I close my bedroom door behind me and turn out the lights. I walk into my closet, close the door and turn out the lights there, too. A dark room should prevent any visual distractions and the clothes hanging from the walls and the carpet on the floor should filter out any sounds.
It’s a Saturday in 2011 and I’m meditating for the first time.
After doing research and reading about all the wonderful experiences people have while meditating, I’m excited. My plan for the next few minutes is to sit in the dark with all distractions removed and keep my attention on my breath. How hard could it be?
I cross my legs, place my hands on my lap and close my eyes.
Just like I learned. Let’s do this.
My first inhale is smooth and even refreshing.
Off to a good start. This feels good.
During my first exhale, a thought pops in my head.
Hmm. Wasn’t expecting that. Okay, focus.
With the first thought lingering in the background, I struggle to bring my attention to my breath flowing in and out. Another thought. In. Continued thought. Out. Another thought. In. More thoughts. Out. That’s when the floodgates open and my mind fills with thoughts. What to have for dinner. Upcoming deadlines at work. What my dog thinks about. Whether I’m losing my mind. When I’ll finally be able to grow a beard. Anything else I’d rather be doing than sitting alone and a dark closet.
Come on, man!
As the tug-of-war match between keeping my attention on my breath and intrusive thoughts continues, a wave of sensations hits. My legs fill with pins and needles. There’s a sudden pinch in my back. Everything surfaces and my attention couldn’t be further from my breath.
Really? Just follow your breath. Don’t mess this up!
My inner critic takes over. It heckles for not being able to keep my attention on my breath. It then criticizes me for everything else that has gone wrong in my life. I’m too focused on thoughts, sensations, and now a voice in my head.
I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s not this. Rather than emptying my head of thoughts, it’s full. Rather than being able to focus, everything has come out of the woodwork to distract me. Rather than being more relaxed, I’m tense.
Uncomfortable from sitting on the floor for so long, I try to loosen up. I roll my shoulders and massage the back of my neck. I stretch to both sides. I lean as far forward as I can over my legs to give my lower back a nice stretch. That’s when I fall into a deep sleep.
After a while, I wake up folded over my legs which have fallen asleep. Army crawling to the closet door, I flip on the lights and massage blood flow back into my legs. Leaving the closet, I stumble through my dark room, open the door, and leave in a much more disoriented and stressed state than when I walked in about 30 minutes before.
What the hell was that?
This wasn’t what I expected. Where were the blissful vibes? Where was my enlightening experience? Where was that inner light that radiates from within and shoots out of my eyeballs to make me become one with the cosmos? Maybe it would have worked better if I was meditating on a mountain, next to a waterfall, or near/in the ocean like the typical pictures I see whenever I see a picture of someone meditating?
The last thing I expected was something disappointing, irritating, and rendering me temporarily unable to walk.
It was an experience that made me put off trying it again for quite a while.
Flash forward to 2019. Looking back on this pleasant moment in my life, what I didn’t know at the time was that everything I had experienced was normal. Since then, I’ve learned that distractions – especially thoughts – are part of the process. In meditations where you catch your attention wandering to various distractions, often the practice itself is noticing that that has happened and bringing, or returning, your attention back.
Related to thoughts specifically, I thought I had to have a clear mind. But thoughts just mean that the brain is doing what has evolved to do: think. It’s just doing what it does. From my teacher training, I learned that as your body kicks off stress and you get more relaxed, it can manifest itself through rapid thoughts. It makes sense, too. Think of all the times after an exhausting day when all you want to do is sleep and once your head hits the pillow your thoughts decide to throw a party. Yes, thoughts can get quieter over time, but that’s a little more of a further step for a beginner. With consistent practice, you gradually learn how to take a step back and observe thoughts and other distractions from a place of non-judgment and non-resistance, versus getting too wrapped up and arguing back with self-criticism.
Finally, as your body gets more relaxed and less stressed, you can get tired. My body was craving rest and decided it needed to happen at an unfortunate moment for my legs. To be honest, though, it was a very nice nap. I could have done without the stabbing pain and the army crawl, but it’s funny now.
If you’re new to meditation, don’t let a few rough sessions get you down. I put it off for quite a while because I didn’t understand what I was doing, but I’m glad I picked it back up. Take things slow and steady and I’m sure that in time you’ll be glad you stuck with it, too.