I remember the very first time I ever experienced bodywork. I was lying on a massage table with the silent practitioner very gently, very slowly, pressing her hands on my back and shoulders. After about ten minutes, I wanted to sit up and scream or shout. The silence and stillness were freaking me out – I couldn’t bear even ten minutes without constant, strong stimulation. It felt as if the world had vanished without a trace, leaving me stranded in nothingness. No stimulation equaled no Susan!
I hadn’t realized until that moment how dependent I was upon the continual bombardment of stimuli from outside myself to feel my own existence. Silence, stillness, emptiness was more frightening to me than death – because I lost all sense of myself while still being conscious. I only knew who I was by my reactions and responses to what was impacting me from others and from the world around me. Without those inputs, my mind started racing frantically from one thought to another, trying to create enough inner noise to overcome the outer quiet so I could still feel as if I existed – and had something going on other than an inner and outer void in which my Susan self seemed to disappear.
Obviously, I had not yet experienced real meditation. The practice of meditation is to allow ALL the noise – both external and internal – to fade from awareness, in favor of that same silence, stillness and emptiness that had so frightened me at first. I couldn’t sit still either – my body was helping me stay stimulated, stay in my familiar experience of self. Now I cherish that stillness, that inner emptiness. It is where I go to re-member myself, my true being. It refreshes me to be free of all the stimuli of sensation, emotion and thought for even
a brief period of time. Now I avoid strong stimulation as much as possible, as it pulls me into reactivity – like a pin ball in a pinball machine – and out of serenity and peace. I no longer want to be bombarded with either pleasure or pain or just ordinary noise without frequent retreats into that nourishing silence.
So, to answer your question, I would first ask you to reflect on what happens for you when you find yourself in a situation where all about you is silent, dark, still, empty. Does it make you uneasy, uncomfortable, scared? There really is nothing to be afraid of in the emptiness, but we don’t know that until we learn how to experience it a few moments at a time. Then it is possible to realize that even though “nothing is happening,” you are still here – here, aware, awake and perfectly okay. In fact, better than okay. You are at peace, in a state of deep rest that will renew and restore you by freeing you from the need to respond or react.
Secondly, I suggest that you learn a practice that will help you to shift your conscious awareness from thoughts and emotions into bodily awareness, as a first step. Our conscious awareness is like a spotlight – where it is aimed is what we perceive. If we aim our awareness at our thoughts, they magnify and fill our immediate experience. If we aim our awareness at external noises, they fill our inner world. If we aim our awareness at intense emotions, they take over our whole being for the moment. The same with physical pain or pleasure.
A common beginner’s meditation is to focus that spotlight of awareness on your breath. Pay very, very close attention to the breath as it moves in and out of your body. Notice how it feels passing through your nostrils, into your lungs. Notice how your body feels the sensation of your lungs expanding, your belly opening, and then the reverse sensations as you breathe out. Your mind will wander a thousand times, but your breath is always with you so it is easy to come back and re-focus.
When you can stay with your breath for several minutes, another technique for minimizing awareness of thoughts, emotions and sensations is to repeat a “mantra” or saying on each in-breath and out-breath. It helps to keep your focus unwavering. One that I have often used is “All is calm, all is bright.” I breathe in while repeating silently to myself, “All is calm” – and then breathe out while repeating silently to myself, “All is bright.” Or you can pick any phrase that helps you to stay centered – or even just count to five while breathing in, and then to five while breathing out. It also helps enormously to meditate with a group of people at first – the “field effect” of everyone meditating together makes it so much easier to learn what this new
state is for you, and how to access it.
Ten or fifteen minutes a day of doing this practice will begin to transform your whole experience of both self and the world around you as you break free of the habit of constant stimulation.
When you can kick that habit, true freedom is yours. As I heard one teacher from India remark:
“Meditate, meditate, meditate. Then all the rest is just entertainment!”