My earliest experiences in meditation were in a context of intensive retreats. It happened to be in India, but it could have been anywhere: a group of people gathered with an instructor in a place we didn't leave for 10 days or two weeks, with someone cooking our meals and activities like reading and writing and social conversation left aside for that period. These retreats were like immersion courses -- we were free of all responsibilities other than deepening our own awareness and compassion.
When I got back to the U.S., my friends and I captured the essentials of that retreat experience and began the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. There too retreats are largely silent, and participants, aside from a short chore one is asked to do each day (helping chop vegetables, emptying trash, etc.) are free of other responsibilities.
I once had a friend on retreat whose "job" while there was cleaning a bathroom. His job in the rest of his life was as a musical conductor. It turned out he had to leave the retreat briefly to conduct a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall. He describes a very funny moment, standing on the stage that night, about to conduct a magnificent orchestra in the glorious environs of Carnegie Hall, when he had a passing thought, "I wonder if someone is cleaning that bathroom!"
It is so powerful when we can leave behind our ordinary identities, no longer think of ourselves primarily as a conductor, or writer, or salesclerk, and go to a supportive environment to deeply immerse in meditation practice. And what I have been learning lately is how very powerful it also is when we don't leave it all behind, when we bring a commitment to better understanding ourselves through meditation right into our ordinary everyday identity and jobs and lives.
For the month of February, coinciding with the release of my new book "Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: a 28-Day Program," we have gathered a diverse group of people doing just that, and chronicling their experience of regularly meditating while still fulfilling the responsibilities of being a mom, or firefighter, or a police officer, or a minister, or teacher. There are about 60 people blogging, and anyone is welcome to join this 28 day challenge at any time, and comment.
It's a paradigm shift for me, and an inspiring one. The meditation traditions I started and have continued practicing have all emphasized inclusivity: anyone can do this who is interested. You don't have to believe anything, adopt a dogma in order to learn how to meditate. This isn't limited to special people, or lucky people, or people of a certain background. But of course economic constraints, information gaps, cultural assumptions all do their own limiting. It's going to take creative forms, new ways of communicating, and all of us challenging our own assumptions to breathe life into that assertion of inclusivity. I have been so moved at the depth of experience, the commitment, and the honesty and kindness of the participants in this challenge, each fulfilling the demands of their ordinary lives, each showing a way forward to new manifestations of practice, community, awareness and love.
Here are just some brief samples from the first week of the challenge:
From Actress Daphne Zuniga:
I wake up, It's the first day! The day my new clarity and calmness will begin! The day I will be helping everything align with my true self and I will begin to align with the Universe's true self! Yay! The day things will begin to bug me less! And things will fall into place better. I'll get what I want with out wanting it too much, just the right balanced amount. It won't take long, since I used to do silent retreats for several days at a time, boy those were the days! Days of miracles, beautiful inner experiences beyond all others... okay, let me get my coffee, my blanket, my Real Happiness book, set my timer, and go sit on the couch.
From a Human Rights Worker in Rwanda:
If I can spend time sitting in a corner area of my floor that I've never sat before, if while sitting there I notice the way the colors of ribbon on the bookshelf interact with each other, if I can become familiar with the sounds of the deafening birds outside my window and the scrape of the mop against the concrete, then perhaps that's good enough for now. If during this sit I begin to make a mental list of the many things I need to do later, then at least moving through that opens up the space and place to see what is underneath.
From a NYC Firefighter:
It has been brutal weather these past few weeks in NYC. A lot of us firefighters are being over worked due to the city's low budget. So even though we were running around all day and night for 24 hours I managed to squeeze in a meditation session while we sat at a manhole fire for three hours.
I was in my bunker gear sitting in the fire truck, wet and cold. It was quiet so I decided to try and meditate on the breath. I sat comfortably with my back straight and started to focus on my breath. Inhale, exhale, repeat =)
From Police Officer Deb Brown:
One of the things you are expected to be able to do efficiently when you become a police officer is to multitask. New officers will wash out if they can't drive, listen to the radio, look for suspects, witnesses, complainants, victims, criminal activity, monitor the mobile data computer, look for addresses, figure out where they are going and a myriad of other things that can compete for one's attention... So, you train and train at the academy and then hit the street and it can all go horribly awry if you can't multitask. And by 'awry', I mean 'in death.' And like so many things in this career, it is difficult to give up those habits/skills when you take off the uniform. The challenge for me (and I suppose others in law enforcement) is learning to let go and focus on one thing at a time when not on the job.