Eight years ago, I began doing pilates on the reformer in a small group class. During the first year, I mostly imitated what I saw the other, more experienced bodies doing. As we were lying on the reformer, feet in straps, legs raised overhead, balancing on our upper backs in the jackknife position, our instructor said, “This works the obliques, transverse abdominals, shoulder girdle stabilizers, and hip extensors. Are you getting that?” The others in the class would subtly nod or verbalize their agreement; some felt it more in the abs while others zeroed in on the lower body. I didn’t feel anything; I was just happy to not fall over or slingshot myself into the next room.
By going to class each week and listening to the same instruction over and over again, gradually I began to make the connection between the exercises and the parts of the body doing the work. Eventually, in the jackknife, I could gently press down with extended arms and intensify the abdominal work to increase my stability. In time, my movements became more intentional, efficient, and smooth. I learned where my limitations were and where I could go deeper into an exercise.
Likewise, I began meditation by imitating what I saw others do. I sat quietly with crossed legs (tight hips be damned!), straight back, and chin slightly tucked. I resolved to focus on the breath even though my mind slipped sideways from thought to thought. If I let myself get carried away on a particular line of thought, I maintained the outward appearance of meditation, hoping that the rest would follow.
Chogyam Trungpa wrote, “On the whole, the practice of meditation is a sloppy job. You have to accept that you have been a fool and start with being foolish. In the beginning, deciding to try the practice of meditation is just leaping to some conclusion about what to do. In doing the practice at the beginning, rather than really meditating, you just imagine that you are meditating. So to begin with, the whole practice is based on confusion. And confusion is accepted as part of the path. Since the situation is very loose and unorganized, it is as though you are leaping into unknown territory. A lot of people find that very frightening. You are not quite sure what you are involved with. But that is the only way to get into the practice.”
With continued practice, I’ve strengthened my literal and figurative meditation muscles. I am still at the beginning of this learning curve (and sense I will be here for a long, long time). But I’m learning that it is how I handle the thoughts, not the volume or quality of thoughts, that determines the merit of my practice.