Meditating at the Gym

Here’s my meditation pillow.

IT's been Sat on exactly one time--at the store.

IT's been Sat on exactly one time--at the store.

Here’s how many times I’ve used it:


You can tell because the tags are still on it. I bought it two months ago.

I bought this after two health care professionals and a coach, in the course of a week, staunchly suggested I meditate. For my creativity. For my health. For some low-grade chronic pain.

When things come in threes, I submit.

I have nothing against meditating—in fact, I’m all for it. Some years back, between jobs, I spent a day in a yurt in a meditation class. There was a subsequent month of fruitful meditating and then—kaput. I went back to work and fell off the wagon.

The (no) rules

Here’s my beef with meditating. While there are "no rules,” there are conventions that always get slipped into the “just do it” encouragement. From my yurt class, for example:

Q: “How often do you have to meditate?”
A: “Once is fine! [But twice is better. Try to do it twice.]”

Q: “What’s the best time of day to meditate?”
A: “Any time you can! [But morning is best. Really, try to do it first thing in the morning.]”

Q: “Do you really have to sit up like a plank-backed yogi?”
A: “Oh no, do it any way you want! Sitting, lying down, walking. [But try to sit up to get the most from your practice.]”

Then there’s the sonic wasteland of meditation music. Why must soul-and-body healing music be so . . . airy, so dopey? I would never choose to listen to rain-and-flute sounds or the didgeridoo on my own.

Finally, I get desperate enough and make up my own rules. First of all, the ever-popular morning time doesn't work because I get up at 5 a.m. to swim and I’m not rising one second earlier to do anything. Then, I often forget to meditate during the day, which leaves fitting it in at the last minute: bedtime. Not ideal, but . . . and then . . . Who says your sleeping life is JUST SLEEPING. Mine’s an event! There's the dreaming, the awakenings, tossing and turning, fretting and ruminating. Stuff is happening. A calming procedure is well warranted.

So I start with a series of micro-meditations at bedtime. In bed, next to my husband. I have apps, I have music and timers. My husband has Sudoku. I have my impatience, led by a desire to read. I sit propped against pillows—because I do like the sinking feeling that comes from sitting meditations. I turn on some Moby. Set the timer for five minutes, close my eyes. Wiggle around. I watch a cartoon body with rubbery limbs dance away from me, like it’s both taunting and inviting me. It makes me laugh. The timer goes off, I roll on my side and read my Kindle until I fall asleep. What's most satisfying is checking it off my list.

Then, the gym

I hit gold at the gym. After a brief session of strength exercises I think, what the hell: right here, right now. I sit with my back against the mirror, looking toward the expansive windows facing Eastward. There is the late afternoon light. The Rolling Stones “Exile on Main St.” is blasting. I am fresh off a conversation with a friend about SHAME, and I'm holding a curiosity about where all the sticky remnants of shame might be lingering in my body. I sink into myself. There is the steady breathing of a man on the elliptical. The song “Sweet Black Angel” fills every corner of the room with  Mick's crystal nasal voice. This voice was an important part of my rescue package 20 years earlier; I love and trust this voice.

As I sink and sink into myself and into the idea of shame, I am surrounded by blue. Not a watery blue, but a navy woolen blue. Like the school uniform I wore to Marymount School of Rome in the early 70s.

Enveloped in catholic-school-uniform blue. mysteries abound in mediation land.

Enveloped in catholic-school-uniform blue. mysteries abound in mediation land.

This blue encases me like an embryonic moat. I sink and sink deeper and deeper; I am caught in the embrace of my larger self holding my smaller self, like an old wise loving woman holding an innocent doe-self—transforming shame in an afternoon light cut by blue and rock and roll. The sound of my breathing, the breathing from the elliptical, Keith’s twangy guitar, Mick’s slanted voice singing, “Loving Cup.”  

I walk home thinking of what is possible if I break and break and break the conventions of meditation and make it mine.

During my bedtime micro-meditations I listen to more Rolling Stones, The Who, The Velvet Underground. Songs that take me back to a tempestuous and quietly painful past; to a fun, careless and youthful past. I sink into myself like an omniscient visitor and watch.

Night after night I establish a new ritual. Music, meditation, reading. Some evenings I pick a song that will take me back to a certain time in my life, like a time machine. Other nights I just find a song that sounds good. Sometimes I have a moving, profound experience; most often I don't. 

I look for new ways to break convention. Once, I meditated on a plane. During take off. No music, just a timer. I set it for five minutes. Then another five. I can't even begin to explain how revolutionary this is, for someone who has a history of intense fear of flying, who normally has to have her eyes peeled out the window in order to backseat fly and make sure everything's OK. The convention of me was broken for 10 very long minutes.

Is something important happening here? Or am I in denial, and middle-fingering an ancient practice that deserves more respect--more patience--than I'm offering?

Then: One recent evening I'm applying lotions and potions as I prepare for bed, when my husband asks:

“What are we going to listen to tonight?”

That’s when I know: I’m on to something.