I shut the doors, turn off the lights and gather the tools. I fold the blankets and position my cushion. I light the candles, poke the end of the incense into a small pot filled with earth and gaze upon my altar. Lovingly, I look at the pictures of my family and my teachers and I remember each treasure decorating the small shelf. I welcome the waves of emotion that arise with the faces of these dear ones, the feeling each sacred object evokes.
Setting up a clean, comfortable meditation space filled with meaningful artifacts is one of the preliminary instructions to begin a meditation practice. A carefully curated, inspiring environment tangibly represents the internal process of space-making facilitated by daily practice. When I sit to meditate daily, I find the pause more easily in my daily life. In other words, I can more easily observe my instinctual response to stressful situations and choose, in real time, how to react outwardly. This space to consciously respond is one benefit many practitioners experience with a consistent meditation habit.
Additionally, daily meditation practice over time has the compounded benefit to facilitate space for processing painful memories. Past experiences can be remembered from a different perspective in the present moment. Mark Epstein, MD points this out in his book, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective noting the transformational potential of cultivating bare attention, the ability to separate out one's reactions from core events themselves. He writes,
"We move from this automatic identification with our fear or frustration to a vantage point from which [those feelings are] attended to with the same dispassionate interest as anything else. There is enormous freedom to be gained from such a shift. Instead of running from difficult emotions (or hanging onto enticing ones), the practitioner of bare attention becomes able to contain any reaction: making space for it, but not completely identifying with it because of the concomitant presence of nonjudgmental awareness."
I experienced this directly when a colleague reminded me of a story I had shared several years earlier.
My senior year, our high school play was The Wizard of Oz. I played a featured role three times before, but never the lead part. The year I graduated I felt very strongly that the starring role was rightfully mine. Needless to say, I was devastated when I was cast as The Wicked Witch of the West. For more than a decade later, I recounted the grand injustice of the situation; the memory was still too fresh for me to dissociate from the anger my high school self felt.
Recalling my conviction about how unfairly I had been treated now made me feel embarrassed. Investigating the events and my story around them through the lens of my meditation practice, I realized my ego had been too inflated to accept not being chosen as the star of the show. This was difficult to confront, but as I faced it I thought about how thankful I felt to have contributed to a theatrical production and how grateful I would be to do so again. The opportunity to create such an immersive experience for others, no matter the capacity, seems like such an exciting privilege. I daydreamed a bit about the possibility of joining a show again. Surprisingly, this painful memory had sweetly transformed into a source of gratitude. I sensed that I had purified the lingering bitterness I once attached to the experience through applying bare attention.
Recent events often do not have the benefit of space that allow us to consider less than ideal circumstances as opportunities for personal development. We create space physically, mentally, emotionally through applied practice over time. If we can sit with our natural response, without judging or rationalizing, we can mentally transform any failure into potential for growth. If we can stay with our breath, carefully considering our responses to daily interaction, we can enhance our quality of life.
The important piece is observing the reaction as it arises in the moment, especially the hard feelings that tend to get pushed down, the darkness kept hidden inside. Through pulling it forward and pushing it into the light, into focus, we confront our weaknesses and face our fears. Daily meditation practice creates space for our own personal transformation - true alchemy.