I just watched a documentary on Netflix called On Meditation. It’s fascinating to me to see the various kinds of meditation in practice, and to listen to the experiences of the practitioners. I caught myself coming up with opinions about the practitioners based merely on how they presented themselves. It’s a very typically petty human thing to do, to judge whether or not someone has value based on whether their shirt is flattering, or their body type is fashionable. Silly! Eye-roll-amusing, to catch myself at it in my mid40s!

But I’m so very glad I watched the documentary. It gave me a sense of belonging; meditation is a totally solitary practice for me. On Meditation gave me a book to read, too, to keep the experience going. It’s also, I think, something my mother needs to see, to gauge the various experiences that she might be able to expect from taking up a meditation practice of her own. More than anything, though, it gave me a sudden understanding of why my own meditation practice has changed.

I first came to meditation in the late 1990s. I had left graduate school in tremendous debt. I had begun working, yet was steadily drowning even as I earned a paycheck. I had to be saved by my sister. I remain tremendously grateful for her intervention. But one of the best things that I did for myself during that time was to develop a meditation practice. I simply could not face every day at the office without knowing that I could retreat during lunch to a local park and simply sit and breathe and be. I was amazed at how quickly meditation became absolutely necessary, and pleasurable for me. 

I kept reading about other people having such difficulty sitting, yet I glided through a half hour meditation daily without so much as a glitch. Virtually every meditation was a joy. Transcendentally beautiful. I would walk back to my office down a busy street, with cars going by and I’d hear the wind rustling in the live oaks, and I would marvel at how beautiful it all was…despite knowing that I was going back to a sadist of a boss, and going back to many many thousands of dollars of debt, and going back to the realities of having only $60 a month to feed myself. Given all those things, it was still beautiful. In my morning world I was suicidal with worry over my debt, and yet, at every lunch, I managed to see beauty. That was the single best thing I ever did for myself: the ability to immediately calm myself simply by touching my mala. It was a powerful mental tool that helped keep me alive until my sister could save me. More correctly, meditation helped me survive myself. And it was so easy!

Once again I am at a place where I am forced to think in terms of surviving myself. I have not metastasized that I’m aware of. I am in no pain. I am reasonably functional and comfortable in my own skin, and yet mentally, I view the place I’m at as a shut and locked prison. I took a test that measures depression, anxiety, and stress, and I scored astronomically high in all three categories…despite the fact that I know this is, as the saying goes, “the first day of the rest of my life.” I don’t have a high chance of going happily through the rest of my life without experiencing cancer again, but I don’t have no chance of that, either. This could very well be “the first day of the rest of my life,” and yet I find myself weeping at every opportunity. Rationally I know those two things do not go together–they actively contradict each other. They are a sure and certain sign that, as the Buddha teaches, my mind is not to be trusted on this issue. My mind is not to be trusted at all, in fact. What is to be trusted is my breath going in and going out. Until it stops, breathing is the one thing that can be understood to be good about life and it’s the one thing we always have…until we don’t.

So why is my meditation suddenly so difficult? Granted, I’m out of practice. (Like an idiot, I allowed my practice to fall away after the financial difficulties were addressed. It’s like having dieted until I lost 100 pounds, then suddenly deciding, “I can eat whatever I want–after all, I’m 100 pounds skinnier.” Heh. No.) But I remember the techniques well. I’ve been good about setting aside the time. I can even get physically comfortable. Yet, at best, my meditations only begin to resemble those of my 20s–a glimpse of beauty, quickly lost. Many sittings are a headache-inducing struggle, resulting in (at most) a sense of relaxation that lasts only as long as my eyes are shut. Often, meditation only results in a nap! Why? Why am I not reaching that same sense of scintillating beauty, that same out-of-body ease as I did in my 20s?

Duh. You’re not in your 20s anymore, fool. 

The same life experience that allowed me to note (and ignore!) that silly thought process about the practitioners’ shirts and body types in On Meditation is also the same life experience that has accumulated damage in my head, heart, and body. Meditation is about accepting my experience of the moment. That includes everything from the totality of the soul work of my life, all the way down to the minute experience of breathing in and out of my body as it is right now.

It means accepting what’s happened to me over the last year and a half. As my yoga teacher said, “We store our issues in our tissues.” When I stop and breathe and check in with my body, I’m listening to it be “okay” right now…but I’m also hearing my mind cry about what’s past, and the painful changes that were wrought on me.

I am no longer the easy, scintillating beauty of a healthy body in its first bloom. Therefore, my meditation isn’t the easy, scintillating beauty of meditation in its first bloom, either.

I had this foolish assumption that my mind would remain largely the same throughout my life. I thought my mind might slow, or get forgetful, perhaps. But the quality of my mind has changed tremendously–not that it’s lesser, but its feel has changed utterly. Bypassing my mind through meditation is, perversely, more difficult than it’s ever been…just when I want to escape it the most!

And there’s my answer: the same life experience that scolded me about the silly shirts is the same life experience telling me that meditation was never supposed to be about escape. That easy, scintillating beauty was an illusion, a form of beginner’s luck. Meditation in my mid40s, with cancer still close in my mental rear-view mirror, is about being present even when it’s difficult to accept where I’m at.

And that, my friends, is a better definition of meditation than anything I ever achieved in my 20s. It’s not easy, it’s not beautiful, and it simply isn’t going to work well all the time. But, when it does work, it’s powerful enough to work even with Death sitting right next to me on the couch.