There’s a technique for teaching mindfulness meditation to children that involves shaking up a snow globe and then watching it slowly slowly settle down. There are lots of variations on this exercise which include having the kids jump up and down like crazy, notice, sit still, notice again.
The metaphor of the snow globe is both apt and obvious. Still, I’ll go ahead and explain how it applies to me. It usually takes me a minute or two to convince myself it’s time to sit down and give meditation a try and yes even though I’ve had a meditation practice for over ten years, I still have to do a little negotiation with myself every time.
I sit, close my eyes and concentrate on my belly as it rises and falls with each breath. Then, just like the little flickers of pixie dust inside the snow globe, the snap-crackle-and-pops in my mind and body slowly dissipate and settle. For a moment or two, I don’t feel so agitated and even more importantly I realize how agitated I was feeling just before I decided to sit. This feels like a giant revelation every single time.
This lack of agitation is both surrender and relief. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long. People who don’t have a meditation practice often assume that the experience of sitting in meditation is one long blissed-out serene event. Maybe that’s true for some lucky people, but for me it’s more an observation of the way anxiety courses through my body and lands in various inconvenient places like in my belly or heavy in my chest.
Learning to be comfortable with discomfort is probably one of the greatest benefits of a meditation practice. An emotion, on the average, lasts about 90 seconds. Most of us can tolerate just about anything for 90 seconds, but when we’re in the midst of the throes of panic or anxiety, the last thing that occurs to us is that in less than 2 minutes, the feeling will dissipate. Sitting in stillness provides the practice we need to not only fully experience difficult feelings, it builds our confidence that we can endure them.
It’s not just painful things we need to learn to endure. So many mundane things in our lives require unrecognized effort. A couple of times, I’ve participated in silent meditation retreats. These retreats are of varying lengths of time. Participants meditate for many hours, listen to a daily dharma talk and for the entirety of the retreat remain in total silence. The most shocking insight I gained from attending a retreat is recognizing just how much energy and emotional investment I typically put into ordinary conversations. I love a good conversation, repartee with a stranger or a friend, learning something new and unexpected. But it’s not effortless. It requires an enormous amount of energy. The truth is I rarely engage in a conversation without second guessing something I’ve said or wondering if I’ve offended the other person or agonizing over my inability to remember an acquaintance’s granddaughter’s name, or her husband’s name or her name! It’s a realization that occurred to me only after I’d abstained from ordinary life and conversation for a period of time.
For lots of reasons, silent meditation retreats are not for everyone. But taking even a few moments to pause and take yourself out of your everyday routine can provide a new perspective and an appreciation for how much extraordinary effort you put into ordinary interactions. Most of the time when we’re communicating with others, the snow globe inside of us is all shaken up, flakes of apprehension and doubt whirling everywhere. We truly don’t give ourselves enough credit for how much energy we expend on the most mundane of human interactions.