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meditation 101: working with sadness

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From the moment I woke up, I felt off-centre. Searching my memory for reasons, I came up with one explanation after another: bad dream, the movie I saw late last night, the upcoming consultation with a surgeon — this and that, without resolution. “Spiritual life is not mental life,” writes the Catholic monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968),

“Useless to try to meditate merely but ‘thinking’ — still worse to meditate by stringing words together, reviewing an army of platitudes.”

By seven in the evening I phoned my spiritual coach for our bi-weekly telephone session. As usual, she asked “how are you.” Between us this doesn’t mean How is the weather but How’s your heart? I described sadness and its manifestations throughout the day; also that I hadn’t been able to pinpoint its cause. “Let’s try a different approach,” she said (as usual), “Lie down, let thoughts be what they are, and direct your attention inward. Notice whatever arises in your body.”

From there it didn’t take long for me to enter into a vast awareness, first of my own body with its aches and tensions, then to a wider body of pain and suffering everywhere. Entering into and then through my body, as if transcending the confines of this “bag of bones” (as the old Chinese masters say), I began to sob. At first tears of relief (self), then compassion (others), then love (universal). It was as if “I” stepped outside my temporal body, seeing all beings, all things, through a wide-angle lense. I know, I know, these read as clichés, but they’re the best I can muster to give you a taste of that extra-ordinary experience.

You can try it for yourself, no special tools required. Lie down in a quiet place, on the floor instead of the bed, get a cushion and blanket, lower the light, no music or cell phone, make yourself comfortable. Close your eyes if it helps. Direct your attention to your body. Go through it layer by layer top to bottom (body scan) if you like, or go directly to a place where you hurt, where there’s pain, discomfort, tension, or even no feeling at all. Take several slow long inhales and exhales and bring oxygen to the part that needs attention. Then listen. If thinking mind jumps in, trying to figure things out (as it will), ask it to be still for a while. Return awareness to your body, again and again. Sense! My caution to you: expect nothing and welcome whatever arises. Your body’s wisdom may surprise you.

source: Merton, T. (1956). Thoughts on solitude. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 27.


2 responses »

  1. Wonderful post! No cliches – just heart-opening experience. “Enter into the vastness, seeing everything through a wide angle lens.” I have experienced this too. It does bring such a sense of peace and relief. Also, I find it helpful to become aware of what is aware – the vastness itself that *sees* all this, and rest in that, which sounds like your experience as well – just feeling each feeling, each heartache, each body sensation from the “Greater Context.”

    Heart Smiles to you ~*~

    • thank you christine. it feels good to meet someone who’s had a similar experience … only to realize that both of our ‘special’ moments are GONE and that we’d create suffering by hankering for more of the same. good why it lasts!


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