Practice Doing Nothing
“Sometimes I can’t face myself.” Elizabeth Newton on learning to meditate.
Sometime in 2014, my style of thinking – which had once felt “nimble and somersaulting,” in Capote’s words – had accelerated to an overactive state. My thinking, then frenetic, was beginning to take a toll on my physical health. I had serious trouble sleeping, and my muscles felt as though sutured to my nerves and bones in a weird, wrong way. After speaking with me about my condition, one pill-pushing therapist-in-training forced me to call a psychiatrist in an effort to prescribe me something to “slow down the thoughts,” a suggestion that I found and still find alarming.
My encounter with that therapist left me feeling so crazy that I found it difficult to leave my apartment for a couple of weeks, given that my worst fears had been confirmed: my thoughts, the only thing I had until then consistently managed to like about myself, were largely incomprehensible to others. I didn’t know many people in New York then, and New Yorkers, though smart, aren’t exactly kind. This therapist seemed to be further proof that me and these 8.4 million people here simply can’t comprehend one another.
And yet, deep down, I knew the quack was right. I needed to find a way to deal with my thoughts, if not to slow them, then to channel them in a more manageable way. Writing felt useful, but too often the pace of my pencil or typing fingers fell behind my racing brain.
After conversation with a friend, I decided to start a practice of regular meditation to find relief from my scattered imagination. On her recommendation, my goal was to meditate twenty minutes every night, using a lightly guided practice I had found whose narrator seemed reasonable and kind.
At first, this felt impossible. Twenty minutes, apparently, is an excruciatingly long time.
Often, I couldn’t make it through the duration – I would give up, check my phone, make tea, play guitar. Several years of yoga practice had led me to appreciate the paradox of meditation, of thinking about not thinking, and also the possibility that meditation might come to be a part of daily life, something you do on the subway instead of an exceptional activity (“the Buddha doesn’t sit to meditate; that is just the way the Buddha sits”). But yoga involves movement, and it hadn’t prepared me for the challenge of meditation, which is the practice of doing nothing.
To cope, I tried to view the practice like a scientific experiment. In the early stages, even as I “failed” to focus, I nonetheless came to appreciate meditation as a form of musical experience, a useful way to measure time. The ritual of twenty-minute-meditations each night created a space of comparison, an externally constant interval by which to evaluate my internal fluctuations. Some nights, twenty minutes felt lengthy, either unbearably or pleasantly. On other nights, the time zipped by, in a nice or bad way.
A year later, I feel glad about my meditation routine and the insights that it has brought me. If you draw your attention to your thoughts, interesting things begin to arise. In focusing on breathing instead of thinking, you become aware of what you want to think, and when, and why it’s being denied development. When you tell your brain not to think, the thoughts that flood the thinking space are incredibly revealing.
One thing the meditation narrator asks me to contemplate each night is, “Is there an emotional tone to your thoughts?” Of course, there always is that tone, but it isn’t always easy to sense one’s thoughts as the feelings that they are. It often takes a bit of time to fully register the precise quality of one’s thoughts, and as I’ve continued my nightly schedule, I’ve come to realize that this process of registering emotional tone is, in fact, the practice. That’s the point. Sometimes my thoughts are beautiful and I feel lovely, like a ball of light. Sometimes they feel rough and coarse. Sometimes they feel dim and damp and cold.
Now, I’ve been meditating nightly for a year, with scattered lapses for days or weeks when camping or moving or fucking or flying. I’d say I’ve sat, successfully, probably 330 times, each one a struggle.
Given the great trauma that people face in this world, it seems odd that I would find it difficult just to sit and [not] think for a little while. But the feelings and sensations that arise while meditating are often troubling, usually inexplicably so. Sometimes my patterns of thought catch on something unspeakably uncomfortable, a thought jammed down in the bottom drawer, buried under rubble: an unpleasant image that can’t be seen, only felt. It’s my conviction that our deepest feelings aren’t the worst ones – the depth is a pretty good place – but, sometimes on the way down, we encounter scary patches.
Memories, dull aches, past hurts from today or from a day a decade past. Scars upon scars. Though people probably experience anger, resentment, or fear on their path, for me, it is always paved with something blue: sadness at being belittled, and at my own belittling.
Meditation means unfurling, uncurling, undoing all the sore spots, and it then means sitting with yourself in that uncomfortable valley, with yourself and no one else, where you can’t ignore how much your muscles ache, the weight of all your life’s choices upon your skeletal and muscular reality ringing vivid as a full moon. Sometimes I think to myself while meditating, as my muscles struggle against themselves in stasis: if I am this tired at 27, how will I ever make it to 28, let alone to 30?
The drawbacks of increased awareness sometimes lead me to skip my practice because I feel I can’t face myself. The risks of sensation feel too high, and I listen to music or call on a friend instead. But the benefits of meditation are worthwhile. In the imaginary and bodily space that meditation opens up, new things drift to clarity that were inaccessible before.
In my own conception of the mind and body, of time and memory, of habit and chance, I wonder often whether meditation “reveals” things or, instead, invents them. In the end, I’m not sure the difference matters much. Meditation has helped me love the curve of every doubt, the shape of every hesitation.