The Road to Om
Meditation is a part of my everyday life. But if you were to rewind just a few years and tell my past self that bit of news, she'd laugh out loud. "Me?" she would say in between hearty guffaws. No, you've gotten me mixed up with someone else. I exercise, eat well, and give thanks. I am a spiritual person, but I have no spiritual practice. And I surely do not meditate. But thanks for the laugh!
It's not that I wasn't interested in meditation then. Like anyone who consumes research, I was well aware of the benefits. In fact, as a specialist in the human body, I was probably more aware than most. I'd even had treasured healthcare providers--my acupuncturist, my therapist--recommend it.
And it wasn't because I'd never tried to meditate, either. I'd given the old om a number of tries, including a publicly chronicled 30-day commitment to daily meditation. I fondly refer to that month as the worst four weeks of my life. Logically I knew how meditation was supposed to work, and how it was supposed to make you feel. Physically and emotionally, I just wasn't having that experience.
At first it was just uncomfortable. I couldn't enjoy being still, I was unable to quiet my mind for even a few seconds. Assuming this was to be expected, I pressed on. But it never got better. In fact, it got worse! The more consecutive days I attempted to meditate, the more agitated I felt after each attempt. By the end of the 30 days I detested the time I spent in "meditation." I dreaded it each day, couldn't wait for it to be over. And I felt horrid once it was--tense, jittery, almost angry.
This was so not what I had expected. I committed to 30 days because I suspected my past failures with meditation had to do with not sticking with it long enough. I fully expected the restlessness and agitation to reduce, not increase. I was perplexed, but so relieved to reach the end of the month of misery that I didn't dig in deeper. My hypothesis following this ill-fated experiment was that I simply wasn't a meditator. Meditation WAS good for people. Just not this people. I wrote it off and moved on with my life.
Fast forward to 2019 and you'll find me reading The Universe Has Your Back, by Gabby Bernstein. I really should send Bernstein a thank you note. Without knowing it, she's turned my life inside out in the best of ways. But let's stay focused now, on the summer of 2019. I am in my daughter's living room in Salt Lake City, reading The Universe. Bernstein is a strong proponent of meditation and often includes instructions for it in her books, as well as bonus content like guided meditations. I reliably skimmed these parts of the book...until I came to the idea of the Maharishi effect.
There is a body of research showing that the quality of life in a community improves when just 1% of its population practices meditation. Specifically, this research refers to Transcendental Meditation, and improved quality of life means things like less violence, fewer hospitalizations, and lower crime rates. Without going too far down this rabbit hole, the idea is that the collective consciousness of the many is relieved of stress by the meditation practice of the few.
I'm not here today to argue the veracity if this claim. I've never even done Transcendental Meditation. But when I read about this effect, something shifted inside of me. Suddenly meditation was about the divine feminine, about community and connectivity and shared experience. I realized that my previous attempts at meditation had been overly-masculine: forced, rigid, linear, and self-focused (much like the rest of my personality at the time). Maybe I could do this, I thought. I mean, if it benefits everybody, maybe it's worth a(nother) try.
That's probably where this line of thinking would have stopped, had Bernstein not also directed my attention towards a specific Kundalini meditation, known as the Kirtan Kriya. Eager to do my part to heal a violent world, I decided to try this practice as she describes it in The Universe. This is where the real magic happened! In the past I'd largely tried the traditional "just sit still and focus on your breath" kind of meditation, perhaps counting the breath, perhaps just trying to let my thoughts flow without engaging with them. [Insert sound of aggressive game show buzzer here] That was so not my thing. But the Kirtan Kriya...
Like most Kundalini meditations, this one involves mudra, or hand positions. In this case, it's a moving mudra, bringing each finger in succession to touch the thumb. Turns out that's just enough movement to keep a very over-activated woman from feeling like stillness is going to drive her insane. Also helpful? Chanting!
Here's the truth of my past experiences with meditating, as I am only now able to see it: I was so highly conditioned to use busyness as a defense mechanism that being still and silent felt truly threatening to my nervous system. What was so relaxing and comforting to others was a direct threat to my coping mechanisms, and my body was having NONE of that.
That's why the 30-day experiment produced such dramatically unpleasant results. Each day that I tried to be still, my nervous system showed up in protest. As I ignored these messages, intended by an inaccurately calibrated system to keep me safe, the alarm bells rang progressively louder, and meditation got increasingly agitating and uncomfortable. At the end of the 30 days, I was all too happy to let my nervous system win that argument. Without realizing it, I was choosing what felt safe to my body--constant movement, thought, and outward focus.
The Kirtan Kriya introduced me to an entirely different kind of meditation. A practice where I could move? And make noise? Now, we're talking! Or singing.
This meditation was literally magic for me. It felt easy. I was able to remain in the present moment and to disengage from my thoughts, often for the majority of the 12-minute practice. A mere five minutes of still silence had been like metal shavings under my fingernails, but I was soon practicing the full Kirtan Kriya--nearly a half-hour of meditation--with ease. And with results that were literally blowing my mind.
The first mind bender was that I actually wanted to continue. I looked forward to meditating, rather than dreading it as I had before. And I emerged from my sessions feeling that way I'd always known meditation was supposed to leave you feeling: more relaxed, centered, focused, and easy. Gone were the struggles I'd experienced previously, the physical squirming and emotional stricture. Turns out I can sit still and focus...as long as I can keep a wee wiggle and make a bit of noise.
Touching this ability--to be still and inwardly focused--allowed me to slowly release the trauma-bound defenses that I'd carried with me all of my life. Slowly but surely, my body learned that ceasing motion was not a threat, that rest was accessible and, in fact, nourishing. Leaning deeper into this knowing, I found myself being able to truly rest for the first time. The combination of learning to rest and to be still and listen allowed me a level of communication with my bodies--physical, emotional, energetic--that I had never experienced before.
I found myself free to ask my body what I needed from day to day, rather than relying on my mind to create an arbitrary schedule. My relationship with exercise changed on a fundamental level, and movement is now completely nourishing to me, a practice undertaken (or not) based wholly on what my body needs in any given moment. Food, and even alcohol, have undergone the same transformation. Both are still deeply pleasurable, but now partners in balance and fulfillment, rather than tools for quieting the beasts in my inner depths. I even approach work in this same way, asking my bodies what tasks are best aligned in any moment and effortlessly following that guidance.
The most unexpected benefit of meditation? I experienced an almost immediate connection to visions, channeled writing, and other guidance during and after my sessions. I did not enter meditation seeking this connection, did not ask for this door to be opened. Yet it flew off of the hinges, nonetheless. It was as if my guides had been waiting for me to Just. Sit. Still! And as soon as I did, they tumbled through the door in a rush of wisdom and support, hustling me onto my soul's path and resolutely insisting that I follow it.
The first vision I had was overwhelming. It was during the silent four minutes in the center of the Kirtan Kriya, where the mantra Sa Ta Na Ma is repeated in the mind while continuing the mudra. Suddenly, as though someone had turned on a weirdly immersive TV behind my closed eyelids, I was no longer on my yoga mat in my bedroom. I was standing at the edge of a cliff. I could feel the loose sand and pebbles beneath my feet, the sun on my face, the wind on my skin. The cliff's edge was abrupt; I could not see what lay at the bottom, just an expanse of open air falling endlessly away.
"Jump," said a commanding voice. I was immediately filled with panic. "No!" I shouted in my mind. "No, I will not. I cannot! I would die."
"Jump," said the voice, this time nudging me forward, closer to the edge.
I began to cry. Not in my mind's eye, in my bedroom. I knew in my heart that this voice was in service to me, that no harm would come to me if I left the safety of the cliff. But I was quite literally terrified. Of a cliff in my head. I was so fully immersed in the vision that it wasn't until it was over that I was able to be struck by this fact.
In immersive TV land, things worked much as they do here, on this plane. My heart knowing and my head knowing were still capable of having arguments. Instinctually I knew I was being asked to face this fear, and that it had nothing to do with heights or voices in my head. My heart knowing said it was OK to jump. My head knowing continued to insist that jumping was a terrible idea.
The voice again. "Jump."
"No." I moved to the very edge of the cliff, sobbing now. Even from this vantage, nothing was visible below. The fall went on forever, beyond the ability of the eye to see. "Jump."
And then they pushed me. Spirit has only so much patience, and I had exhausted it.
For a terrifying moment, I fell. I could not breath and I could feel fear crushing my chest. Tears coursed down my face, soaking my shirt. And then my upper back exploded in sensation as I realized I had wings. I spread them wide, feeling the air catch suddenly beneath them, creating a sharp upward pull...
And then I was back on the cliff.
Still crying, now also shaking with relief, I thought what in the hell?! I just did that!
"No," I replied. "I did that. Once was enough for today. Maybe next time?"
This time I could not bring myself to walk to the edge of the cliff. The terror was still coursing through me, the feeling of falling without cease, the fear of what the cease might mean. But the terror was no longer alone. Alongside it, like a twin flame, was the feeling that I could fly. I could still feel the sensation of the wings behind me, a heaviness where they met my body, a larger outline in space where they extended my previous edges.
Unable to walk to the precipitous edge, but knowing I could fly, I ran forward and jumped. This time I flew immediately, without falling, and just as immediately found myself back on the ground, facing the cliff's edge once again.
I did. Again, and again. Each time, the terror was less. Each time I trusted my wings more. Eventually I was able to tuck my wings and plummet downward, then open them in a flash and laugh as the air lifted me up.
I found myself on the ground once again. The voice had nothing more to say, but I was full of the language of my lesson. We are with you. You cannot fall. You will always, ever, only fly. But first...you must jump.
This was the first time that meditation became a spiritual practice for me, but it was far from the last. I still enjoy the physical benefits of meditation--the reduction in stress, improved sleep, release of muscular tension, better health outcomes. My regular morning meditation is part of my day much like dry brushing my skin, or applying sunscreen, something that I do to take care of myself, but which is not necessarily profound in and of itself.
Yet meditation is profound, its effects throughout my life are profound. I am a better partner, friend, daughter, and leader because of meditation. This window into my soul, this space to heal my hurts, allows me greater compassion when interacting with others. I am a calmer, kinder, more patient human when I meditate.
I now understand that I can receive guidance like I did the day of the cliff vision at any time. When something is bothering me, when I am seeking an answer, when I don't know the right choice or the right words, I can ask. Meditation is the practice that prepares me to receive the answer. When it's time to construct the journal I give to the ladies who join me at the FEnomenon women's retreat, I meditate and ask what words they will need to read. These become the quotes scattered throughout our journal.
My time in meditation is now a holistic practice, serving my body, mind, and soul. It serves me personally and professionally, in simple and complex ways. I was deep in self-transformation when meditation found me. I was already doing my work, and would have continued to do so. But I have no doubt that the practice of meditating has accelerated that process like kerosene on a campfire. If the ability to create personal growth is equivalent to a vertical leap, meditation is like a super-charged trampoline, making each jump exponentially higher, yet requiring far less effort to rise.
The lotus flower, commonly associated with spiritual practices like Hinduism and Buddhism, where meditation is common, grows in the mud. "No mud, no lotus" is a phrase seen often, used to remind people that beauty springs from muck. My own mud was thick and black--years of resistance, stifling my own voice and utterly ignoring that of my guidance, internal and spiritual. I was literally unable to sit still, so trapped in conditioned behavior that the very thought of peering inside of myself set off a stringent stress response. My mind and body has spent decades creating these walls, and for all the work that I had done and growth that I had accomplished up to that point, I was utterly unaware that they were there. Mucky, indeed.
But from this muck has grown the most beautiful flower. The life I live today--easy, abundant, flowing with grace and gratitude--would not be mine in this moment without meditation. Might I have arrived here, eventually? Perhaps. But I am grateful that I did not have to wait, to muster the energy to make all of those standing jumps that would have been required. It's been much more joyful to jump on the trampoline, to soar to massive heights with minimal effort. It's been a blessed experience, to walk the road to Om. Now that I'm thinking about it, I believe I will send Bernstein that card.