Renowned meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein said when asked what the biggest benefits was, of his over forty years of steady meditation practice. His answer was: "I take myself a lot less seriously now, and people around me appreciate that."
During my last year of high school, I visited the school psychologist for the first and last time. I had fallen into a bottomless hole of darkness. I'm not sure how exactly, but I had arrived at the conclusion that everything I (and everyone else) ever did or said -- no matter of altruistic it might seem -- was driven by selfishness. I tested this thesis on my friends, they tried to prove me wrong, but every example of their so called 'selflessness' that they presented, I was able to punch holes in, and expose that they, just like me, where just selfish, egocentric, petty people.
I couldn't handle this truth. And even though I can't remember now, what the school shrink said, it wasn't helpful.
Fast forward some fifteen years to 2006. I had left northern Sweden far behind, and lived in New Orleans. M life was utter chaos. I had lived through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which had scattered my circle of friends across the country. And my boyfriend had dumped me. And on top of that, after living in the United States for twelve years, my Green Card application had been denied, and I had been asked to leave the country. I hadn't even been in Europe for four years. I drank too much and worked late nights as a waitress -- which was definitely a strain on my well being since I've always been a morning person.
I did have my dog though, and my pick-up truck and yoga. The last part disqualified me from being a sad country song.
I had done a couple of shorter 'Karma Yoga' (meaning working in exchange for food and accommodation) at a New York and a New England ashram a few years back and really enjoyed the experience.
Now I had travelled a long way to end up at an ashram in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado where I was to stay for one month.
Up until that point my only experience of meditation was the few minutes of sitting with eyes closed that we'd do in the beginning or end of a yoga class. I enjoyed that. And I loved the asana practice. My body was long limbed, and, I had discovered, naturally flexible. And over the years it had also grown toned and strong. But at this ashram the yoga practice turned out to be mostly about meditation and cleaning toilets, washing pots and pans in the kitchen, and gathering and chopping fire wood (the karma yoga bit).
Every morning I had to be in the temple up a snow covered hill at 5:30. Which meant I had to walk in through the door by 05:27 at the very latest not to be considered late and get lectured for it.
And each morning when the alarm went off I wanted to shoot myself in the head. Five and pitch black was too early even for an early bird like me, but it was the sitting practice that I really dreaded.
I thought that I was supposed to stop my thoughts. Which was absolutely impossible. When I tried, the thoughts became furious, and they kept bum-rushing me, more and more fiercely. And on top of that, sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor was really fucking painful. It made me feel not like a yogi at all, it made me feel old and stiff. The whole thing was torture and I re-named the meditation hall the torture chamber, which I'm sure didn't help making the experience any more enjoyable.
I tried to talk to the assistant teachers about how I wasn't equipped for this practice, that it was much better for me to just do chatturangas and stand on my head. THAT was the kind of yoga I was 'good' at. Because my mind was so busy. They kind of smirked and muttered things like: Oh, welcome to the club. You and everyone else.
I think it was on the third week of my stay at this ashram that the founder or 'guru' came for an intense meditation weekend. I had been dreading this as soon as I heard about it.
But on the very first meditation session I had with him, something strange and wonderful happened to me. It's hard to find words to describe it. I have previously described it as a full-body orgasm, but I'm not entirely sure that's accurate. I was bathed in a synergy of colours and my body felt like it was dissolving into a flood of pleasure particles. When the bell rang, signaling that the meditation was over, something that previously had felt like salvation, I was now reacted to with disappointment. I didn't want to come down. That's what it felt like. As if I was up above and now I was being summoned back to earth again.
But the bliss carried over and I was probably scrubbing toilets with a big smirk on my face for the rest of the day. I had finally meditated, or so I thought. All the other hours I had spent in the torture chamber, I had merely been trying. Or I had been thinking with my eyes closed.
The next session with the 'guru', the same thing happened, if a bit dialled down.
But then, for the rest of my stay, I was back to struggling to stay focused o my mantra. I was again having pains and aches in my body. I was frustrated. And I was beating myself up for failing. Again.
But still, a seed had been planted, and as I bid farewell of the Rockies and the early mornings in the meditation hall, I vowed to make meditation part of my daily routine.
But that most definitely didn't happen then. I might have meditated a few minutes here and there for the next couple of years. My life was chaos. Turmoil and upheaval. I lived in a dump in a scary neighbourhood, where I often head gunshots at night. And my dog sometimes ran away in the middle of the night, disappearing out through a hole big enough for a grown human to fit, under the bath tub. I was working three different shit jobs. I was still partying a lot. I didn't know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was in my early thirties and had started suspecting rock stardom wasn't in the cards for me after all.
During my month long yoga teacher training in upstate New York, in the spring of 2007, we did a fair amount of meditation, and at that point, I did have a much easier time sitting, even though I wasn't enjoying it nor having any transcendent experiences. After the training I moved to Stockholm. I started teaching yoga. I was back to 'practicing' a couple of minutes at the end of an asana practice. After two years in Stockholm I moved to Berlin.
But it was in 2011, that the breakup of my marriage and then the breakup of the relationship that broke up my marriage finally sent me to a 10-day Vipassana course, as taught by S.N Goenka. I had heard about these 'bootcamps' for years and it had always sounded insane and absolutely impossible. Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to such a thing?
The course took place in the mountains of Czech Republic, over Christmas and New Years. And it was definitely the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
About twelve hours a day of seated meditation. And no talking, no reading, no writing, no yoga, no dinner. Which meant I was left to me, myself and I. And that really drove home the point that my mind actually wasn't a very nice place to be hanging out, but it was there I spent almost all my time. And in my everyday life I'd come up with many strategies for distracting myself from that fact. Eating as a pastime. Drinking to relax it. Over-use of my smartphone of course. Shopping. Surfing the internet. Moving my body and the list goes on and on.
I begun to see that all my problems were really in my head. My problems weren't what other people did or said, or the sad state of the world. Or delayed S-bahn trains. Or bad weather. Or injuries. It was all about the attitude, the stories I spun about these things, the stories that I subsequently believed.
I discovered that there existed a different posture I could take in my mind. I could give up the war. I could accept thoughts, emotions, pains and aches, and in that way, they seemed less personal. It felt a little bit like watching a movie rather than starring in it. Like watching a storm through a window, being in the cosy warmth, rather than being pummelled by it.
Leaving the retreat I felt a lot lighter. Those hundred plus hours of meditation practice that I had hammered out during those 10 days, had started to form new pathways in my mind. I could feel it.
And this time the meditation practice stuck with me as I got home.
It's now nine years later, and I am convinced that meditation is a super power. The experience on the cushion isn't radically different -- I'm still easily distracted and jam-packed with thoughts. I'm often bored. Unfinished business of the heart rises to the surface. My body still aches. But MY attitude towards these experiences is altered. They are experiences, not me (whatever 'me' is, because whenever I go looking for 'me', she's nowhere to be found); they are the play of life, fleeting, changing.
And despite all the talk about suffering in Buddhism, this truly is a path of joy. I see more beauty in the world than ever before. The sky is bluer, the grass is greener, the patterns of plants even more intricate. The faces of people hold more tenderness. Probably because I'm more present and attentive. I still get angry and annoyed, but it washes off more quickly. I often feel the so called 'cosmic giggle' well up in me. And I feel like I'm winning, even when I'm losing.
But perhaps most importantly, I've discovered that I have the capacity to be selfless (even though I'm still often selfish, even though I can see it with a sense of humor, instead of beating myself up over it). Real love is quite different from romantic love for example, real love has nothing to do with how the other person (or animal or tree) is making me feel. It's just an appreciation of their beauty and love, an appreciation of their simple existence, for being a part of this universe; with all it's joys and sorrows.
When I can tap into this love, I don't want anything in return, it's a state of mind that makes me want to give all that I can.