For most of my life my father woke up every day between 4 and 5 am to meditate for a minimum of one hour. When I learned this, it began to make more sense why he usually went to bed at 8 pm when I was still finishing dinner. As a kid it struck me as odd that he would intentionally rise that early just to sit in the dark, but then again, the habits of artists are often a bit curious so I didn’t think too much of it. Needless to say, I also didn’t set my alarm clock to join him.
I remember later, being in my early 20’s and still living at home with my parents, and coming home really late from a night out with friends and often running into him, both awake in the pre-dawn hours for vastly different reasons. He’d be just rising, fully rested from a night’s sleep, and preparing to begin his day and I’d be stumbling in, longing to start my slumber, and feeling slightly ashamed of my debauchery in comparison to his discipline. He might occasionally have acknowledged the hour with a raised eyebrow, but there was never scolding or judgment. I’d say “Good morning Daddy,” and he’d say “Good night Cookie” (he was a fan of pet names) and that would be that. I’d climb the stairs to bed and fall asleep feeling sort of comforted knowing that he was sitting downstairs, silent but alert.
Fast-forward a few years to a time in my life when all I did was work and those around me saw my ever-increasing stress levels with great concern. Constant headaches, poor sleep, anxiety issues, weight gain – I was not well. I forget how many times during those years my dad asked me if I was meditating, but my answer was always “No”. I said I didn’t have time, there was too much chaos in my head, and that I didn’t know how – common excuses to avoid this practice, I now know. He would smile wryly, insist that there was no right way to do it, and urge me yet again to give it a shot. Looking back now, I want to shake myself for being so stubborn.
Eventually I couldn’t deny the physical toll that my stress was taking on me, and so I gave in, willing to try just about anything that might relieve the pressure in my head that nearly every day felt like it could burst my skull. He sent me home one night with a stack of books and I remember feeling surprised that he had a small library on the subject that I had never noticed.
I started with the short ones. I blew through a few weak beginner’s guides unimpressed, but one little tattered book struck me: “How To Meditate”, by Lawrence LeShan. Now I had no idea who Lawrence LeShan was and in fact I still don’t really come across his name while studying meditation, Buddhism or yoga. Of course that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a worthy authority on the subject; I just mean that in turning to his advice I wasn’t hopping on a spiritual celebrity band-wagon (at least as far as I knew). As it turns out, that little book, published in 1974 was one of the first books on the subject of teaching meditation to become a best-seller, albeit before my time. In hindsight that makes some sense, if only because the copy I had (and still do) was so yellowed and crumbling that it must’ve been a first edition.
Perhaps it spoke to me because Dr. Leshan’s background in psychology made his perspective on meditation based more in cognitive science and psychotherapy than spirituality, an area of life I had little personal experience with at the time. Regardless, I found (and still do find) the book easily readable, accessible, and more importantly full of useful tips on how to go about the seemingly impossible task of quieting our overactive brains.
However, the book’s sound logic did nothing to change that my job was so demanding that I had almost no time to take a quiet seat and channel anything but unread emails. So I began to practice during the only time in my day when I was unreachable by technology: my morning commute on the NYC subway.
Now tolerating 50 minutes every morning on a crowded train car during rush hour would be a serious exercise in patience for even the Dalai Lama. I was jumping into the deep end here. But I began to close my eyes, tried shut out the crowds, and literally count my breaths. I can’t say I held my focus for long and I certainly didn’t find enlightenment in those tunnels, but to my surprise I did witness the undeniable effects of a little controlled breathing and focused attention. And after a week or so of daily attempts, I was sold. This was one of those instances where I had to admit, my father knew best.
In the years since, life has changed immeasurably and my meditation practice has ebbed and flowed. There are times when I’ve gone months without sitting and times when I’ve sat daily, sometimes twice a day even. For a while I worked my way up to sitting for more than an hour at a time, and then many times even after that when sitting for just a few minutes felt like a struggle. It’s called a practice for a reason. I try to remind myself of how much it helps to quiet my mind and instill a sense of calm in me, but every time I sit the impatient voices of habit shout that they would prefer more tantalizing stimulation. I’ve learned that it’s not a personal failing: it’s the nature of the human mind.
My dad passed away almost 2 years ago in 2011, and I do regret not adopting the practice he loved so much sooner. I like to think we would have had long conversations about meditation techniques, our personal struggles with perseverance and focus, and many a philosophical musing. But I’m grateful for what I did have – a father who was patient enough with my stubbornness to keep pushing me to try to do what the mind does not naturally want to. We may not have had so much time to walk the path together, but he showed me the beginning and propelled me on my way. His body might be gone from this world now, but every time I sit he is there, with the hand of his soul on the shoulder of mine. Through meditation we can still share some peace, be it 10 minutes worth or eternity.