During the recent forest fire in Idyllwild, my wife Jacquelin and I had to evacuate. We took our newly adopted rescue dog, a female red chow we named Tashi, and headed out to the coast. Of the many offers of places to stay for the duration of the fire, we decided to go to my 78-year-old uncle Bob and his wife Barbara at their home in Camarillo.
Bob is my father’s younger brother. He strongly resembles my father physically, and both brothers worked as probation officers for Los Angeles County. But whereas my father was manic and doing his own thing for the last 25 years of his life, Bob is happily married, involved with his children and grandchildren, and lives a calm and contented life. A few weeks ago he had a minor stroke, and though he looked and moved without any impairment, he still had some loss of peripheral vision and occasional periods of unsteadiness. But he is in remarkably good shape with a daily exercise routine of weight lifting, running, and swimming. His physical therapist had recommended meditation for his post-stroke recovery.
So when my wife and I pulled up with our dog and car full of possessions, uncle Bob immediately asked me to teach him meditation. He had heard me give a talk on meditation several years ago at a Change Your Mind Day celebration in San Luis Obispo, but he had never tried it. He also had a copy of my first book,Unlearning Meditation, but had loaned it out to a friend.
I have encountered this situation many times before: a person waits until the “right” time to start meditating. In his case, it was a stroke that had finally spurred him to try. I began thinking about how to introduce my approach to meditation to him, which I call Recollective Awareness meditation [link to column]. Each individual person who is introduced to it requires consideration, if not at the very beginning, then certainly after they have reported on their meditation sitting. Since my uncle was doing it for his physical health, it would be better to focus on his body rather than on his thoughts and emotions. Normally I would be interested in exploring thoughts and emotions with a student during the post-sitting interview, but because he is a close relative, I felt more comfortable steering the meditation practice in the direction of bodily awareness with a greater acceptance of thoughts and a higher tolerance for unpleasant feelings. We could go into his thoughts and emotions at a later point, once his sitting meditation practice has become more established.
My mind was on other things my first day there, what with the fire threatening our house, so I waited until the following morning to begin his instruction. Bob gets up early and usually has an hour or two alone before his wife wakes up. So I decided to start him off with the habit of meditating right after he gets out of bed. I didn’t want him to practice where he watches TV or where someone could disturb him, so we sat in the living room. Bob sat in an upholstered chair with a pillow behind his back and I sat in a similar chair opposite him. I gave him these beginning instructions:
“Get into a comfortable meditation posture, one that you can sit in without moving for the duration of the 20 minute sitting. If you do need to move, do so slowly and mindfully, staying in the posture you moved into for a time before moving again.
“Bring your attention to your hands resting one on top of the other in your lap. Feel the external contact of your hands touching. Allow your thoughts and emotions into the meditation sitting. If you go on thinking for a long time—say, more than a few minutes—then you can gently bring your attention back to your hands. But don’t hold your attention on the touch of your hands—allow your mind to go back into thoughts and emotions if you are drawn into them. If you are just with the touch of your hands, your attention can stay there for as long as you like.
“You can sit with your eyes closed. If you begin to drift off, allow yourself to go toward sleep, and if you fall asleep, that is not a problem. If you are restless and feel a need to move or get up, sit with that feeling for a while without doing anything about it; but if it persists and you need to move or end the sitting, you can.”
One of the major misunderstandings about allowing thoughts and emotions to go on unhindered in meditation is that it won’t lead to greater awareness of the body and to calm states of mind. That isn’t true with the instructions I give. From the simple instruction to be aware of the touch of the hands and the whole body sitting, awareness of the body arises quite naturally. Calmness arises in the absence of conflict over one’s thoughts and emotions, as well as through the relaxing effect of sitting still with awareness of one’s body.
The idea is to meditate without the agenda to get rid of thoughts. If thoughts become wispy and die down on their own, then that’s fine. When there is thinking that pulls one in, the direction is to allow it to go on; and at moments along the way, become aware of what one is thinking about and remember to be kind and gentle to one’s thoughts. From this simple beginning, a rich and profound meditation practice can take form.
A bell sounded twice from the Insight Timer app on my phone and both of us closed our eyes. I recall wondering about the fire, since before going to bed, I had heard that rain was expected during the night and into the morning. The wind had pushed the fire north instead of west, driving it away from town and toward the Palm Springs tram. Things were looking up, and maybe my wife and I would be allowed to return home sooner than expected. I stayed with these thoughts and let gratitude emerge for the firefighters and all those who were working to save our town.
After 20 minutes, the bell sounded again from my phone. Usually I instruct people to take a couple of minutes to reflect back on what occurred during the meditation sitting, and then I might ask a few questions. But my uncle wanted to tell me about his experience as soon as he opened his eyes.
“After about five minutes,” Bob began, “I could no longer feel my hands. It was the strangest sensation. I tried to feel them touching each other, but they seemed fused together.”
This is not an unusual experience, but like many extraordinary things that can happen when someone starts meditating, it leaves a profound and lasting impression. It is a sign that meditation is not exactly like sitting around doing nothing—special things happen.
Then he went on to say, “I was able to sit without moving for 20 minutes. I thought I would be bored or restless, but the time just passed. Maybe I was in some sort of trance.”
I validated that perhaps he was in a sort of trance state, but he wasn’t being hypnotized, and it was different than a drugged or intoxicated state. We talked about his thoughts, and how they had become wispy and didn’t pull him in as the sitting progressed. He noticed a pressure to do something that would come and go periodically, but it didn’t seem to have much overall effect on the meditation.
I asked him about being aware of his breath, and he replied that he didn’t notice it during the meditation. The same was true for sounds and his whole body sitting. What he noticed most strongly was the contact of his hands touching and then when that vanished, the absence of the touch. We left the interview there and went on to have breakfast. Shortly after breakfast, I learned that the evacuation was to be lifted at 11am and that we could return home that day. Jacquelin and I weren’t anxious about going home, however, and felt that it would be better to drive through LA on a Monday. So we stayed an extra day.
The following morning, Bob and I began meditating at 6am again. I suggested that he become aware of his whole body along with the touch of his hands this time. I set the timer for 20 minutes and we began. But within a few seconds I kept on hearing a repetitive beep. It is best to silence this kind of noise during a meditation sitting, as it grabs the attention too often. Especially if the noise is predictable, one often sits aware of its next intrusion. So I got up to stop it. I tried the microwave first, and thought I had accomplished my mission, but when I sat down, there it was again. I couldn’t figure it out. So I told my uncle that we had to stop the sitting and find the beeping sound. We eventually discovered that their new refrigerator beeps when one of its doors is not tightly closed. With that taken care of, we went back and started the sitting again.
The ending bell sounded too soon for both of us. Just like yesterday, Bob immediately began talking about his experience of meditating.
“I was able to feel my whole body as soon as we began. But after getting up and stopping the beeping noise, I wasn’t able to get back to the whole body. I tried at times, but it just didn’t happen.”
I registered his disappointment with a sense of guilt. I had caused him to get up, and by doing so, disrupted his sitting. I had forgotten how small interruptions at the beginning of a person’s meditation practice, which are handled as a matter of course later on, can feel as though they derail the whole process. Usually I would approach this kind of interruption as an opportunity to learn about how we get taken out of a pleasant state of mind and then try to get back to it, but here I truly felt sorry and so apologized.
Then we talked about how he attempted to get back to his initial experience of feeling the whole body in the sitting. He could see how trying to feel his whole body sitting was getting in the way of just sitting and allowing his experience to unfold. So he brought his attention back to his hands periodically, and was aware of them throughout. His thoughts weren’t pulling him that much, especially as the sitting progressed, though they didn’t have the dream-like, wispy quality of the day before. He thought more about his day, his future plans, and the people in his life. Since he was not given any notion that his mind should be empty of thoughts during meditation, this kind of thinking did not create a problem.
Still, he wasn’t aware of the breath and sounds (he really wasn’t even aware of the beeping fridge, which made me feel worse about my choice to interrupt the sitting when I did). “As you continue to meditate,” I told him, “there will be times when the breath will come into awareness. When it does, you can decide to follow it. Otherwise, it is fine to just be aware of the touch of the hands and your whole body sitting.”
We ended there. After breakfast, Jacquelin and I packed up our belongings, took Tashi on a walk, and left for home. While driving up the winding mountain road to the town of Idyllwild, the air was misty, and whatever signs of fire from the previous week were gone. Even the smell of smoke was replaced with the moist fragrance that follows a summer thunderstorm. Our house was just as we left it.
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