I will always remember the first time that I heard about meditation. I was about 7. My older sister had just signed up for a meditation class at the local community centre. Every night she would disappear into her closet for about twenty minutes after supper. After a few night of watching her disappear in there I became deeply curious. What could she possibly be doing in her closet all of that time? When I asked, she said that she was “meditating”. I, of course, has no idea what that was ( I was 7). So I asked “what’s mediating?”. She explained that she went into her closet, sat on a pillow, and allowed her thoughts to go down a stream. And she pretty much left it at that (as any 12 year old sister might).
I was left completely confused. How did you “get your thoughts to go into a stream?” How did the stream get into the closet in the first place? Yet, somehow, despite my confusion, I was instantly fascinated by the idea of mediation. Intuitively, it somehow seemed that by sitting in a closet alone and meditating, one might be able to unlock profound mysteries of the human mind.
I will also never forget the first time I was taught to mediate. It was in Toronto, where I lived during my early twenties. There was a Korean Zen Buddhist temple around the corner from me . I would finally have a chance to explore my life long desire to mediate, and to thereby to begin unlocking the profound mysteries of the human mind!
On the day of the first class, I was so lost in thought about the profound experiences that I was surely about to have that I forgot the time. So, despite living around the corner, I needed to rush to the temple in order to make it to the class on time. I came rushing into the building, took off my shoes, and threw my socks into the corner. At that moment, a young monk approached me, picked up my mangled socks, handed them to me, and said, “As you enter the temple please do so mindfully. Please fold your socks neatly and place them next to your shoes.” I attempted this process three of four times before I finally slowed down enough to do it in a way that met his approval. Only then did he show me to the room where the class was taking place. I had no idea why he had made such a big fuss about something as silly as my socks. I was interested in unlocking profound mysteries of my mind, not learning how to fold my socks. I felt a wave of resentment toward him, decided that he must be some kind of junior monk who didn’t know what he was doing yet, and rushed into the class.
I have now been mediating for over 20 years. I have read widely on the topic. I have completed a PhD dissertation that has helped me to understand how mindfulness operates at the level of the brain. ( In future blog posts I will write about some of the fascinating things I learned on this topic). But when I really ask myself what mindfulness actually is, I very often come back to those two early experiences. I have found that mindfulness truly does have the capacity to illuminate the deepest mysteries of my mind, just as I intuited it might when I was a young child. But I have also found that it doesn’t do this by helping me to understand some abstract set of ideas. Instead, it does this by helping me to achieve the profound benefits of waking up to my own life. If I had been able to truly accept the monk’s invitation, I may have had a key insight much earlier then I eventually did. Namely, that so much of the suffering in my life stemmed from the fact that I was always late and that I was always lost in thoughts about some big idea that made me miss whatever (and whoever) I was actually experiencing in the present moment. However, the monk was also offering me something even more important then the opportunity to develop these powerful insights. By inviting me to slow down, to fully notice what I was doing in the present moment, and then to do only that one thing, he was also offering me a practical way out of much of the suffering that the mind creates.
Inspired by these experiences in my own life, mindfulness has become a key part of how I work with clients. With some clients this involves offering formal meditation instruction. With other clients the role of mindfulness is more implicit, simply involving my encouraging of a joint appreciation of the present moment as it unfolds during our time together.