Growing Into Meditation 1... 2... 3... by Samee
"Warning: Possibly Triggering Content"
I’m 6 years old. In the darkness of my bedroom, I imagine what it would be like to die. While porcelain dolls dance around the border of my wallpaper, I try to imagine what the unconscious is like. I’ve never been taught about religion in a way I could comprehend, so heaven and hell only exist for me in the context of fables. Beginning to panic, I reassure myself that death is just like before I was born. But I can’t imagine that either. My breathing gets fast and less controlled. I tell myself that even though I can’t imagine what it was like before birth, I certainly wasn’t afraid. At least I don’t remember being afraid…? but I also don’t remember the time before I was born… I begin to cry and in my mind I’m slipping into the darkness of what I imagine death to be. I watch as everyone I love continues on without me. I’m sobbing. I can’t control my breathing! I curl into a ball and begin to rock my body back and forth, trying to shake off the thought of nothingness. As soon as I’m able to gain enough control to stand, I crawl through the tiny passageway in my room that leads into my mother’s bedroom closet. As I approach her bed, she lifts the covers and I crawl in.
She spoons me, shooshes me, and lovingly reminds me that we’ll all die someday. And it’ll all be okay.
This was par for the course for a couple years. Every night, I crawled into my mother’s bed panicking that we would all die. Until one terrible day when I was about 8 years old. I came home from a weekend at my friend’s house and walked into my bedroom to put away my overnight bag. I was shocked to see my Uncle Elmer was there, wallpapering a strip of porcelain dolls onto a wall. A wall that was not there before. A wall in my bedroom that I had never seen. A wall that he had built to cover the passage way that was my safe haven. I immediately started to scream. I couldn’t walk through the dark hallway in the night! I was sure to die if I did that! Why didn’t she care about me?? I was devastated.
My sister Kira is 7 years older than me and, at that time in my life, she was in high school. She would stay up later at night than my mother and therefore, became the person who would now have to calm my panic. Anticipating that the attack was to come as soon as I layed down to sleep, I would slowly walk up to her bedroom door and meekly tell her I was scared. Kira was not one for crying children (and still isn’t), but to her delight, she’s a great educator and an aggressively compassionate human. She’d exhale with a grumble deep in her throat, roll her eyes, and grab a book off the shelf while shooing me back into my bedroom. Encouraging me to close my eyes and try to imagine the characters as they were described in the book, Kira would read me to sleep. Of course, I always fell asleep as quickly as the Pevensie siblings discover the ruins of Cair Paravel. I swear, we made it through the Chronicles of Narnia at least half a dozen times before Kira moved away.
When I was 10 years old and my sister was no longer around to soothe me, the panic attacks continued. I remembered Kira telling me to close my eyes and imagine the characters, so I considered what I might think about in place of Mr. Tumnus and the White Witch. I had heard that some people count sheep to fall asleep, so I figured those sheep might also be able to calm me the way that C.S. Lewis could. I closed my eyes and focused my mind on watching those sheep jump over the fence. One after another, with numbers painted on their coats.
The first sheep makes it over the fence.
The second sheep jumps.
As the third is jumping over the fence my mind fades to black and the thoughts of death begin to creep in. I can feel my heart beating and I hate that feeling. It reminds me that at any moment my heart might stop. And then I remember the sheep.
Back to one.
The first sheep jumps over the fence again
I can see the number clearly painted on his coat
I notice the arc is the same on all of their jumps
It’s the same sheep that seems to be back over the fence with a different number painted each time. As I try to follow the sheep with my minds eye, jumping over the fence and then back under, I feel my eyes relaxing to the side of my head. My jaw starts to hang. I startle myself with the thought that falling asleep might mean not waking up. I start to panic again and my chest gets tight with fear. My breathing gets heavy and then I remember the sheep.
Back at one.
The first sheep jumps over the fence.
The second sheep jumps it.
The third sheep jumps.
The fourth sheep…
I didn’t know that I was using the sheep as an object of meditation until many years later, when I learned to teach meditation in graduate school. As a sports psychology specialist, I learned how to use meditation and imagery to improve physical ability and control the body. I learned that I had already been practicing a similar technique every day to fall asleep for years, I just hadn’t yet learned how to use it to my waking advantage.
Through meditation I have learned to notice my thoughts and emotional sensations without judgement, allowing me to choose to believe those thoughts or not; allowing me to choose to take action out of those thoughts and sensations or not; allowing me to notice that thoughts and feelings just happen without much control from me or anyone around me. Certainly I’m not always great at using this skill the first moment of offense, but I’ve gotten better at (and continue to practice) noticing my judgements, thoughts, and feelings and intentionally choosing how I want to be.
The sheep are no longer my object of meditation.
Now, as I return from the places to which my mind wanders, I use a series of sensation checks: first I check my thumbs, as they begin to twitch at the initial experience of anxiety (are you a pen clicker too?); then I check my posture and make sure my spine is straight and shoulders relaxed (I meditate in a seated position these days in order to avoid falling asleep); then I check my jaw and tongue, noticing that all my tension is held in my jaw, making it the hardest to relax; and finally, I check in to my breathing.
I don’t try to control my breathing. I just breathe. Sometimes I count how long it takes me to inhale. I feel the pause between my inhale and exhale, and then I count how long it takes to completely empty my lungs.
I inhale again.
My thoughts wander, as thoughts do. Thoughts are always happening every moment of life, waking or not. My brain being active means I’m alive, so I don’t judge it’s wandering, even if the random thoughts that pop up are not preferred thoughts in my life. The brain just thinks and we don’t have to choose to believe every thought that pops up. I notice it and then remind myself to check my sensations: thumbs, spine, jaw, breath. If I have an itch or other sensation like pain, I’ll check into that with my mind for a bit and get comfortable there. I remind myself that the body sensation means I’m alive.
The itch is not something to fix. It’s just there.
And then I check back in to my breathing.
Inhale, 2, 3, 4
Exhale 2, 3, 4
Inhale, 2, 3, 4
Exhale 2, 3, 4