When I first began my meditation practice in 1998, each time I’d sit I’d experience tiny little twitches. My hands, mostly, and my arms, would suddenly and involuntarily pop up out of the stillness of my seat. There were times I thought something might be wrong until I heard Thom Knoles, a master teacher of Vedic meditation, talk about the actual real-time function of the practice.
Stress is a chemical cascade in the body caused by mental or physical demands. Our response to a stressor is often determined by bundles of thoughts that have been repeated over time. These thoughts point to inner suffering related to doubt, fear, and anger. Each thought creates a particular chemistry in our system, and when our mind gets accustomed to thoughts such as those, we begin to develop “stress chemistry,” which feels like nervousness, anxiety, haste, doubt, and fear. As our bodies acclimate to this chemistry, we’re more likely to become nervous and anxious more readily and frequently.
The good news is that each time we sit, we let the body land in a space of healing, wherein our cells are freed up to release long-stored, maladaptive habits. This is the essential function of meditation. After several months of self-observation, I learned that my tiny twitches were actually indicative of the moments in my life when I felt the need to hurt myself—literally to hit myself in a sad attempt to garner more attention and love. The sad, desperate habit is being released from my cells as I practice; now I’m able to sense the sweet luxury of stillness. From time to time a little mild twitch appears, and I now know that it’s a necessary part of releasing that, which needs to go.
In the same way that we build up habitual anxiety and stress, we accrue time in the space of calm when we sit, and that calm becomes increasingly familiar and likely. I’ve spent too much time frustrated and short-tempered—whether internally or overtly—and I’ve wasted valuable energy on these negating behaviors. I’ve always wanted to know how long this process of transformation takes, so when I sat with Thom Knoles recently, I asked him with some impatience, for a timeline.
“Thom, when am I going to finally really be done done done with getting angry at myself and my son? I sit, I am mostly calm, but still these bursts come. I’m ashamed, I’m apologetic, and I’m ready to pave a new path inside my mind. How long will this take?”
He chuckled and sparkled as he always does when he responds to questions such as these. There I am, feeling silly, knowing that I’m rushing myself through my own evolutionary process. But his subsequent response changed how I see all of it, and helped me take a good deal of pressure off myself.
He told me that my stress reactions are not the issue.
“Elena, the question you’ll want to ask yourself is, ‘How long do I want to stay in this reactivity?’ If you find that you’re reacting beyond the relevance of the circumstance, that’s an issue.”
And so, if I find myself continuing to belabor these reactions for the better part of an hour or a day, then I’m really doing damage. He went on to talk about how even though everyone perceives him as very relaxed and easeful, he too has all kinds of little bursts inside. The question he asks himself is the same as the one we must ask ourselves: “How long do I want to hold onto this?”
This inquiry reveals that my evolution depends on how fast I can turn things around in my mind and get back to a relevant response. It’s not about how bad I am for going back to that negating habit in the first place. Feeling bad never helps.
Here’s the gold of this teaching: The act of meditation is to offer the mind something that’s more charming than the usual train of thought, and give it a new direction. Steer the mind away from irrelevant thoughts and habits in order to turn it towards a more relevant, adaptable way of being.
This week, the few times I noticed myself going into that tight, impatient, irrelevant space, I called upon my memory of an earlier meditation to connect with that far-more-charming space inside. I was able to turn several moments of stress into calm responses. To evolve is to expand in the direction of elegance, and meditation gives us time each day in that space, so that calm fluidity becomes the new habit.
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Photos by Pete Longworth