Sitting in the Dark

I was 19 when I took my first yoga class. It was long before yoga pants or even the ubiquitous yoga mat. Class met on the dusty floors of the student center. Over the years my instructors were a cast of interesting characters: Xavier, who dressed in white and worked in the library shelving books; Mr. Desai, a buttery-skinned Indian man who sold copies of a home-made book of his entire family—including his doe-eyed son—practicing asanas; Abigail, an ancient woman who sat in a metal folding chair while her lithe senior student demonstrated; Shannon, who led flocks of pregnant women over the threshold of motherhood with yoga; Angela, an Italian former-waitress from Philly who greeted each new year by opening the first chakra; and now Keith, a bald writer who bellows Tibetan chants like a monk before leading us through a flow to blaring Stevie Ray Vaughn. Through the years, yoga has been one part of my life where I’m not competitive and generally care little about “how I’m doing.” I am still a little afraid of all the upside-down poses and at 44 I know any advances I might make will soon be stolen back by time. Yet until recently I rarely considered the ultimate goal of practicing asanas, the careful postures that open the heart and hips, which is to prepare to sit in mindful meditation. That part gets lots in the shuffle of Westernized yoga—and like most people, I didn’t miss it.

Then I turned 40. Overwhelmed by to-do lists, it occurred to me that meditation might be a good thing. My friend Carolyn did it and so did Oprah. I got up early one summer day and sat on the floor on a pillow from the couch, facing the window where the sun was starting to show itself. I set my wrist watch for five minutes. When you are waiting to find out if it’s cancer, when your cell phone won’t connect, when you’re running late and the light turns red, and when you are sitting on the floor while everyone else in your house sleeps—five minutes is a damn long time. 

At Christmas Jim got me my own Buddha head, a carved stone head about the right size for a toddler, with long wise earlobes and a funny hair-do of little circles culminating in a bun on top. But the best part of my Buddha is his smile, a Mona Lisa grin that is just about to break into chuckles. Sometimes I wonder where the rest of his body is, if he ever had one—lost in a rock heap in China?—but he doesn’t seem to miss it. I am grateful for the Chinese craftsman who carved it about the same time my great-grandfather arrived in Iowa from Sweden.

Then before I meditated I started reading a little section from a yoga book. Later, I changed my alarm to wake up fifteen minutes earlier so I could fix green tea and sit for ten minutes. I sometimes actually looked forward to sitting in silence.

I’d love to say about Nirvana, “been there, done that” but apparently it’s like Paris—there’s always something new to discover and unlike Paris, I’ve never visited. Since I first sat on my couch pillow nearly five years ago, I have missed entire months due to home renovation, a hurricane, sleep-deprivation, and apathetic absence. Yet, somehow the desire to sit half-asleep in the dark beckons me again. When we added on to our bedroom we created a little hallway that ends in a window. There I set up an altar, a table with a shelf to hold various books—a Lutheran hymnal, the I-Ching, Be Here Now, and my unread copy of How to Solve Our Human Problems. The Buddha head reigns over a tiny vase of whatever flowers I can find (lavender rosemary buds right now), a small fat Chinese Buddha, a two-sided Peruvian virgin (which my son believes has a “winter” side and “summer” side and arranges according to fickle Texas weather), and other tiny meaningful or beautiful objects.

Now I rise in the dark, arrange the comfy zafu pillow Jim got me for Christmas this year, and sit before the altar. First, I dedicate my little practice to someone—a grandmother from New Orleans I met through my job, someone I know of who is sick, or maybe just everyone who’s up too early and wishing they were in bed. Then I chant a prayer about how things always are changing and loss is part of living. Then for fifteen minutes I just sit there. Sometimes I use the time to tour my body—observing the hairy ball of anxiety in my gut, the ache in my right hip, the tension in my left big toe. Sometimes my mind races all about, like my 10 year-old son and his buddies wielding bamboo swords in the backyard. Yippeeeeeeeeeeee! Sometimes my inner self is very kind to sit in the canoe of my body with me. Sometimes I have to fish it out of the lake repeatedly.

The fog of my life’s exertion slowly evaporates from my view when I meditate. Sometimes when I meditate I feel certifiably insane, devoured by anger, bombarded by thoughts, swelling with self-contempt—and then just before I think my head will explode and wake everyone my little watch alarm goes off. Whew! I survived sitting still again!

Sometimes I quit. Life demands my attention, sleep holds me under, or I simply throw in the towel.  But after a week or so of not meditating I notice something. When I’m not sitting on my little black pillow, I am not a very nice person. Heading out into the world, I feel like a Camel-puffing, 64-ounce Coca-Cola drinking Humvee driver blaring AC/DC. I’m on the Highway to Hell and you, motherf*cker are in my way! I catch myself laughing at my own bad-ass self.  

I wish I could explain what meditation does. Supposedly it massages my frontal lobe. But I’d like to think it’s more than just sit-ups for my brain. Dabbling in the open space between “doing things,” I let go of the past and future, memory and desire, interpretation and the illusion of control. The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron explains that staying present with yourself and self-acceptance are what makes meditation transformative. Eventually, our compassion blooms large enough to blanket the world.

I used to think I was a person with too much energy to meditate. I thought maybe I should walk instead. But then a Zen priest named Peg explained that meditating was really just sitting there. I thought: well, I can do that. So I sit each morning, until it’s time to open my eyes. Then I bow to my witty Buddha and go to wake my family.
Robin Bradford is an award-winning short story writer and essayist. She has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, Boston Review and many other places, picking up an O. Henry Prize along the way. Find her in recent anthologies -- It's a Boy! Women Writers on Raising Sons, Mother Knows: 24
Tales of Motherhood
, and Grrl Talk: Sass, Wit and Wisdom. Bradford works as development director at Foundation Communities, a nonprofit affordable housing provider for families and homeless individuals. Being a mother, wife, breadwinner, and writer are her Buddhist practice. Visit her at www.robinbradfordwriter.com