The following post is the first in a four-part series on developing a meditation practice by Kellis McSparrin Oldenburg, a graduate of our Yoga Pedagogy program and, most recently, an Independent Study student with TaraMarie Perri. Kellis currently lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she is a company member of the Marigny Opera Ballet. She is also an adjunct instructor in the University of Southern Mississippi Department of Dance, as well as a freelance choreographer, teacher, and yoga teacher.
I’ve always been a mover. Whether it is dancing, playing sports, traveling, taking yoga, teaching, or just running around completing errands, I feel most myself when I’m in a state of constant, cacophonous motion. Needless to say, this is probably where my initial aversion to meditation came from. How can someone who thrives on movement and yearns for the noise of a busy lifestyle find peace and clarity in stillness? I was very apprehensive about “finding my seat” at first, and I even rebelled against it, summoning excuses and more pressing matters to attend to in my daily life. When I finally coerced myself to meditate, I found that it was not the stillness of my body, but quieting the movement of my mind that I feared most. By taking my seat and searching for stillness, I was coming face to face with my biggest critic, my inner bully, my reluctant companion: myself. Through meditation, though it is still a little terrifying at times, I have started letting go of insecurities and expectations, and I’m getting to know myself better every day.
Taking Stillness Off My To-Do List
The first time I found my seat, my body rebelled immediately. My muscles ached, my back twinged, and my hands fidgeted. I felt frustration building in my mind as I tried to quiet my body to no avail. I sat on my mat in the spare room of my home for ten minutes (which felt more like ten hours), trying to keep my eyes focused on the front edge of my mat. My eyes could not help but take in the clutter and mess of the room, a result of never fully settling into my new home in New Orleans. Annoyed, I closed my eyes, only to pick up on the most minute sounds inside and outside of my house. I heard every crack of the wood floor, every car racing by on the street outside, even tick of the fan as it pushed gusts of air down on top of me. So much noise in a seemingly quiet house!
I tried to focus on my inhales and exhales to keep me present in the moment. My back started throbbing from sitting in Sukhasana; I pushed the pain out of my mind. My fingers started twitching on my thighs; I tried to quiet them. Thoughts flooded into my mind; I tried to release them with each exhale. After all of this struggling, I finally got to a place where my mind was open, my breathing was steady and for a split second, no thought shuttered through my brain. And then, I opened my eyes, throwing in the towel. Why did I do that? This instance reminded me of a quote from Pema Chödrön’s The Wisdom of No Escape, in which she says, “One of the main discoveries of meditation is seeing how we continually run away from the present moment, how we avoid being here just as we are.”
My immediate response was to label that first meditation attempt as a failure, but I knew that would go against the whole point of meditating. Instead of labeling it and letting it go, I decided to analyze it like the perpetual student that I am. Through my analysis, I realized that that first meditation attempt was far from a failure, because it taught me so much about myself and my journey to seeking stillness.
Firstly, I like to quantify things (I just did it with “Firstly”). I’m constantly putting a value on things I do and tasks I complete. My “to-do” list is my lifeline. I find so much joy in checking things off and letting my inner voice shout mission accomplished! However, as I sat there, trying desperately to free my mind amidst the discomfort, noise, and my own expectations, I realized that you cannot quantify, put a value on, or judge meditation. When you do that, it is no longer meditation, it is just restless sitting. I was treating meditation like an assignment or obligation, and I realized that in order for me to truly find stillness and reap the benefits of meditation, I had to view it as a gift, as an opportunity to open myself up, let go of my to-do list and just BE.
While reading Pico Iyer’s book The Art of Stillness, I was drawn to a quote that had my first meditation attempt “written” all over it. Iyer quoted the monk Thomas Merton, saying, “One of the laws of sitting still, in fact, is that ‘if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or, worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced.’” I realized that I cannot find my seat with the goal of “checking off” enlightenment, stillness, peace, happiness, etc. I have to just find my seat without quantification, judgement, or expectation. I also have to stick with it and not throw in the towel when I feel frustration or fear creeping in. As Iyer also stated, “You don’t get over the shadows inside you simply by walking away from them." If I was going to find stillness and meet myself where I am, I had to commit to it, not with a goal-focused or task-oriented mind, but with an open one.