new faith I adopted from Vipassana. I, for one, have held onto a lot of emotional baggage and since the retreat I continually meditate to clean away thoughts that focus on the past and a non-existent future. (Like that relationship from my past that never came to fruition leading me to remorse after a glass of wine or that tiff I had at my friend’s wedding where I wasn’t the bigger person.) Being haunted by the past or future doesn’t allow you to grow—it takes you away from that present moment where growing is possible. No one’s perfect and we’re bound to make mistakes. Sadness passes, happiness is fleeting, and neither sustain your emotional health. Change is constant, and when I use breathing techniques it's easier to meditate on the idea that pain, sadness, ecstasy, and joy are only moments that also live and die.
Hoopla Number 3: Don’t scratch the itch. Continual meditation calms the daily mental chatter running through my mind, and more than that, it helps me remember to breathe during real-time moments when my character is being tested. Many things are out of my control, but I can control my reactions. Initial emotions are hard to control when there’s cause to be angry. Honestly, enduring hours of Honda tailgaters and Prius cut-off-ers in traffic every day is enough to make Eeyore blow a fuse. But since the days after my Vipassana retreat, when I find myself in the heat of a stressful moment I often remember to take a breath before I react—and it’s made all the difference. When you meditate for an hour at a time without letting that annoying itch on your foot make you budge, you realize what other annoying “itches” in life you’ve allowed to make you angry and you “scratch” at them even though it would be better to ignore it.
A strong mantra resonated with me during my ten day retreat: "Accept things as they are, not how you wish them to be." Once I used this mantra with my breathing I found myself accepting my life as it was. Once I confronted the true status of my life, something interesting happened—any aversion I had toward it dissipated. I accepted the truth of my present life and the power of dislike and clinginess died away. I let go of trying to control the things I can’t and by doing this I gained control over the only thing I have true control over: my reactions, my emotional balance, and accepting the world I live in.
Lauren Eash has a bachelor’s degree from UC Riverside in creative writing and history. She’s currently seeking publication for her first fictional novel, The Evolution of Evangeline Savant. She’s previously been published in the Los Angeles Times.
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