Comparative Misery and a Born-Again Buddhist

Stacey Ashlund

I have experienced what Slate’s Tim Wu calls That Misery Called Meditation.

So much in the press these days claims we should all start meditating, and it has such a positive profound effect. It’s inexpensive, anyone can do it anywhere, and it’s the antidote to our busy stressed-out overly-technical lives. But some of us don’t have time, and most of just don’t want to sit and do nothing — it sounds stupid and boring. We have more interesting things to do with our time.

I like Wu’s article because it reads like a male chapter out of Eat Pray Love. Any implications I’d heard or imagined about that self-indulgent woman being a fluffy time-waster who thinks too much, talks too much, and writes too much — as in, “Why doesn’t she settle down and get a real life with a house, a job, a car, etc?,” is rounded out by the fact that this article is written by a man. It’s nice to see that they can be just as useless as we can, for a change.

When the article starts, my judgmental voice rears up again, just as it did for the female author — why does Wu have the luxury of so much time to sit and meditate, and complain about such an easy lot in life as “sitting”? He could be working his hands literally to the bone in a factory, on a farm, fixing cars — something useful to his family and society. And so I conclude that meditation is a hobby for the rich and idle — people who are independently wealthy, who don’t have to work, they have no responsibilities — just free open-ended time to think. What a waste! (That’s my Protestant work ethic speaking, I get it from my dad’s side.)

But I know from where he speaks. I’ve felt that misery of meditation. I’ve seen those meditating zombies, walking slowly and dragging their feet, and thought the same thing about them, about us. And I didn’t get there because I wanted to write about it. And I didn’t get there because I had the luxury of time. Well, yes — I certainly did have some luxury that enabled me to take mindfulness classes that concluded with a full-day retreat. I didn’t have an hourly job, living paycheck to paycheck — so I admit, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to pursue meditation. But it was pain that brought me there — not boredom or a search for an article. And not so much physical pain, though my migraines certainly qualify. My pain was internal, ethereal — not “real” or tangible to anyone except me.

The pain is in my heart: my child is deaf, going blind, and is autistic. I can’t even say or type those words without the lump forming in my throat and threatening to steal my voice away again. Or send me running to the bathroom to lose my lunch. I practice saying them — out loud to as many people as I can, without crying, without explaining or justifying (I haven’t achieved that yet) so I can get used to them — so I can adjust. So I can accept it, accept him for who he is, and not keep wishing he’d be different, better, and that his problems would go away and give him a chance to be “normal,” better than normal.

So instead I always try to qualify it — he’s deaf, but he has cochlear implants so he can hear, speak, read, play piano, go to regular school and do regular academics. He doesn’t need sign language. I try to defend him, lest, god forbid, I admit he’s disabled. 

He’s going blind, but he’s not blind yet, I say. He’s lost most of his peripheral vision due to Usher syndrome, but you’d never know it — he rides a bike, ice skates, swims. We don’t know when he’ll become legally blind, but we know it will happen. This is the part that brings tears to peoples’ eyes, which I can’t handle, so I tend to say it fast and look away so I don’t have to see their reaction, which would make us both cry and scream about how unfair it is. He’s already lost so much of his peripheral vision that he can’t see things just to the side of him. He trips on things on the ground because they are also out of his vision range. He will never be able to learn to drive, never have that freedom. 

He’s autistic, but high functioning — very smart, incredible memory, fast learner, no noticeable stims — I defend again. Just a little spacey. He doesn’t look at you, but he listens and hears, and remembers. I try to couch it in my description so that he doesn’t come across as really disabled. My true fear. My reality.

The reality of it, being a parent of a child with special needs, multiple disabilities, hurts severely. I love him to the depths of my being. But I worry about him so much, I’m so scared, so terrified some times I literally cannot function. Can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t stop crying. The list of things that needs to be worried about runs endlessly through my head — Will he be okay today while I’m meditating? Tomorrow at school? Next year? At his next school? Over the summer at camp? Who will keep him safe from the taunts of bullies? I heard those voices only once — in a changing tent at the swimming pool, while I waited outside for my son to change. “Hey — can you hear me?” the other boys called to him. “Ha ha! He can’t hear me! Hey — are you, deaf? He’s deaf!” and so on. Once the changing was complete, the boys exited, and I let them know that I overheard them and asked them not to do that again. They seemed more surprised that they’d been caught than remorseful that they done it in the first place. That’ll cause a migraine. That’ll make me cry for days. And worry about what’s being said about my son, to my son, when I’m out of earshot next time.

And so I sat in misery and tried to meditate for a whole day. First I took an eight week class on the subject of meditation. And then another six week class geared towards parents. The misery was in my body, in my mind, and in my heart. In addition, I meditated at home alone, listing to Jon Kabat-Zinn on my iPhone. When I couldn’t stand that (45 minutes is an awful long time for a beginner) I listened to Amy Saltzman, who taught the mindfulness for parents class. She has a fifteen minute version — which is more palatable to me as a busy mother, but also more tolerable for my starting point of having my stress level so high. 

I started by practicing five minutes. Gradually worked up to ten, then the whole fifteen. Occasionally even her 30 minute meditation. Did I do it right? No, of course not. I laid on my bed, instead of on a mat on the floor or sat on a cushion or chair. I fell asleep more often than not. I learned to not judge myself — if sleep was what I needed, then I got that, and it was good. Occasionally I stayed awake and actually calmed my mind — with no side effects, which I consider a near miracle.

Even the beginner “body scan” mediation was pure misery for me at first — the most misery-inducing I’d say. This is the one where the voice gradually tells you to relax each part of your body, starting with your toes, and working up, until all the tension is released. My version of that misery meant that the tension left my toes, and moved up to the next body part. When it left my legs, the compounded tension from feet and legs then entrenched itself in my stomach. Leaving the stomach, the ever-growing pile of stress took ahold of my shoulders. Until finally, it escalated to my head — but instead of feeling relaxed, I’d given myself a full-force migraine headache — with all the tension from the rest of my body now compressed into my too-small brain — feeling like it was ready to explode, and that if it did, it would be a relief. For at least a year of practice, I never got to complete the body scan meditation all the way to the top of my head. I either fell asleep, or went running for the ibuprofen. Not a successful meditator, by a long shot.

Then I got to the loving-kindness portion of Amy Saltzman’s CD, and it blew me away. No, I still couldn’t meditate effectively while listening to it, but I realized things I’d never realized before. I gave it to a friend and she cried for the whole session. I gave it to my sister, who couldn’t make it past five minutes before she had to stop. It’s incredible, and everyone should experience it, but it only makes sense in context of the rest of the mindfulness meditation program.

I also had moments where I felt that joy of loving kindness, like Wu as he moves beyond the misery — but mostly I’m still stuck at Phase Two, in which I turned the harsh process of meditating into one that distracted me with my good memories instead of being present with my painful reality. When I experience that joy, I embrace it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to Phase Three — to move beyond the pain, past the distraction, and into enlightenment, even for a short time, as the author did. I still struggle to conjure up good memories to get me through the pain. That’s hard enough for me right now. So I’m staying there for as long as it takes.

I’m glad Wu wrote the article. I’m glad he showed the dark side of meditation, instead of making readers feel guilty because they’re not so highly evolved as to enjoy and engage in it regularly. I’m glad he admits that it’s a miserable experience. The terror that fills me when I think about how my son’s future may evolve is painful

Even if meditation is miserable some times, it has taught me to realize and embrace good times. It has helped me realize what I can endure. Distraction was good for me — parents can over-focus on their child, as I had, and I needed to rise above it, beyond it. I needed a dose of comparative misery. Worried about your child’s life? Try doing nothing! Thinking nothing! Moving nothing! Ha – how’s that misery for ya?! 

Early intervention and intensive therapy saved my child, advocating for his IEP services, fundraising for cures, researching treatments, networking with other parents — all this “doing” gave my son all the abilities he has right now. Inaction would be the death of me, so I have to keep trying to feel the feeling of stopping trying, so that when I resume going again, I can notice the difference. I can pace myself. Maintain some balance, and not burn out. Or explode.

When I come out of my meditative state, misery, distraction and all, I am sometimes a little less terrified. I’m able to relax, hug my son, listen to him, look at him, engage with him. And that is worth all the misery in the world. I’d take that trade any time.

So I’m a meditation convert — a born-again Buddhist, in a way. And, like Wu, I want people to know that meditation can be miserable, can cause suffering, but also that it can free us from our suffering, help us realize the joys we already have. It can free us by making us realize we have a choice in how we view the misery we’re stuck in. We don’t have to panic. We don’t have to let our migraines continue. We have a choice. We can sit. And do nothing. And that is truly something.