My failure in meditation

If I could tell anything to my 20 year old self, it would be to get serious about meditation. But that would have been so hard in 1985-86. So hard. There was so little information available, especially in those pre-Internet days to a boy living in Tennessee. I was going to Sewanee, an Episcopal college with a seminary, so the theological library might have had some material. Certainly, Sewanee would have had some material by Alan Watts, perhaps even recordings of his talks. Likely there would have been books on Zen. But I had not the concept, no understanding of the role that meditation could play in evening out my emotions and my life.

Watts would have been the best way into meditation for me at that time. Watts, that Episcopal priest turned Zen advocate. Perhaps I did even read some books on Buddhism and even by Watts then. I can’t remember. A required course at Sewanee then was Introduction to Religion in which we read Tillich, Eliade and other thinkers. We covered Buddhism to a degree but it didn’t registered. Not at all. I remembered that the final exam in that course had a bonus question: “If you met the Buddha on the side of the road, what would you do?”

Now, I know that easy answer. But at the time, I was like, “Huh?” Obviously I failed in reading some text that term.

Religion was important to me in college. In my senior year, I took a course on Christian theology where the primary text was John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology. That was an important book to me, and I really enjoyed that seminar. It led me to read further into existentialism.

Early on in college I had abandoned the Church but came back to it at some point later in my undergraduate days. I was drawn mightily to the Church. Sewanee kept its cathedral size chapel open all night in those days. At 3am I remember leaving my bed during a restless night, walking through the darkness of campus, and pulling open the heavy doors to the chapel. Immense silence.

Those were powerful moments during those dark nights. But I was encased in a deeper darkness than I realized. Clinically, I was in a major depressive episode that pulled me further down over the next few years. I amazed I ever recovered. The writings of Henry Nouwen provided remarkable solace.

I sought out figures in the Church, priests who could help guide me. But they couldn’t. Perhaps they didn’t know how, or I would not receptive to their attempts at guidance. Surely I needed psychiatric treatment but found it, never attempted to seek it. I was afraid.

After some seriously bad decisions, I gathered myself together enough to enroll in grad school when I was 24. Living alone for the first time sparked a change. A new energy emerged as I found something I was good at. Most importantly, a mentor entered my life. Someone who is still a friend to me today. That changed my life.

At some point when I lived in Knoxville after grad school and I worked at the University of Tennessee, I have a faint memory of attempting meditation in my basement apartment. At least, I think it was there. I’m really not sure anymore. I must have found some book in the library that talked about meditation. I remember sitting on the floor of my living room. My legs crossed and trying to focus on my breath. That lasted barely a minute before I got up out of frustration.

My career took a while to get started but I landed a really great job in Norfolk, Virginia where life took on a tremendous measure of happiness, so I told myself. I do look back on that period, my early 30s in the late 1990s as one of the best in my life. Every Friday after work, I would drive out to the big Barnes and Noble in Virginia Beach. One evening I bought Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das. The paperback was published on June 15, 1998. I must have bought it shortly after the release of the paperback edition. This would have been late summer or early fall twenty years ago.

The book enchanted me. I felt pulled to it. I recalled riding to a conference with a couple of my colleagues from work. These two women, about a decade older than me, talked about a book that they both were reading on Buddhism. I mentioned that I also was reading one. It turned out that we all were reading Awakening the Buddha Within. (I should re-read that book. During my moves over the years, I’ve lost my copy but I can get another somewhere.)

I didn’t pursue Buddhism any further then despite my intellectual and spiritual curiosity. I’m not sure why. I probably became distracted with other interests. By this point in my life, I had abandoned the church completely though I still, nominally, thought of myself as Christian. It had already been eight years since I stopped attending church in 1990.

After a move to Miami in early 2000, I again picked up a book on Buddhism during one of my weekly visits to what became my regular hangout at Books and Books on Lincoln Road. (How I loved that store.) This time, I was drawn to a book by Jack Kornfield. I thin it was A Path With Heart, though I’m no longer really sure. That book also appealed to my own heart and way of thinking.

Distinctly, I remember a conversation with myself one afternoon in my bedroom in South Beach. I reflected on Buddhism. I still clearly remember turning to those books on my shelf. And I made a decision. The phrase I told myself is still in my mind: if I turn to Buddhism, I will be just changing one organized religion for another. Instead, I should just stick with the religion of my culture. Now, I realized how wrong that decision was for me. (Maybe it’s right for others but not for myself.)

Several years went by without any serious thought towards meditation and Buddhism. I made a life changing decision of quitting my very good job and moving to Buenos Aires. Living in South America, in one of the most vibrant cities of the world, marked a wonderful period in my life though it’s also the time when I made the less money in my career. That didn’t matter. I felt alive.

A very good friend, another American who found himself in the capital of Argentina, introduced to me to a new way of thinking about the world. He had met his wife at a silent meditation treat. (That says something about the force of his personality.) One night while visiting their apartment, he walked to a back room to show me his library on Buddhism. He loaned my partner and me a set of audio CDs by Jack Kornfield: Your Buddha Nature.

Kornfield has an incredibly soothing and thoughtful voice. Listening to those audios marked a transition. Then we listened to an audio version of After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path. We listened to those audio files repeatedly over the next several years. I started reading more books on Buddhism. My partner started meditating and attended a silent retreat in Argentina. That didn’t go well, and she left after a few days. It was a Goenka retreat, which is perhaps not the best retreat for a person still new to meditation.

During these Argentine years, I never tried actually meditating even though I read a lot of books on Buddhism. I had convinced myself that I didn’t need to meditate and that I could take the learnings from Buddhism and apply those to my life without actually doing the practice of meditation. I was what’s called a nightstand Buddhist.

I was very mistaken.

Mid-2019, and I have finally taken up meditation, more than a decade into my somewhat serious consideration of Buddhism. The past year has been overwhelming and exhausting. A significant life event almost unraveled everything in me to my core.

Perhaps this is the year that had to happen for me. The year was what it needed to be.

Reading more deeply in the last couple of months. But it’s not the reading that transformed my thoughts. It’s the listening. Podcasts spoke to me in ways I never imagined. For much of the last decade, I admired On Being with Krista Tibbet. I possess cherished memories of listening to her interviews while I walked through the fields of the pampas surrounding our rustic home on the Argentine coast. In those days, her interviews went by the title Speaking of Faith.

A year ago, I came across the Good Life Project, and then the audiobook Being True: What Matters Most in Work, Life, and Love by Tami Simon who has done such valuable work towards advancing meditation through her publishing company Sounds True.

There’s a slew of books and audio that I won’t mention specifically. For years, I’ve dipped in and out of the Dharma Seed, which is an incredible contribution to the world through it’s freely available recordings of “Western Buddhist Vipassana Teachings”.

Workouts, when I did those, would sometimes be accompanied by the voice of Tara Brach. But none of that led me to sit down and try meditation again.

In May, the Good Life Project talked with Tim Ferris. The wildly popular Ferris had been on my radar for years, but in quite a negative manner. I had formed an impression, which I realize was now quite wrong. I started listening intensely to The Tim Ferris Show. (If you’re not sure where to start, I suggest his conversation with Alain de Botton.) Ferris’ own spiritual search surprised me, and you can hear its evolution through the years of his podcast. The appeal of his show for me is the intensity with which he explores many aspects of life, especially the digital where I spend so much of my efforts. His conversations with many of the top thinkers living and working today reveal that many of them have a meditation practice. Ferris eventually attended a silent meditation retreat and talks candidly about that experience. His separate conversations with Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg are highly worth listening.

May and June of 2019 has formed an extensive period of spiritual searching for me. I listened to so many thoughts and have been thinking more deeply about my life in ways that I have never done before. Ferris’ conversation with Sam Harris launched me into using the Waking Up app. I highly recommend it for anyone who has interest in meditation but has never found success at it. Or, it’s also for anyone skeptical of religion. Harris does a wonderful job of separating meditation and mindfulness from religion.

My meditation practice is taking root. It’s difficult but the experience is outstanding.

At the end of one of guided meditation’s in the app, Harris has this to say about meditation:

“I can assure you that if you continue with it, you’ll find something of real interest here. After all, you only really have your mind. It’s the basis of everything you experience. It is you in each moment. And to understand it deeply, not as a matter of theory but directly. To recognize how consciousness is prior to thinking or reacting or trying to change your experience in anyway at all can be the most important thing you ever learn to do. It is the most important thing I’ve ever learned in my life. And there really is only a choice between noticing what is arising in each moment in your mind and not noticing it. And to not notice is to be merely lived by these thoughts and intentions and moods and assumptions. And this in turn, determines your behavior in the world. And the goals to which you aspire. And the quality of your relationships. Your mind not only effects your life but those of everyone around you. Each of us affect many more people than we realize.”