Pressure above the eyes and in the middle of my chest. An almost tickle in the center of my stomach. Squeezing around the shoulders. Acidic tastes rising from my throat and a choppy fuzzy undercurrent of mental talk. Some of the talk makes it to the surface: “I’m a Fake”, “I’m Undisciplined”, “I can’t do this.”
This is what arises when Michael asks me to write something for his blog. Mixed in are some pleasant sensations and positive mental talk as well. Warmth in the face, lightness in the limbs and that tickle in the stomach isn’t all bad. My head is also saying: “This is fun”, “I’m approved of”, “I’m good.”
A catalogue of mind and body activity. I scan through it, soak in to it. I notice how it moves.
Three years ago no one was asking me to write about meditation. I grew up in a Hippie family and meditation had always been around. As a little kid I would ask my mom to do visualization exercises with me. I’d get people to hold hands in a circle and close their eyes, but I never had a daily practice. I really could have used one! My emotional life was one big knot. The voices and images in my head tangled with unknown sensations in my body. I believed that I was the knot.
I had no way of stepping back to observe, let alone explore or maybe even love the comings and goings of this phenomena. I believed what my thoughts told me and tried not to pay attention to what my body told me. It took effort to ignore my body. Drugs and alcohol helped. Destructive relationships helped. Working seven days a week helped. The thing is, temporary fixes only worked for so long and then I needed more.
As I added more layers life became less livable and lonelier. Because I was cut off from the process of my Self, I was also cut off from others. I simply couldn’t connect. I was fearful of people or felt I was above them. I couldn’t listen or really have compassion because I was so lost in my own mind. Despite all this, I thought I was in pretty good shape.
And so, I took up meditation the same way I had taken up other ventures. Full steam ahead, balls out, driven. My tendency was to do this and then burn out and give up. Not this time. After only a few weeks I knew this was different.
I had swallowed the Red Pill.
Things changed fast. A paradigm shift for which no one could have prepared me.
I had a body! That experienced emotional sensations! (Including a crushing grief in my chest. Ouch. Didn’t realize that had been there for over 20 years. Good to know.)
The talking in my head was just that. Talking in my head! Nothing more! (Not me. Not necessarily to be believed or obeyed.)
There were other people having the same experiences! (You mean I’m not alone? Hello there.)
I also started seeing the sky, the trees, even concrete and steel in a way I never had before. I started to really see and hear the people in my life. I began to know what was truly important to this organism, I called “I”.
The other main side effect of Vipassana was that my life fell apart. The self with which I identified crumbled. The ideas, opinions and preferences I held so dear ceased to be so important. I felt emotions that I couldn’t remember ever having had before. This can be a little uncomfortable. Having teachers, a community of people doing the same work and meditating daily was what made it possible. I also started attending silent meditation retreats. A fantastic way to enhance one’s practice.
While things have evened out a bit, I continue to experience big shifts in how I see the world and myself. I can’t say that it’s always comfortable, but I welcome the changes and stay as curious and open as possible. As I explore my emotions and thoughts they unfold not so much as good or bad, but as expansion, contraction, wavy, choppy, fizzy, hollow etc. It’s an incredibly rich and interesting journey. Life has become an adventure. This is what makes it possible for me to sit down and write this regardless of how I feel or what my head is saying.
Meditation has set me free from a world of problems to fix. Not to say I don’t visit that world more often than I’d like, but I don’t call it home anymore. The practice is to keep coming back to right here, right now, just this. So any drifting off I do, whether in formal practice or in daily life, is simply an opportunity to come back. The opportunity to strengthen my resolve and then do it all again.
Now that I’ve come to the end of this piece there is a subtle relaxation spreading through my chest and stomach. My mind is 90 percent quiet, calm, sharp and present. I must admit that 10 percent is on to the next thing, planning my afternoon. But hey, I’m not going to go to Vipassana Hell for that, right Michael?
Jessica Graham is an actor and meditation teacher in Los Angeles. To contact her about classes visit www.jessicagraham.com