A psychologist friend proposed a different definition of meditation that has my gears whirring like a GPS trying to “recalculate.” I’ve always had a respect bordering on awe for people who can meditate, but here’s what my friend said.
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“If you’re fully involved in something, active, paying attention only to that, you’re meditating. You don’t have to be sitting still. You don’t have to be staring at a wall.”
A few years ago I made a fairly serious try at meditating in a group of four women.
Sometimes we sat in silence. Sometimes we played on drums. Sometimes we chanted “Om.” Most often, guided by one of the women or by an audiotape, we chanted a series of syllables in a foreign language while sitting cross-legged on pillows, hands raised, middle finger pressed to thumb. One time we repeated a simple chant for 40 minutes, uninterrupted.
The long chant nearly drove me crazy, but shorter experiences — far short of anything a serious meditator would view as legitimate — bounced between pleasant and unpleasant as if I were eating alternate bites of ice cream and lard.
The point was to experience the present. Let the past go. Don’t think about the future, even the very close future like the next chant. Experience the present.
I get that part, at least from a rational perspective. Living in the present is a worthy goal. Most of the regret in our lives resides in past experiences, and worry dwells in the future. By comparison, the present is simple and safe. Even pain is fleeting, almost non-existent, when you shift your attention only from one second to the next, operating in present time.
I don’t normally live in a frenzy, but like most people I would be better off if I could move from moment to moment in a state of calm. I’ve heard of ordinary people like me who learn to meditate several hours a day, accruing remarkable benefits in body and spirit. I can barely manage to sit still for more than half an hour, no matter what I’m doing.
My psychologist friend opened a new door. If meditation takes place while I’m active, it happens every time I kayak. From the moment I sit down in the boat until the moment I’m dragging it from the water after a run, I think only about what I am doing.
Whoosh, that wave train was fun. Should I try for that eddy? Ah. Should I go left or right around that huge pile of water coming off the rock? Hey, let me try entering Meatgrinder Rapid from the right.
Oops. I’ve flipped. I’m upside down underwater. My eyes are open. I see my paddle. I see the water. I detect the sky. Time to roll up. Hurray, this time I got it.
I’m feeling strong today.
Paradoxically, it seems much easier to quiet my mind when I’m physically active than when I’m being quiet. And afterwards, I feel great. This might be “meditation lite” but it works for me.
I’ve long wondered why I am so repetitive about my paddling. Why do I keep going back to the same runs on the same river without getting bored? Why do many of my paddling buddies do the same thing?
Is this because we’re meditating?
Recently my husband and I went contra dancing, also known as line dancing, for the first time. The location was the grange in Coloma, and the caller had the amazing name of Talib Huff. Most of the participants were also new to contra dancing, so the caller spent several minutes before each dance teaching it. After the band started, he called out each move just in time for us to perform it.
Step forward. First gent start the line. Swing your partner, move to the next. Allemande left.
Sometimes the music went mighty fast.
Was this meditating? Once again, I was in the present because it was the only way I could keep up. After I’d learned a routine I started looking around more — oh good, they sell beer over there — but with each new dance I became present-focused again.
Is that why I liked it? Is that why I’d happily go back? Or was it the jovial caller, the exercise or the company? I don’t know.
I experienced formal meditation as something painstaking that requires exceptional patience. I’d like to have the reputed benefits of meditation — a clear mind, peace, and vision — but sitting still, for an hour, let alone three, is just too hard.
Purists might condemn the active approach. As practiced by many religious and non-religious people, meditation is about focused attention, breathing, mindfulness, spirituality, and quiet repetition. It’s not about paddling down a big honking river or tearing up the dance floor.
Still, if I’m not able to meditate properly, why not enjoy meditation lite?
Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.