Meditating at an Indian ashram, ELIZABETH GILBERT struggles to keep it together with no help from her brain.
The following morning, I arrive right on time for the 4:00 a.m. meditation session that always starts the day here. We are meant to sit for an hour in the silence, but I log the minutes as if they were miles—sixty brutal miles that I have to endure. By mile/minute fourteen, my nerves have started to go, my knees are breaking down, and I’m overcome with exasperation. Which is understandable, given that the conversations between me and my mind during meditation generally go something like this:
Me: Okay, we’re going to meditate now. Let’s draw our attention to our breath and focus on the mantra. Om namah Shivaya. Om namah Shiv—
Mind: I can help you out with this you know!
Me: Okay, good, because I need your help. Let’s go. Om namah Shivaya. Om namah Shi –
Mind: I can help you think of nice meditative images. Like—hey, here’s a good one. Imagine you are a temple. A temple on an island! And the island is in the ocean!
Me: Oh, that is a nice image.
Mind: Thanks. I thought of it myself.
Me: But what ocean are we picturing here?
Mind: The Mediterranean. Imagine you’re one of those Greek islands, with an old Greek temple on it. No, never mind, that’s too touristy. You know what? Forget the ocean. Oceans are too dangerous. Here’s a better idea—imagine you’re an island in a lake, instead.
Me: Can we meditate now, please? Om namah Shiv—
Mind: Yes! Jet skis! Those things consume so much fuel! They’re really a menace to the environment. Do you know what else uses a lot of fuel? Leaf blowers. You wouldn’t think so, but—
Me: Okay, but let’s MEDITATE now please? Om namah—
Mind: Right! I definitely want to help you meditate! And that’s why we’re going to skip the image of an island on a lake or an ocean, because that’s obviously not working. So let’s imagine that you’re an island in . . . a river!
Me: Oh, you mean like Bannerman Island, in the Hudson River?
Mind: Yes! Exactly! Perfect. Therefore, in conclusion, let’s meditate on this image—envision that you are an island in a river. All the thoughts that float by as you’re meditating, these are just the river’s natural currents and you can ignore them because you are an island.
Me: Wait, I thought you said I was a temple.
Mind: That’s right, sorry, you’re a temple on an island. In fact, you are both the temple and the island.
Me: Am I also the river?
Mind: No, the river is just the thoughts.
Me: Stop! Please stop! YOU’RE MAKING ME CRAZY!!!
Mind (wounded): Sorry. I was only trying to help.
Me: Om namah Shivaya . . . Om namah Shivaya . . . Om namah Shivaya . . .
Here there is a promising eight-second pause in thoughts. But then—
Mind: Are you mad at me now?
—and then with a big gasp, like I am coming up for air, my mind wins, my eyes fly open and I quit. In tears. An ashram is supposed to be a place where you come to deepen your meditation, but this is a disaster. The pressure is too much for me. I can’t do it. But what should I do? Run out of the temple crying after fourteen minutes, every day?
This morning, though, instead of fighting it, I just stopped. I gave up. I let myself slump against the wall behind me. My back hurt, I had no strength, my mind was quivering. My posture collapsed like a bridge crumbling down. I took a mantra off the top of my head (where it had been pressing down on me like an invisible anvil) and set it on the floor beside me. And then I said to God, “I’m really sorry, but this is the closest I could get to you today.”
The Lakota Sioux say that a child who cannot sit still is a half-developed child. And an old Sanskrit text says, “By certain signs you can tell when meditation is being rightly performed. One of them is that a bird will sit on your head, thinking you are an inert thing.” This has not exactly happened to me yet. But for the next forty minutes or so, I tried to stay as quiet as possible, trapped in that meditation hall and ensnared in my own shame and inadequacy, watching the devotees around me as they sat in their perfect postures, their perfect eyes closed, their smug faces emanating calmness as they surely transported themselves into some perfect heaven. I was full of a hot, powerful sadness and would have loved to burst into the comfort of tears, but tried hard not to, remembering something my Guru once said—that you should never give yourself a chance to fall apart because, when you do, it becomes a tendency and it happens over and over again. You must practice staying strong, instead.
But I didn’t feel strong. My body ached in diminished worthlessness. I wondered who is the “me” when I am conversing with my mind, and who is the “mind.” I thought about the relentless thought-processing, soul-devouring machine that is my brain, and wondered how on earth I was ever going to master it. Then I remembered that line from Jaws and couldn’t help smiling:
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Eat, Pray, Love, 2006 by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.