I was somewhere in South America, traveling on a bright yellow bus, staring out the window lost in thought. What was I doing all by myself on this bus, on this continent, where I didn’t know anyone for thousands of miles?
I had thought that if I just packed up and ran away from my problems, that it would somehow miraculously cure everything.
Hindsight is crystal clear, and looking back, the flaw in my plan was that I couldn’t run away from myself. Wherever I went, there I was.
So there I was, sitting on this busy, staring out the window, wondering where my plan had gone wrong, when it occurred to me that I was missing out on the beauty that was right outside my window. It was a weird feeling because I was staring at this space, not really seeing it, wanting to see and experience it, and couldn’t seem to gather enough space to actually be there with it.
I would stare out the window and then I’d be lost in my head again, and then I would try to look at the landscape and see it, and then I’d be back in my head again…and again…and again… This went on for hours.
I couldn’t be present for longer than an instant. This worried me on so many levels, but my 22 year old brain was only thinking that this would be a problem due to not knowing if I would ever be back to this same spot again in the middle of nowhere Bolivia. Or wherever I was.
When I returned home from my travels, I tumbled head first into an abusive relationship. It seemed as if I used every last bit of strength to leave him, and I was depressed and depleted unsure of where to turn for a glimmer of hope.
I remembered a conversation I had with a young woman in the foothill town of Machu Picchu. The smell of palo santo’s earthy smoke filled my nostrils as she told me about a ten day silent meditation retreat she had recently attended. She had seemed to me both grounded and free and that was what I wanted for myself.
A few days later I found myself sitting uncomfortably on peacock blue square cushions in a room filled with pictures of strange looking deities, animals with multi eyes surrounding their faces. In this little room I began a formal meditation practice in the Tibetan tradition of Shambhala. I was surprised at not only how difficult it was to focus my attention for longer than a moment, but it also of my very self critical inner dialogue.
The first several years of my formal sitting practice was extremely difficult. From the trauma I have experienced in my life, I would jump at any sound, from the air conditioning clicking to cool us from hot Arizona summer days to a sudden sneeze from the man in the tie dyed shirt behind me. My mind was racing, worrying, and swimming with restless unease. To say it was challenging to sit through this discomfort would be an understatement. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable. On top of my mental state, my legs would fall asleep and go numb time after time, again, and again.
I honestly did not see any direct shift in my life for many years after.
What did happen in those first years was that I showed myself I had faith in believing in something that wasn’t immediate relief, that I could show up and meditate day after day and survive the mental turmoil.
That takes strength, faith, and resilience.
The Sakyong Mipham, leader of the Shambala tradition of meditation, uses a beautiful metaphor to explain the art of training the mind. He explains that training our minds to create space is like tilling the ground of a garden. It requires time and effort to make the ground soft, malleable, and fertile to cultivate a beautiful crop. We cultivate our minds in the same way, creating space to allow our lives to bloom.
Every time I sit on my round, royal purple meditation cushion, every time I become more aware of my thoughts, and every time I painfully show up to train my mind and change my story; I believe that I am cultivating space within, space where I can find my strength, courage, resilience and my place in this wide-open and curious world.