It was hot. It was so bloody hot. I could feel heat rising from all directions. After a short time, I was drenched in sweat. I heard the crackling of fire. Even my mind was on fire. Yet, I shivered. I was so cold. My body was shaking uncontrollably from the fear. Make it stop!!! I was alone, completely. I was hiding because I was so ashamed. The shame joined in the flames of complete agitation, the tortured thought processes going on in my mind about my life. I was by myself, hiding in my barn. I wouldn’t dare let anyone see the time I was wasting.
What you just read is a description of what my first at home focusing on the breath meditation experience was like. To describe in a sentence would be to simply state that I felt as if I was burning in Hell. I have since shared with close, dear friends that I have never had an enjoyable meditation experience. Until very recently I could not have described even one moment of blissful practice.
The state of my mental health was one to take seriously at that time. I was not suicidal but I was obsessed with dying. In short, I had a plan and anytime that I thought life was too hard, or it might get too hard, I always had Plan B. Plan B was an idea in my head that would end all my suffering. If I was dead, then I couldn’t possibly suffer, right? Looking back, it wasn’t my life that was so terrible; it was my reactions to my thoughts about my life being so terrible.
People in my life needed me. Upon a desperate attempt to validate my feelings of death, my husband’s response was simple and to the point “A sad mother is better than no mother”. You know how some conversations turn into pivotal moments of change? That one was my mine.
I’m sure you are wondering how on Earth a meditation experience could be like that? The best way that I can describe it is that up until that minute I was avoiding my thoughts. I wasn’t engaging them, questioning them, allowing them to just be. Rather, I was napping, crying, and all-consumed with planning my death. So, when actually faced with my thoughts and my thoughts alone, I was terrified of what I might find.
The experiences slowly got better. I no longer encounter burning in Hell when I focus my attention inward. I do often still feel uncomfortable; mentally and physically in reaction to my thoughts. But I no longer cling to those thoughts. They come; they go, just as clouds pass in the sky. Some might linger for a while, drop a sprinkle or two. Other clouds will bring about frightening storms that seem to last for an unbearable timeframe. But what I’ve discovered, most importantly, is that the sun is still there. Just because it is hidden behind the clouds doesn’t mean it’s not there. In retrospect, I can look back and see how far I’ve come. But I can also look ahead and see how far I have to go.
I mentioned that up until recently I haven’t had a blissful Zazen moment. However, that is no longer true. For example, just tonight I felt a sort of comfortable detachment to my body. Like my hands resting gently on my legs were of their own. I have been a meditation practitioner for several years now. Just as the raging fires got to be less and eventually burned out, the bliss has gotten to be more and in time will remain always lit. It is a process. It can be a slow, sometimes painful, process. But it is through the process that we come home to ourselves. We come home to our Buddha nature.
If it took years to slowly start transitioning, why did I continue to be committed to a practice that wasn’t exactly enjoyable? The shifts in my life are why. I stopped thinking about dying. I started living.
I would love to hear what you think about this popular koan and how it ties into this piece, “Your angst is your liberation”.
~On Ji, Becky Kuczer