A friend recently shared a story of overhearing a woman talking about the evils of this world. My friend made the assumption that she was talking about all of the senseless violence and unrest, when the woman added, “I don’t mess with that Tai Chi or yoga because you just don’t know what you’re opening yourself up to there.”

My friend had a little chuckle over that and teased that the woman had fortunately not lumped me and my meditation into the dangers of this world.

We felt certain that she would have if she’d thought of it.

Obviously I would strongly make the case that yoga and Tai Chi (both forms of meditation) and meditation are not contributing to the chaos and violence of the world, but are instead offering a path out. But in all honesty, I agree with her part of her assumption.

When I ask, “What do you hope to gain from this meditation class,” people often answer that they want to learn to relax. Certainly pulling away from the external noise and demands as you turn your attention to the rhythm of your breathing can calm the spirit. Focusing on the breath, specifically on the deep exhalation, turns off the sympathetic nervous system (think fight of flight) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (our body’s system for calming).

But this is only the first part of meditation…the prep work.

Picture yourself in a pretty strong, fast moving river. In this picture, you are not in a boat. Your body is actually in the river. You are not flowing or swimming along downstream: you are swimming pretty strenuously upstream. Not only is the water moving swiftly, but there are lots of things in the water. Maybe these things are other people, or trash and debris. Maybe there are animals; snakes, fish, turtles, bugs, birds, beavers in the water. Maybe there’s an occasional log you can crawl onto and float for a minute before you swim upstream again. Whatever is in your water, there’s a whole lot of it. Sometimes there so much of it that you can’t even see the water, just the massive amount of stuff that is rushing by you non-stop.

Now, imagine that you make your way over to a bank. You arduously pull yourself up onto the bank and crawl over to a place where you can sit and calm.

Now imagine that after you sit for a minute or two, or ten, your heart rate begins to slow. Your body and mind begin to calm and eventually you begin to notice your surroundings. Slowly you begin to watch the river flow by.

It’s a little easier to see what’s in the river from this vantage point on the bank. As you sit and watch, the river slows a little. Eventually fewer things flow by and there is more space between the debris; space with nothing flowing by but water. Now that things are slowing a bit you can better see and sort out the things in your river. Now you can really start to understand what types of things float around in your stream.

You notice that some of these things just pass by without much thought from you. Other things, however, catch your attention a little more and you watch them more closely as they flow by.

The further away a particular thing carries you, the faster the river flows. The stream picks up speed and power. More debris collects in the water and pretty soon the current grabs you and pulls you back into the river where you eventually find yourself swimming upstream again.

Some people start to figure out that at any time you can swim to the bank and sit and watch. They begin to see that sitting and watching slows the river and the stuff and calms your body.

Now back to the woman and her fears of Tai Chi, yoga and the ilk. In meditation, we are simply climbing onto the bank and breathing so we can chill out and perhaps watch the river and all that flows by.

The danger is not what’s lurking on the bank. The things we fear are the things in the river because we know on some level that that river is making up our reality.

We begin to see that there is a relationship to what we’re paying attention to in the river, how fast the river flows, what is in the river and what is happening in our bodies. We notice that the more we are carried away from the breath and the bank by the thoughts flowing by, the faster the thoughts come, the faster our hearts beat and the more activity there is in our body.

Being carried away by things in the river is not a bad thing. I am completely carried away right now as I write this. I sit and think about the river and read over sentences to see how they read and feel. I picture this metaphor in my mind and notice the corresponding reactions in my body. And then I type again in quick spurts. I am enjoying the energy of this writing. I am glad to be in the river.

When I spend all day engaged deeply with others in therapy, or a day working physically in my yard, I am glad to be carried away by the river and it’s powerful flow.

But when someone has hurt me or if I feel I have been violated in some way, my river becomes flooded with toxins and shards and scraps. My thoughts come at me quickly. I lose sight of the water as the thoughts of insult, anger or pity come so fast that they come flowing right out of my mouth. I begin walking around, grumbling discontentedly to myself.

Nothing inherently wrong with being in the flow. In fact, being in the flow is essential. The problem is that I don’t really flow in that last scenario. I’m just struggling with the onslaught of thinking. And the more we stay in the river filled with the debris going by so fast and powerfully that we can’t really deal with it all, the more identified we become with it. We forget about the bank and insist that we absolutely must stay in the river and debris.

But let’s go back to the bank. As we sit on this bank and watch the river and its contents flow by, we eventually come face-to-face with the reality that many, many of these things are related to our shadow side. Some of these things are the things that make us angry or that threaten us in some way. Some of these things are the things that give us great pleasure; maybe sex, maybe revenge, maybe fantasies of things that could drastically change what we see as our struggles, such as winning the lottery, or meeting the “right” partner. Many of these things are things to help us numb out and ignore it all, like who said what on FaceBook today.

Many of the things we begin to see in our river are things we don’t like to identify with. Things that reveal that indeed, we can be petty and mean, hurtful and self-centered, and this, I believe, is where the woman my friend overheard was absolutely right.

You have no idea when you crawl up on that bank, what you are opening yourself up to. You have no idea what is going to come floating by. Sometimes your unconscious mind has expended a great deal of effort shielding you from these things. When you sit and watch, it can be dangerous.

Remember Jesus going into the desert for forty days? He pulls away from the noise (onto the bank or into the desert) and he was tempted. He came face-to-face with the things that were flowing down his river. In the desert, where things were still and quiet, he was able to bring each one up and sit with it and work through it.

There is a story of the Buddha who is visited by the demon, Mara, the one who tried to keep him from attaining enlightenment. When Mara comes to visit, the Buddha does not run or fight or push Mara away. No, the Buddha says to Mara, “I see you there, Mara. Come. Sit with me and drink tea.” Instead of becoming frightened or defensive, he is now able to come face-to-face with this thing floating down his river.

Yes, there is respite on the bank. You can stop and sit in the shade or in the warm sun. You can rest and relax, but eventually you will begin to notice the river and all that flows through it. You will come face-to-face with the things that really get your full visceral attention, with the things that make up your reality, your understanding of yourself and of your interactions in your environment.

You have no idea what you are opening yourself up to.

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