Finding acceptance through meditation
This time of year always used to invoke a sense of dread.
After enjoying long hot summer days in gardens, on beaches, on boats, at barbecues with friends, delirious with a sun-kissed joy I hope will never end, the golden shadows lengthen and the days start to shorten.
At the same time I get that “start of the school year” feeling. New uniform – perhaps ill-fitting and a bit too big, new school shoes and bag, a new timetable with new teachers and new people in classes – and a sense of getting down to work.
In my adult life, I’ve come to associate this time of year with a looking back over the year and assessing what I have achieved thus far – and usually finding that it’s not enough, and there isn’t much time to get things done before the end of the year.
As a practitioner and teacher of Zen meditation, I now know that these are two classic causes of suffering: first, attachment, holding on to things, wishing they could stay the same forever and not wanting to accept change; and second, looking back at and judging the past, and wishing things were/had been different, while also worrying about the future, what is yet to come, rather than living in the present moment.
Of course, these are “normal” human responses to many situations. We always want the “good times” to go on forever – and when they inevitably end, we can get “stuck”, reliving them and wishing we could go back to them, and we chase similar types of situations, in the hope of finding happiness again.
So it is ironic that one of the things that makes “fun” fun, is that very aspect of being in the moment: forgetting our cares and worries, and not letting go of the past – even if it is just momentarily.
And yoga and meditation helps us to tap into that, by helping us to be in the moment while we are practising. As one of my yoga students said to me this evening, when she is in class, she is totally present, absorbed, committed to the practice – nothing else is happening in those moments.
So back to this time of year and the sense of dread. I hated school. For most of my school life I was the only Chinese person, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. Not only did I look different from everyone else, but my lifestyle and home culture seemed to deviate from the norm, and this was made abundantly clear to me on a daily basis in the form of bullying and racism.
I desperately wanted to fit in, and just be and look like everyone else. I wanted to blend in. Of course that was impossible. But it didn’t stop me from wanting that and trying to achieve that by trying desperately hard to be “cool” – whatever that was! – while all the time feeling like a misfit and a fraud. That stayed with me well into later life.
It was only through yoga and meditation practice that I was able to recognise it. And forgive myself for always trying to be someone else, which I hadn’t even realised I was doing.
In yoga, we have the concept of the alaya vijnana – the storehouse consciousness. Our consciousness is like an iceberg: on the surface there are the things of which we are aware through our senses and mind – sensations and everyday thoughts, emotions, ideas, perceptions.
However, beneath the surface is the vast storehouse consciousness of everything that has ever happened to us. It informs and defines the surface consciousness in ways of which we may or may not be aware.
Furthermore, these past experiences become locked in our actual physical body, manifesting as tightness, tension, stiffness, blockages and resistance. Or addictions or cravings.
Practising meditation enables us to start to have an awareness of how things in the past are connected to who we are and what we do today. Practising yoga helps us to release habits and trauma that are locked in our bodies.
Have you ever heard people using the phrase, “I don’t know why I’m like this – I was just born this way”? Or “I’ve always been like this – I can’t help it”?
Well it’s simply not true! The great Zen master Bankei teaches us that when we are born, were are all perfect little babies. The things that happen to us along the way in growing up come to shape our perceptions and our behaviours. The important thing to know is that we are never a “fixed” or “finished” person – we are all a work in progress.
The practice of meditation helps us to see this more clearly. In my own experience, it transported me right back to when I started secondary school, standing in the playground in my new school uniform. It was ill fitting and little too big, the blazer sleeves hanging beyond my hands, as my parents wanted to allow “growing room”. I was the only one wearing a skirt with a pleat down the front. My new shoes had a T-bar, while everyone else had lace-ups. My straight Chinese hair was unfashionably curled under, while everyone else’s was flicked outwards. And my bag: while everyone else had satchels or rucksacks, I had a shopper with a picture of an apple on the front! It was horrific! I felt so alone and out of place. I just wanted to disappear and blend in. Or make friends and be cool.
None of which was possible, of course. Yet I wanted it to be so. And I have wanted it to be so for most of my adult life.
However, through the practice of meditation, I forgave that girl in the playground for wanting to be something other than who she was, and made friends with her. I forgave the teenager that she became, who always wanted to prove herself by behaving more recklessly than anyone else – and still not being part of the “in crowd”. I forgave the young woman she became, who was always desperate to get on the guest list of the coolest party – and then feeling painfully awkward and alone because she didn’t know anybody. And I forgave the adult she became, who was so committed to her job and trying to be the best mother that she couldn’t see that once again, she was once again was just trying to fulfil “roles”.
The great gift of Zen meditation practice – and in particular the practice taught by Zen master Bankei of “fusho”, or the “unborn meditation” – is that we can come to realise the fundamental “OK-ness” of ourselves, just as we are. Past events in the storehouse consciousness do not condemn us or write us off because we are all a work in progress.
In the yoga meditation space we can allow ourselves to just “be”. Thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions – we can allow them to come up, without having to do anything about them. We’re not lacking anything. It’s a safe and free space, and once we find it, we can know we will actually always be all right.
If you would like to try “fusho” – the “unborn meditation” – you will find a recording here:
Samantha Warrington is a Zen yoga and meditation teacher