Hello and welcome to the first Meditation Monday! I asked some of my friends and acquaintances to answer a few questions about meditation, and the answers were smart and funny, surprising and varied. The gist: the people who practice meditation do it for their own reasons, in their own ways, and within–or outside–a number of traditions. I thought readers who are considering meditation, those who have tried it and stopped, those who want to get back into it, or just those who are curious about other people’s experiences with it might find some insight here. Practices of self-care and/or spirituality seem particularly important these days, and I hope you will feel free to share yours in the comments.
Look for more interviews on coming Mondays!
Interview with Casey Clague
When and why did you start meditating?
I started meditating around 5 ½ years ago. At the time, I was about a year into my 12-step recovery program. I didn’t feel comfortable with all of the God and Higher Power talk, but I knew I needed a spiritual practice of some kind. I was in a lot of emotional turmoil that was far from gone just because I put down the substances.
How did you learn about meditation? (From a group, book, video, other practitioner?)
I was first prompted to meditate from a Buddhist I met in recovery. Initially, I used YouTube videos with no regard to tradition or general quality. Some of the first materials were of the esoteric, overly Westernized type (which I’m not disparaging, by any means). Over time, I became more invested in Buddhist practice, specifically.
Yes. Mahayana Buddhism.
What would you say to someone who expresses interest in meditation, but claims to be “unable” to do it?
First, I would try to get to the more specific nature of the “inability.” Usually, people say “I can’t turn my mind off.” Well, you aren’t supposed to! I tell them that meditation is the process of being present to what thoughts come up, not struggling with or suppressing them. Brain’s gonna brain; you can’t help that. Meditation teaches us to let thoughts come and go without attaching to or judging them.
Some people have physical disabilities that keep them from meditating. When someone expresses this to me, I say that meditation doesn’t have to be done in the lotus position people associate with meditation. It doesn’t need to be done while sitting at all. Folks can meditate while lying down, or walking, or from any position that’s comfortable, really. In my experience, and what I’ve heard from others, physical pain can be the body’s resistance to the mental/emotional discomfort of facing one’s thoughts. The Theravadan monk, Ajahn Chah said, “If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate.” Often, the confrontation of afflictive emotions can lead the body to let go of its physical discomfort.
What does your meditation practice do for you? That is, what are some of the specific benefits or consequences you experience, long or short-term?
Even in the early stages of my practice, I saw a marked decrease in stress and a broadened sense of peace with myself and surroundings. After deepening my practice and learning more about the dharma (Buddhist teachings), I have been able to work with my suffering to transform it into healing. Instead of reacting to afflictive emotions and situations, I look at the feelings that arise, approach them with equanimity and love, and I use them as learning opportunities. This is all, of course, a practice. Meditation on the cushion is one thing, but the benefits come when I apply the teachings in my life.
Having gained to a large degree relief from my suffering, I look for ways to help relieve others of theirs. The Mahayana tradition has a long history of working for social justice; I’ve always been dedicated to combatting injustice, but the practice allows me to be active without hatred. I do believe that hatred, even when somewhat justified by systematic oppression, is not an effective quality in the struggle. I also credit my veganism to my practice. In thoughtful reflection, I saw that all sentient beings are connected. As such, it became unacceptable to me to exploit and brutalize nonhumans for my own purposes.
It’s hard to overstate how crucial the practice has been in my life. Before it, I had such emotional turmoil. Equanimity and peace were completely foreign to me. Now, I enjoy being in the world, even when the conditions in it break my heart. I am just grateful to have a heart. To have compassion. Without meditation I would be stuck seeing the world as a series of insurmountable catastrophes and who wants to live like that?
Casey Clague is a student in the MFA program at the University of South Florida where they write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Their work has been featured in Vagabond City and is forthcoming in Slipstream. A lifelong activist for social justice, Casey is a vocal proponent of equal rights for women, LGBTQ, people of color, and other marginalized groups.