When I was maybe twelve or thirteen, I went on a school trip to a Buddhist center. We were greeted by a nice, slightly chubby woman who showed us around, explained some basic tenants of Buddhism to us, answered questions, and guided us through a ten or fifteen-minute meditation towards the end of our trip. She bowed before entering the meditation room, and explained she did so to be aware and mindful of what she was doing. (I don’t remember if I bowed as well.)
I do remember gingerly sitting down on one of the cushions placed alongside the walls, fidgeting and shifting around looking for a comfortable position, and examining the small Buddha stature and various other knickknacks placed on a shelf in the middle of the room with a mixture of curious wonder and reserve. I had already lost the Christian faith I’d been taught, but hadn’t yet processed it fully, and much of my time thinking about religion was spent wondering and searching for kernels of truth in various belief systems with varying levels of faith statements that made no sense to me.
I remember my focusing on my breath as instructed, the flow of air through my nose, my belly expanding with it, then my butt and legs resting on the cushion, the quiet sounds of my classmates breathing and occasionally shifting throughout the room. I remember listening: two or three times, the woman struck a gong in the middle of the room, and the sound thrummed and echoed through the room for a long time. Cars produced a steady rushing noise outside the window, and once, a tramway passed by.
I remember imagining endless wide space expanding and unfolding within and around me, my thoughts and feelings drifting by and changing like clouds, my awareness floating in the space untouched and unchanged, yet not wholly disconnected, still able to observe what was going on (and to generate more thought-clouds about the passing thought-clouds, and then watching them as they went by).
And I remember recognizing it: this feeling of infinity, of boundlessness, of agelessness, was what I had once believed to be the presence of God. The unconditonal acceptance I felt towards the clouds was not quite the same as the unconditional love I had felt and attributed to God, but the difference was minuscule, and sitting there, I knew I could call up the feeling of love just as easily as the space itself.
I watched the realization pass by along with the clouds of joy that had formed with it, and the knowledge remain part of the floating me.
When the meditation had ended with another long gong sound, I had slowly blinked my way back into the external world, and it was time to leave, I bowed to the room.
I’ve been able to call up boundless space, turn my thoughts and feelings into clouds, and even shift the color of the sky to love multiple times since then. I’ve also found a slightly different space with more emphasis on calm to ground myself especially in crisis situations.
It’s not that the one meditation experience has single-handedly solved mental health for me: far from it. Distorted thoughts are still best challenged by rational re-assessment, and in many situations, I’m required to be more active than I am able to in my calm space – I can’t just close my eyes and float up into my mindspace when I’m supposed to give a presentation, no matter how much it would help my screaming nerves.
There has been quite a bit of research into meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation (which I think this one was, at least it fits the descriptions I usually read) and its use to manage various mental illnesses. I think practicing regularly (or even just more) could help with some issues I have, but I haven’t been able to meditate on my own. Without external guidance, keeping my awareness in the mind space is much more difficult. For one thing, I have to keep in mind what I want to do and become disentangled from thoughts and feelings at the same time, and juggling those two is challenging. For another, without changing external stimulation, the empty space turns into disconcerting, suffocating sensory deprivation very quickly, and I start straining to hear something – anything – and to hold on to the sound somehow because the emptiness is too empty. (Which goes very much against the spirit of things.)
To help with that, I’ve tried some guided meditations I found online, but unfortunately, I tend to take things very literally and meditation guides very much do not: once, a guide told me I was standing on top of the highest mountain in the world, and I panicked because I couldn’t breathe anymore because there’s not enough oxygen there. I quickly snapped out of it and laughed at myself for panicking in the safety of my oxygen-rich room, but it was definitely not conducive to relaxing and focusing. Most of the issues I ran into were less severe – meditation guides telling me there’s light in some part of my body traveling somewhere, instead of telling me to imagine there’s light somewhere, or talking about slippery concepts like souls or hearts (the soul-heart, not the organ that pumps blood) – , but still enough to impede the experience. (Experienced meditators probably would have no trouble at all integrating this into their meditation and observe the interruptions just like other feelings and thoughts, but this ability is what I need to develop in the first place.)
Another time, a meditation claiming to be about compassion instructed me to imagine all the suffering in the world. I tried and got as close as possible while still able to function and listen.
The next instruction was to imagine it fading away and being replaced by peaceful calmness.
And I couldn’t.
Because it did not get replaced by peaceful calmness. Whatever I imagine has no impact on the suffering out there. The meditation led me right to a really dark edge, and I had (tentatively) trusted it to lead me back, but the path it showed me was not real, and the darkness threatened to drown me.
I got away by reminding myself that my suffering made no difference to any of the suffering in the world either, and that it was better that I should not suffer and add to it, and I let the suffering drift by as a cloud and my grief for it right behind. So, in a way, I did get to practice my mindfulness skills due to the guided meditation, but not in the way I would have liked, and the experience did leave me a little rattled and wary of guided meditations (especially those with “compassion” somewhere in the title and/or description). I haven’t tried to use any since.
I’d need more rational guided meditations – meditations that make no assumptions about supernatural mechanisms, that stay literal, that only say things that actually make sense. I don’t know if there are such meditations. I’ve come across some good written scripts, but reading for practice wouldn’t work.
Maybe I should read one out loud myself and record it? Hearing my own voice (including some distracting sounds and/or odd pauses) might make me feel very self-conscious and embarrassed for myself during listening, though. Technically, incorporating that and observing those feelings might be very helpful, since embarrassment and self-consciousness are issues in daily life for me as well, but that sounds like a task for more experienced meditators again.
I might try it anyway, though, or make an effort to find suitable guides again. Maybe something has changed in the meditation landscape since I tried last, or someone posted recommendations I could find.