By Vincent Corvino
When I was a child, the Eagle’s lyric, “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy,” stuck with me moments after I first heard the song, “Take it Easy,” on the radio and continues to emerge in my thinking from time to time. Though I was very young, I understood the message behind the metaphor: don’t let your thoughts burden and control you or stir up unnecessary energy-draining emotions. I’ve always had an active mind. It’s been a great tool when positively applied and a horrible torture device when permitted too much freedom. This is when it starts to fabricate and nurture anxiety-producing scenarios and dark and depressing ideas about the state of the world and my place in it.
Within this circus of unmitigated thought, creativity does often flourish, and one could argue that this is part of the reason so many great artists live tortured existences as a consequence of their particular brands of brilliance. But most of us aren’t Van Gogh, Hemingway, or Kurt Colbain and won’t profit from allowing our personal demons to parade around unchaperoned. Most of us need to unclutter our thought lives if we’re going to efficiently, peacefully, and successfully travel along this journey called life. If you generally feel that you are not at peace and/or too often resort to unhealthy ways of turning off your brain, you might want to add meditation practice to your list of New Year’s resolutions for this coming year.
I first turned to meditation at a significantly stressful time in my life. I was an undergrad funding my entire college education. I held two and sometimes three jobs while carrying a full course load at Purchase College, a challenging and reputable New York State university. I wore Salvation Army clothes, drove an unreliable $500 Chevy Chevette, and often skipped meals to pay for books. In addition, I possessed an aggressive and demanding type A personality that wouldn’t settle for average grades and doggedly pursued accolades: Dean’s List status and academic awards.
For a while, the pace I kept excited me, but then it began to overwhelm and wear me down. Ultimately, I developed a prolonged-stress induced generalized anxiety disorder. Luckily, I’ve always been a survivor who is inclined to actively respond to personal problems. I knew I had to change my mental and emotional state. I was miserable and completely exhausted.
At first, I conducted my own research on meditation practice and dedicated twenty minutes each morning to sitting rigidly and trying to concentrate on nothing but my breath. This was nearly impossible to do, but the attempt to control and/or silence my thinking taught me how to observe my thoughts and not allow them to constantly manipulate my emotions and perspective.
The positive results of regular meditation were so apparent that I eventually deepened my practice by formally joining a Zendo. When one joins a Zendo, he must regularly meet one-on-one with the teacher or Roshi. During these sessions, the Roshi assesses where the student is at in his or her spiritual progress and responds in a manner designed to help the student along.
At one of my early interviews with Roshi Rich Hart, he gave me a koan (a Zen riddle) to solve. “How can you be a sailboat without the wind?” he asked. Week after week, I entered my sessions with him thinking I had the answer. I would explain it one way, then another, and he’d just laugh derisively and send me away.
Finally, I sat in front of him and said nothing. He asked me to remind him of the koan that I’d been working with, then awaited my response. I asked him to push me over. Rich Hart is a former Marine. I was seated in lotus position, and he thrust his palm into my chest, and I fell backwards then straightened up and resumed my former position. I next asked him to push me over to my right then to my left. Each time, I simply returned to my initial upright position and offered no explanation. “Good work,” he said. There was no such thing as a functioning sailboat without wind. But there was such a thing as a sailboat that was unconcerned with the wind or that used the wind to perfect its course. There was also such thing as a human being who could keep centered and moving forward while life knocked him around a bit.
Meditation is an excellent non-toxic antidote for stress. The goal is to keep the mind on the present moment so that one can navigate his or her life without being blown off course by peripheral stressors or personal neuroses. There are many meditation techniques that one can find online, learn, and practice.
I’ve learned that formal meditation practice is useless unless it seeps into a person’s entire day and night. This being true, one can meditate at any time and in any place. Simply focus on the moment. When I don’t have time to formally meditate alone in a room and on a cushion, I meditate in motion. I might do my morning cardio without listening to music or watching TV. I might commute to work with the radio off. I might do the dishes and deliberately concentrate on nothing but that chore.
In the New Year, give your stressed-out self the present of presence by making time to meditate. It will improve your mind, body, and your relationship with your most challenging circumstances.
Meditation has improved my life in the following ways:
Managing emotions: When I meditate, thoughts and feelings arise just as they do throughout a normal active day. When meditating, I’m able to observe thoughts and feelings without any distractions or desires to alter or dismiss them for the benefit of others. As a result, I can clearly see the irrational nature of so many emotion-provoking habitual thoughts and no longer be swayed or negatively aroused by them.
Patience: I’m naturally an impetuous and short-fused person. Meditation forces one to focus on the moment for long periods of time. Meditation hones one’s ability to just exist in the moment without needing to do something else or be somewhere else. As a result, I’ve found that I do just about everything a lot better than I did when I’d been constantly distracted.
Compassion: I’ve participated in several day-long meditation sessions, and there’s always been a point at which I’ve felt any bitterness toward others dissolve. This is probably due to Zen’s emphasis on shedding one’s attachment to things, particularly desires. Bitterness is a form of desire; a desire to change a past circumstance or to see someone else hurt for having hurt you.
Increased Energy: Emotional roller coasters are exhausting. Avoiding them leaves one with a lot more energy for things that actually matter.
Meditation for beginners:
1. Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
2. Start with 10 minute periods and work your way up to 20 or 25 minute periods.
3. You can sit on a pillow or a meditation cushion (a zafu), or you can sit in a chair, so long as your back and neck are straight. You want to be reasonably comfortable but also alert. Meditation is not sleep.
4. Simply focus on your breath. Count each inhalation and exhalation. Count ten of them, then return to the number one. Whenever you have lost focus, and your mind starts to wander, return to the number one and begin counting again. Your inability to repeatedly get to 10 without losing focus is not a sign of failure; it’s part of the practice. There is no goal in meditation. The goal is the activity itself — the practice of handling and dissolving your thoughts and emotions and returning to the present moment.
About the Author:
Vincent Corvino’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, among them The Quarterly, New Letters, The Crescent Review and The Blue Moon Review. He is currently the lead singer of the New York City hard rock band, Urbansnake. He is a former student of Zen Buddhist Roshi, Rich Hart, and has trained as a boxer under former WBO Middleweight Champion, Doug Dewitt. He possesses an MA in Education from Columbia University and a Post-Graduate Certificate in School Leadership. He has been an English teacher since 1996.