This piece was originally published on Shambhala Times, and is being shared here with the writer's permission.
Once the cushions and chairs are arranged in two concentric circles and the books are laid out, people start to drift into the meditation hall. They come in ones and twos, some new and some who have been coming for months or even years. The first people to find seats are generally quiet and reserved. As the room fills, the noise level rises. One girl hurries to hug a friend. Conversations increase and carry across the space.
The noise is good. Most weeks I wait before ringing the gong. Itallows the stragglers to come in. Let’s face it, even in recovery, drunks and addicts are not usually punctual by nature. Most importantly, people become friendly with one another. It is that friendliness that I wait for. You can feel it in the room. Now we are ready to begin.
Why wait for friendliness? They came for meditation. They came to improve their conscious contact. They came for spirituality. When I ring the opening gong everyone quickly quiets down and assumes a meditation position. Game faces on, the crowd gets very serious.. We have not even started, and here arises the first obstacle–their own expectations.
Before reading the opening statement, we need to let some of the seriousness out of the room. We need to poke some holes into our expectations of what we are actually doing here. We are going to sit, relaxed but upright, and we are going to breathe. No hocus pocus, nothing mystical or otherworldly. We just sit and breathe. It’s actually quite ordinary. It is with the thought that the meditation is going to be extraordinary that the first obstacle arises.
Meditation can be seen as a way to make friends with oneself, through gentleness and appreciation. We do not need to overcomplicate it. Every time we come into a situation with a preconceived notion about what something is, all we notice is what that situation is not. At that moment, instead of finding a connection to who we are, we discover another weapon of self-aggression. Another method of harshly judging our insides compared to everyone else’s outsides. What the Buddha discovered was not something rare, like a winning lottery ticket, but something basic and universal. The Buddha uncovered our heart, our essence, our humanness, our ordinary brilliance, our basic goodness.
So we begin by simply sitting, with gentleness and appreciation that we have made it through another day. If you are crazy or tired, allow that to be there. We do not have to change it, because allowing ourselves to be who we authentically are is the actual journey. We should be curious, appreciating the ordinary human feeling of being alive right now.
When I got sober, I had no idea who I was. I did not know what I liked or did not like. Meditation is a chance to spend time with ourselves, as if we were on a blind date. We are trying to get to know someone, that person we wake up and go to bed with. That person who looks at us in the mirror changes day to day, moment to moment. So let’s not assume we already know everything we need to know. To sit with ourselves, and to be curious about what it feels like to breathe–this is our first taste of meditation.
Think of meditation as a practical practice. Before we can do any of those “spiritual” things we believe we are supposed to be doing, we first need to begin the discovery of who we are, and what we are experiencing right now. Not tomorrow’s fears and not yesterday’s regrets, but now. Discovering our basic goodness is not spiritual. It is an extraordinary journey to discover who we are as wonderfully ordinary human beings.
As alcoholics and addicts, this is an essential journey because we have done so much to insulate and isolate ourselves from the world and our innate goodness. This is the beginning of a friendship, a love affair with ourselves. So before we even start, we must let go of what we think is supposed to happen. No need to worry whether we are doing it right, or whether the person next to us is doing it better. Start without an expectation about what we will find, or what the results will be. The cushion is safe. Remind yourself that meditation is a journey of friendship, gentleness and appreciation. It’s not a simple journey, but the journey itself is immensely worthwhile.
Even though it does not seem it, this is the easier, softer way.
A life of friendliness to ourselves free from addiction.
That is why we wait for the friendliness to arise.
Then we invite the friendliness along for the ride.
Eric Rainbeau is a recovering alcoholic, Buddhist practitioner, facilitator of a weekly Heart of Recovery program at the Shambhala St. Petersburg Center, and the author of Basic Sobriety: Shambhala Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. Through the Twelve Steps, the fellowship of AA, and the Shambhala teachings, he has “recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body” to live a life greater than he ever imagined.