By Rachel Woolhouse
I remember the first time I meditated. The hard ground of the Hyde Park rose garden, the scratchy mid-summer grass on my legs. The slight self-consciousness as I sat cross-legged in public with my eyes closed, canvas bag touching my side so no opportunist could rob me without me noticing.
I’d been sitting in the park, with hours of time to kill, as you do when you’re a non-Londoner in London without much in your wallet. (I was a student, in my final year of a French and Philosophy degree.) I’d patiently read the first 25 pages of ‘Change Your Mind: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation’; the preparatory bit before the first technique it gave.
As I read, I felt an overwhelming feeling of excitement and curiosity. Some of what the book had to say felt at the same time profoundly significant but also so simple that I felt I must have known it already, at some level.
In my short life so far, I had experienced waves of intense sadness and hopelessness, without there always being something to attribute this to. When I first came across Sartre’s description of ‘existential anguish’ I cried for hours, it was like someone had given a name to this feeling I had known but never understood. I had often felt trapped by the inner workings of my own mind.
But here, this book was telling me, ‘happiness is a state of mind, not something that can be taken from others or from the outside world’. I felt empowered.
I can’t even remember how it felt meditating for the first time. I didn’t suddenly experience myself as deeply connected to the universe nor did I drop into an unshakeable stillness. Knowing me, I was probably wondering if I’d remembered all the stages and instructions from the meditation, (that’s the downside of using a book).
The point is, however that first meditation went, it was the beginning of a process of getting to know myself and learning to be more accepting of my different states of mind.
Like a teenager at a party, who doesn’t want to be seen talking to certain people, for fear of ruining their image, there are bits of ourselves that we don’t want to be associated with, bits that don’t fit with the self-image we create for ourselves. Meditation helps us to start talking to all the people at the party.
For me, meditation helps me to see that my experience is like a spectrum. Not only are there the extremes of lightness and darkness but, like day changing into night and vice versa, there is everything in between, and this is natural, normal. In other words: ‘however you’re feeling, it’s ok to feel like that and it won’t last’.
I remember often chatting to other meditators about meditation and saying, ‘it’s like you’ve been in prison and then you realise the key to your cell has been in your pocket the whole time’.
Go on, look in your pocket.