I read a story the other day of a popular singer which described her as an “overnight sensation.” It was a romantic story, the kind we like to read in fairy tales, but it wasn’t true. I’ve known her for quite some time and watched, as she worked tirelessly, writing, singing and promoting her music. She is a sensation. But instead of her arrival occurring overnight it was the result of many long nights and small steps in the direction of her goal.
This idea of overnight success, or instantaneous awakening as it’s called, is also present in many spiritual traditions. It’s the concept that we can, in a single instant, move beyond all our programming and experience the eternal truths of what life (and beyond) is all about.
This may be true for some people some of the time. But for most of us it’s not. We awaken slowly and often painstakingly as we take baby steps through life. Step by step, breath by breath, stumble by stumble … little by little we are awakening, while hardly realizing it as we go through our day-to-day routines.
We spend a good portion of our lives dreaming of being somewhere besides where we are — of making it. In preschool we dream of getting to kindergarten and then we dream of elementary and middle school; we can’t wait to be in high school and ultimately university. From there we dream of the perfect job, ideal spouse, well-behaved kids, and a beautiful house with a picket fence. We spend our lives chasing the dream, while missing the opportunities to be present and actually live the dream. Or as a Beverly Hills father once told me, “If my son doesn’t get into the right preschool he’ll be fighting an uphill battle for the rest of his life.”
When we arrive at the meditation cushion we often bring with us the same dreams and fantastic expectations. The romantic stories of gurus on mountain tops and masters floating on high become the spiritual equivalent of the perfect house and picket fence. We sit and sit and sit waiting for the bright light, the total blissful silence or, as I like to say, unicorns and fairies. But that’s rarely what we find. Instead we find our lives … perhaps a little less cluttered, but real-life just the same.
I began meditating desperately hoping to find peace, an escape from the years of pain I experienced in my life … to get away from it all. This worked for a while. I listened to Yanni and daydreamed of peace. But then I’d open my eyes and see that not much (in fact, nothing at all) had changed. I was still sitting in the same spot, thinking the same things I thought before I closed my eyes.
This realization was an important one. It was an invitation of sorts, an asking to listen to the child deep inside whispering timidly, “Hey you, can you hear me? Will you hold my hand?” When I answered “yes,” I went from tuning out to tuning in, and in doing so I began to experience the true peace of acceptance. I began to accept myself, the memories that haunted me, my perceived failings, and the moments in which I lost my cool. But perhaps most importantly, I learned to accept myself even when I failed at accepting myself. Instead of beating myself up, I learned to forgo the drama and simply start again — breathing, getting lost, welcoming myself home … again and again.
A friend of mine who lifts weights recently asked me to teach him to meditate. “I’ve tried, but I can’t do it,” he said. I asked him to explain to me the steps of one rep of a bench press. “Lie down, position your hands, focus your eyes on the bar, take a deep breath, lift the bar, lower it to your chest and then exhale as you push and return the bar. That’s a rep,” he said.
I smiled and invited him to join me on the floor. “Sit down, position your hands in your lap, close your eyes, take a deep breath in, focus your attention on the air entering the tip of your nose, then exhale and feel the breath as it leaves your body … That’s a rep,” I said.
In my meditation practice (and in my life) there is no expectation of instantaneously awakening, there are just instants. I’m no longer looking to finding peace. Instead, I’ve learned to be at peace with what I find. No unicorns or fairies. Just the practice of accepting myself, my life, and all the real-life characters that surround me.
I invite you to sit with me now. Breathe in deeply. Be present with your breath. Allow it to linger in your lungs and to dance a bit. As you exhale, remain present to your breath, and to yourself, and lean in a bit.
That’s a rep. That’s life. Welcome home.
Big hugs of love,