Trapped in the Head and the Doorway to Freedom

When I was 21, I discovered Buddhism and vipassana meditation. I was often anxious and worried, so it wasn’t about seeking enlightenment; it was about finding a way to actually enjoy being a person. In learning how to compassionately witness my over-stimulated nervous system, I didn’t change who I was as much as I became much better at being with myself no matter what was going on inside. 

In the fall of 2000, I traveled to Thailand and Nepal because I wanted to dive deeper into meditation practice closer to its source. I spent 9 days of my first 10 day silent retreat in complete resistance. I wanted to get out of there so badly. I loved the silence. I could have happily lived in silent community for months. But everything hurt. My body loves to move, and sitting still in the half-lotus position was killing me. My mind was also obsessing like crazy. All I could think about was (1) my pain (2) how I could possibly escape early and (3) why coming here was my worst idea ever. These thoughts led, of course, to many other miserable thoughts of past mistakes and future worries. I continued trapped in this mental prison for 9 days without distractions, as we alternated sitting and very slowly walking from 4am to 10pm every day. 

On the 9th day, the teachers announced that we would only be having one meal instead of our usual two. It would be a 24-hour fast, and it would give us more time for sitting. Pushed to the limit, I finally landed at the bottom of all that fierce resistance. What I discovered there was absolute, pure joy. I had fought a losing battle through every dark feeling there was to feel, and when I finally gave up the fight, all that was left was bliss. All the more so because nothing on the outside had actually changed. I still had to sit in this uncomfortable position for 18 hours on and off all day. But I was happy anyway. This was freedom.

Anxiety, worry, and overwhelm can be a doorway, as can all the things we struggle with. When we’re stressed out enough, we are often more open to trying new things. Meditation is, of course, only one of many tools that help. I am profoundly grateful to have been exposed to so many wonderful teachers and practices over the years. I love to share them because I know they’ve helped me. 

These times are full of struggle, and that is why they are also ripe for awakening. Have you experienced your own suffering as a doorway to freedom? What’s helped you? I don’t believe everyone needs to learn how to sit still for hours. That’s not the point. The point is to be willing to experience everything that this human life has to offer. To stay with it all, as it comes. To surrender, one little moment at a time.

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