For Skeptics and Overthinkers
This is what I believe:
That I am I.
That my soul is a dark forest.
That my known self will never be more than a little
clearing in the forest.
That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into
the clearing of my known self, and then go back.
That I must have the courage to let them come and go.
That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but
that I will try always to recognize and submit to the
gods in me and the gods in other men and women.
This is my creed.
D. H. Lawrence
I started practicing yoga in 2002, in a dark, basement-level padded room gymnasium of San Francisco State University, with an instructor in her sixties with long silvery gray hair she kept in a side braid and a full-body (pre-Lululemon!) unitard people used to wear for yoga but wouldn’t be caught dead in today. I did my first headstand in that class, nobody needed a mat, and by the time the single-semester elective was over, something had clicked on inside me. Soon after I moved into an apartment in the Haight and began attending my first public yoga classes at Yoga Tree Stanyan, those early days when Steph Snyder had a pixie cut and wasn’t anywhere near the selling-out-rooms-powerhouse she is today and people were allowed to answer their cell phones during savasana, before Vinyasa Flow took over everything like a plague and you could still find a variety of styles at most studios. Most Saturday mornings I stumbled into the 9am class intending more to sweat out my hangover than to connect with myself, and it took many years for the balance to tip in a more healthy direction. Despite the fact that these days my relationship to yoga is rife with skepticism, more love-hate than love, if I know anything I’m clear that finding yoga at nineteen saved me. Cliffs all around, and somehow I never fully fell, because the practice brought me back a thousand times. Yoga kept me tethered to something, something subterranean that I’d catch glimpses of every now and again, that I might taste here and there but that mostly remained elusive. I can’t tell you how many times I would binge drink, be up until dawn, and then roll into a workshop or training, able to sweat through the pain and fool everyone around me. Light and dark, pendulum swinging, the incongruent push-pull never more evident than those early years of practice, when I knew that something was very strange with my behavior but also I didn’t know how to change and furthermore, most of my friends were sweating out their own stuff right there alongside me. The effects of this thing were enough to keep me coming back, even if I felt like a vampire most of the time, even though I was a black sheep in those bright rooms as I connected as best I could to a murky at best inner world.
It’s impossible to overlook the dozens of scandals that have taken place in the yoga world since I started. There are certain things I can no longer overlook (cultural appropriation, spiritual bypassing, too many matchy matchy outfits and $500 mala bead necklaces, to name a few). And, I still teach yoga, every week, for almost ten years now. It’s just become more private, quiet, mine. I am a reluctant yogi, it seems.
There is, however, one aspect of yoga I’ve always avoided: meditation. I know this is a vital part of yoga, of any spiritual practice. It is said that the entire physical practice of yoga (what is called asana), was developed oh so many years ago as a tool to prepare oneself for meditation. I’ve started and stopped a sitting practice precisely one hundred thousand times. But at the end of April, when I finished Hip Sobriety School (transitioning this month to Tempest Sobriety School), and Holly suggested in the last module that we commit to a forty-day meditation practice, I listened. This time, something in me felt different. Feels different. I am at a place now where I’m willing to do whatever it takes to change my life—including things that borderline terrify me. So, I reached out on Instagram, and a few friends offered to join me, and so far, I haven’t missed a day.
I haven’t put any rules or restrictions on the habit, yet. First thing in the morning, last thing at night, sometime in between, fine. I started with seven minutes, and have ramped up to fifteen. I’m hoping to hit twenty-five minutes consistently by the time forty days is up. Today was the first day I sat for fifteen minutes. Halfway through, tears came. They came and went quickly. I didn’t feel particularly sad before, during, after. A wave of emotion hit me and I let it. After, I checked in with my accountability pals and they all related that yes, this is a thing.
What links us together on this recovery roller coaster is an inability to sit with ourselves. Not one person I’ve met on this ride has an easy relationship with their feelings, thoughts, instincts. That’s what got us here, right? We were never taught healthy strategies to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life, with what to do with or where to put big emotions, feelings. So, somewhere, we turned to substance to manage our emotions, which was a fine option at first, until it wasn’t. With sobriety comes a return to a depth of emotion whether we like it or not. It makes so much sense to me that the thought of sitting with this, alone, in silence, is not exactly an, ah, alluring undertaking.
Speaking of undertaking—there is a word keeps grabbing me: subterranean. Something is happening below the surface, beneath my conscious understanding, beyond my thus far futile attempts at intellectualizing how all of this is working. I am touching something deeper. I sit still and a persistent image accompanies this word, and the image is a river, not unlike the pink slime river running under New York City from the movie Ghostbusters, or the River Styx, which in Greek mythology created the border between the Underworld and the Land of the Living. I am not afraid of this river. It is a wellspring, a cistern, a secret aqueduct inside that’s always been there, that I’ve hit on haphazardly now and again, but never consistently, and never as something I could predict or expect. The river I see in my mind’s eye is not evil. But it is down in the dark, in the deepest, the most shadowy place. It connects me to past, present, future. I sit on that damn pillow alone with myself and I connect to an utterly essential place. Source, if I may venture a bit into woo territory. Meditation brings me to a place I’ve been searching for since the beginning of time, a place I thought substance—pot, nicotine, alcohol, other drugs—would show me. I sought this depth in relationships. With intense physical practice. With extended, meandering travel—this, perhaps where I’ve come closest. And now I get to (try to) go there everyday.
As I go about my life, I can call upon this place when I sense the swirl coming on. I remember this river, and it brings me back, even if I squirm through the fifteen minutes or the trash truck breaks down outside my window right as I’m about to sit. And I can see myself, my behavior, my habits, obsessions, habitual (unhelpful), ingrained-as-all-hell thought patterns, with some distance. I can begin the work of not identifying as closely. I am in the cave, I am witnessing the river, I am in the dark, damp, quiet, solitary place. I have never been here before. And, as with every AFGO (another fucking growth opportunity), there is no turning back.
Like sobriety, I see meditation as something that people arrive at on their own timing. Some of us might truly not be ready to sit quietly with ourselves. I wasn’t, until I was, just like I wasn’t ready to even consider quitting drinking as an option until it was the only option. And so I think what I’m saying is that if you have an inkling that this might be a good time, if you read this and something inside you tugs a little stronger, ohmagerd, give it a go. I am shocked by the difference. Shocked because again, like so many other AHA’s on this path, this is yet another thing I never thought would be possible for me: sitting alone with myself without wanting to die.
If you’re curious, there are so many great apps you can try. On the days my mind is particularly squirrely, I do a guided meditation, so someone else’s voice is in my ear, holding me here. Insight Timer, Calm, are free...I’ve heard amazing things about Headspace and though I know it’s pretty affordable, it’s not free (please holler in the comments if I’m missing any). Many cities have weekly meditation groups that are usually donation based if you want to sit with other people. Of course, there are zillions of meditation workshops and retreats you can attend, too.
So yeah. I’m in. I’m throwing my weight behind this. Part of me is embarrassed, because up until now I’ve turned my nose up at the idea, rolled my eyes at people when they’d describe how meditation changed their life. Sure, I’d say to myself. It’s easy for someone like you. You don’t have to live inside this brain (I’m also a bit embarrassed thinking that maybe right now, you’re rolling your eyes at me as you read this, like, yeah, honey, someone is a little tardy to the party, eh? Oh well).
Slowly but surely, my brain is becoming less of an enemy. We’re not quite friends yet, but meditation shows me I don't need to be afraid, either.
You don’t need any external resources to meditate. You don’t need money, you don’t need an app. All you need is a little bit of time, and a place to sit or lie down. Air in your lungs. Body on the ground. The tiniest, most precious kernel of will.