21 Days of Emptiness

by Terri Smallwood
The author spends her summer
re-energizing her spirituality through meditation.

It’s high summer in Canada. The days are long and full. I’m not working for money these days, but instead have decided to invest some time into being at home with my kids. It was not a hard decision to make — they are 6 and 1 and like most small people are funny and captivating. Hanging out with them is a mixture of hilarity and only barely contained chaos. It’s a nonstop roller coaster of trips to the park, the swimming pool, play-dates and baseball games. Cooking and laundry happen too, but I try to block out those memories. My oldest has been home from school for two weeks now. My baby just learned to walk. We’re tanned. I’m exhausted.

I’m also striving to use this precious time with them wisely. My most important goal right now, Number One on my list, is to give my children a sense of my spiritual values. I know that before long I’ll need to re-enter the work force. Houses don’t just buy themselves. Neither do snow boots, swimming lessons, diapers or dinners. Financially, we’re just squeaking by, torn between a sense of duty to balance emotional needs and the urgency of glaringly real material ones. By nature I am a talker, but I know enough about kids to know that I need to do more than talk if I want the lessons to stick. I need to show and do, to give them what I can before they are thrust into the world of peer pressures and babysitters.

So far we’ve been OK — but the taxman has been knocking and the car is behaving strangely, foreshadowing an expensive and untimely demise, and my husband is shouldering much of the burden. There’s an undercurrent of tension that at times threatens to become ugly. Part of the problem is that career-wise I am a very accomplished jack-of-all-trades, and none of the trades I’ve tried have ever spoken to me as anything more than a moneymaker. I am almost thirty. I don’t want a JOB. I want a freakin’ career! The trouble is that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Number Two on this summer’s To-Do list, then, is “Find Myself.”

Back in the BC days (as in “before children”), I may have considered backpacking somewhere or a Kerouac-inspired road-trip as ideal paths to that second goal. Not this summer, though. The thought of driving anywhere further than the corner store with two kids and all the accompanying paraphernalia is enough to make me break a cold sweat. Besides, I’ve been there, done that. I’ve moved around enough to know that more motion isn’t the answer. Wherever it is that this mythical grown-up version of myself is located, it had better be somewhere within the limits of this small city I call home.

Confessions of a Lapsed Meditator

I decided to start by re-energizing my spiritual studies. I’ve been practicing astrology for years, and in terms of metaphysics it’s always been my first love. But I’ve also dabbled in other esoteric arts; tarot cards, native rituals, visualizations and meditation have at various times been subjects of my curiosity. Meditation has been especially useful to me. When I was preparing for the birth of my daughter, I spent many hours visualizing a successful, natural childbirth. I created a space in my mind where I could go to during the more uncomfortable parts of her delivery. I remember the night I spent in labour and the mental strength that kept me focused and strong. The months preparing for that night paid off — I delivered a healthy child after an uncomplicated, unmedicated labour. After her birth the demands of mothering an infant and a school-aged son became more pressing then keeping up my meditation practice. Fifteen months later it’s official — I am a lapsed meditator.

My first official brush with meditation came during eighth-grade drama class. My teacher taught us a series of breathing exercises and visualizations, helping us get into character before a performance. I learned to pay attention to my breaths as they entered my body. I explored the sensation of my chest rising and falling while my thoughts went quiet. I can’t say that I ever achieved nirvana during those early sessions, but I gained from them a fleeting sense of peace and a glimpse into a different state of mind.

Throughout my teens I dabbled in esoteric endeavors. I studied reincarnation and visited psychics. I hung out at the local New Age store and became obsessed with learning about my past lives. I bought a guided regression on cassette and listened to it several times, following the disembodied voice’s instructions to breathe, relax and visualize. I didn’t have any profound brushes with my past, but I did deepen my understanding of the meditation process. I used those techniques, or others gleaned from books and one-off classes, for years — sometimes meditating nightly for weeks on end, other times going months without even thinking of it. Meditation to me was a tool to use when I was stressed or wanting an energy boost. It was fun, it was relaxing, but it certainly hadn’t become the powerful life-changing tool that I had read it could be. Maybe now, with my need to show my kids about my spiritual values and at the same time do some constructive soul-searching, would be the time to get back on the wagon.

But where does a lapsed meditator go? This particular one turned to the Internet. Googling “meditation” plus the name of my city gave me two likely choices. The local yoga centre or a Buddhist group that offered instruction in meditation. The yoga classes were expensive and intimidating — the women were frighteningly supple and cat-suited. It would have to be the Buddhists.

Off to Join the Buddhists

I headed to the Dharma Centre with a mix of curiosity and trepidation. As a rule, I avoid groups. But I know I’ve gotten what I can from books and self-study. I need direct experience.

The classes are held in some small rooms on the second story of a downtown plaza, sandwiched between a vacant lawyer’s office and a vegan restaurant, and from the outside they look more like the dentist’s than a place of worship and teaching. I am greeted by a soft-spoken man with a long grey ponytail. He welcomes me warmly and tells me that the centre is affiliated with the New Kadampa Tradition, which is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in the ’70s. I have a rudimentary knowledge of Buddhist practices and traditions. I make it clear to him I that I am not a Buddhist, but have come for the meditation. He’s cool with that.

I am led into a quiet room filled with the smell of incense and flowers. There is a small, beautiful altar at one end of the room and a raised platform for the teacher. Ponytail tells me that an ordained monk will be teaching tonight. Given a cup of herbal tea, I take a seat on a comfortable cushion on the floor.

As Kelsang Yonten, the monk, begins his talk that night I realize I have stumbled upon exactly what I was looking for. He talks about the power of meditation, about the importance of clearing the mind. He leads us deep into meditation. I listen to his words, “Imagine your mind as a cloudless sky stretching from horizon to horizon — infinite and deep. Your thoughts are like clouds scattered upon the sky; watch them arise without judgment and let them go.”

I feel myself floating deeper and deeper into a state of suspended consciousness. I follow his instructions to breathe in clear white light and exhale any negative thoughts or feelings as thick black smoke. In my mind’s eye the angry moments of the day, the petty jealousies, the stress billows away. I follow his voice back to earth and I am lighter. And stronger. I listen to the rest of his teachings and am profoundly affected by his reverence for the power of meditation, for the obvious way it has tempered his personality to be at once full of strong mental powers and compassionate grace. This is the meditation Big Leagues.

I leave the centre armed with some new techniques and a desire (yes — desire — remember, I’m not a Buddhist!) to renew my daily meditation practice. I want to see if I can hold that feeling of clarity in my daily life, in my interactions with my family and friends. I think it will bring me closer to the place I need to be.

Day by Day

Day 1

Apparently, the place I need to be is the bookstore. My eye-opening experience at the Dharma Centre was a week ago, and despite some good intentions, I haven’t yet found a good time or place to meditate at home. Whenever I sit and try to recapture that feeling of calm and lightness that touched me so deeply, I either get so quiet I fall asleep — or so distracted by the seemingly endless chatter of my mind that I give up.

As I head to the mall, the irony isn’t lost on me — I am seeking meditation by materialism. I browse the New Age books and am surprised to find one called Eight Steps to Happiness — The Buddhist Way of Loving Kindness. The book is written by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I am stunned by the coincidence and purchase it without thinking. I head to the coffee shop with my new book and browse it hungrily, looking for any information on meditation. I am not disappointed — especially when I find the text to the meditation I did the other night. I read about the importance of creating a scared place for meditation. And over and over I read about the importance of establishing a daily practice. I make a decision then and there to meditate daily for the next three weeks. I had heard before that it takes three weeks to create a new habit. I decide this is a habit I want to form.

I leave the coffee shop and go on a mini shopping-spree, buying candles, incense and a pretty vase. I know these things aren’t essential to my success, but I want to set the stage, so to speak, creating a space that I will feel comfortable in, that will help me ease into that deep breathing place and break away from the distractions of the daily grind. I rush home and set up a little area in my bedroom, away from the family, the TV and the phone.

I grab a big square cushion from my bed. It’s late and the kids are sleeping. The house is dark and still. I light my candles and incense. I close my eyes. I breathe. I am wrapped by clear white light, and although my mind still chatters, I work hard to concentrate beyond that noise. I open my mind up as I visualize the sky. I remember a quote attributed to the Buddha, “How wonderful, how wonderful! All things are perfect, exactly as they are.” I repeat this to myself once, twice and then over and over as if it were a mantra. A feeling steals over me. I feel floaty, as if I were being rocked by a gentle sea. I feel light, wrapped in infinite love, and cherished beyond understanding. I rest there awhile and then slowly bring myself back to my body, to the concerns of my breaths. I open my eyes. I think, “Wow.”

Day 3

So, I was sitting upright on my cushion this afternoon, quietly watching my body inhale and exhale. I don’t know how long I had been in that position, maybe five minutes? My butt was getting sore and my leg was falling asleep. I had directed my attention to that region of my body, trying to use my mind to ease the tension, when I remembered a scene from The Simpsons. Homer Simpson was sitting on his couch, shifting his weight from one cheek to the other in an effort to deepen the “ass groove” he’d been working on developing in the sofa’s cushion. I giggle to myself and wonder what kind of ass groove I’ll work into my cushion after three weeks of this. “You’re thinking about The Simpsons?!?!” A sternly disapproving voice from the back of my mind brings me back to the task at hand. I don’t like to be reprimanded, not even by my own thoughts. I tell the voice to back off, remind her that when unwanted thoughts come they need to be examined without judgment and released. I set Homer free, his corpulent yellow body floating off into the clear sky of my mind. I send my nagging little thought along with him and go back to my breathing, feeling my chest rise and fall …

Day 4

I find myself walking to the park today with a new spring in my step. I feel buoyant, giddy, like a teenager who just discovered love. I wonder if this good mood is related to the four meditation sessions I’ve now done. The first was by far the most powerful, but the others were still successful. What is a successful meditation anyway? That question has been puzzling me all week — I feel like I am searching for something but I don’t know what. Will I know it when I find it? The analytical part of my mind wants measurable criteria that I can track. Can I make a graph that demonstrates exactly what effects this program is having on me? I feel like I need to define what meditation means to me. But part of the experience is the joy of delving into unknown waters, being unconstrained by words and linear thoughts. I decide to just continue as I’ve been doing.

Day 7

I feel a bit today like I’ve blown it. Just like dieting, establishing a meditation practice seems to be harder over the weekends. Saturday and Sunday I got busy doing fun stuff with my family, while also filling in any spare moments with lots of un-fun stuff, like conquering Mt. Dirty Laundry in the basement, dragging the broken vacuum around, and scrubbing the soap scum off of the shower doors. I actually didn’t even think about meditating until midday on Sunday, when I realized I was being swept into the maelstrom that is life with two small kids. At that point I vowed I’d sit down as soon as the kids were in bed for the night. But, as many moms know, as soon as the kids are in bed, the moms need to be too! Note to self: next weekend try to do the unthinkable — forego the Saturday sleep-in and meditate instead.

Day 8

Despite feeling a little bit like a failure today, I took to my cushion this morning in good spirits. I had hurt my shoulder on a waterslide during my weekend shenanigans, and the dull pain was a block to the deep quiet I’ve been trying to achieve. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling calm clear light and mentally sending it to the pain. It didn’t ease totally, but cleared enough for me to feel a whisper of the emptiness I’ve been seeking.

Day 12

I emerge from my session today feeling frustrated. My mind was hard to quiet. To-Do lists, grocery lists, plans for our camping trip next week — these were the thoughts my mind was grasping at. I feel angry and affronted by this onslaught of minutia. It seems ridiculous that my good intentions are being railroaded by thoughts of going out to pick up milk and bread, by remembering to pack the bug spray.

It’s been an up-and-down few days. I am realizing again how difficult it can be establishing a new routine. So far, the best chance for me to find time for meditation seems to be after lunch. I’ve designated that hour as Quiet Time. My daughter naps and my son watches TV and I can escape to my cushion. I haven’t been doing any really long meditations — 20 minutes seems to be all I need, and yet these past couple of days it has been harder to grab that time. I feel guilty when I think of how many little chores I have left undone, or how my boy has cartoons for his babysitter. I know that most serious meditation practitioners wake early and devote the pre-dawn hours to their practice. I am not that hardcore yet — I’ve never been an early riser. Like most writers I know, I am a dedicated night owl. As important as getting this habit working is to me, changing my body rhythm seems as improbable as getting the tides to flow backwards.

Again I come back to needing to define just what I am expecting to get from these sessions. I started with a need to reconnect to my spiritual roots, to walk the walk for the sake of my kids. Heading to the cushion at midday regardless of what’s been going on does actually address that need, I suppose. And there’s no denying that at least two of the almost dozen sessions I’ve done have brought me close to something, some feeling of extraordinary profundity. Persist, I think. People meditate regularly for months, years, even lifetimes, and they continue to glean new insights. I am just taking tiny baby steps here. I give myself permission to feel just a tiny bit discouraged, but not to give up.

Day 13

Today was interesting. I woke up energized and a little earlier than everyone else. I lay still in my bed, debating the merits of rolling over for a few extra zzz’s or getting a head start on the day. I remember the difficulties I’ve been having getting into my noon-hour sessions and decide to use this gift of time wisely. I don’t get out of bed; I don’t do my Buddhist-inspired meditation now, I just relax and letting my thoughts take me where they will.

I am still pondering how to make my meditation practice a more intrinsic part of my life. I remember a book I read a year or so ago. The author had created a meditation program based on the teachings of several different world teachers and spiritual leaders. I remember how he stressed the words of Jesus, “Pray without ceasing.” The book touched on the challenges of people leading busy lives and how to incorporate meditation into all our activities. Pray without ceasing. “I’m going to have to get into that,” I think to myself as I drift back into a dreamless sleep.

Later in the day I am in the kitchen. It’s mid-afternoon and the house feels full of kids. My son has a friend over and they are taking turns hiding from my daughter, who screams with laughter and toddles away whenever they pop out from behind the sofa. The house is loud, silly and full of boisterous love. I am making curry, which is a bit of an art to me. I heat my skillet and toast fragrant whole spices — black mustard seeds, fennel seeds, peppercorns, cardamom. The heat releases the most incredible aroma. At the moment before burning, I whisk the pan off the hob and tip the contents into my mortar and pestle. Now I am grinding the spices, pounding them open, cracking their hard shells and crushing them into powder. I layer in more flavors, cumin, turmeric, chilli flakes, gram masala.

The sounds of the children fade, and the movement of my hands becomes automatic and remote. Unconsciously my breathing has deepened and slowed. Since the day started with a flash of Christian wisdom, I decide to speak a Christian prayer, “Lord make me an instrument of thy peace.” I don’t know the whole prayer but that line becomes my mantra and I speak it silently as I add fresh garlic, ginger and minced onion to my mixture. My hands are moving smoothly, efficiently. I stop now and then to offer a soothing word to my daughter, now tired of the big kids’ antics and sitting at my feet. The curry has made itself. The spice paste I pounded is now back in the pan, mixed with coconut milk to become a sauce to simmer green beans and potatoes. I feel calm and open — my thoughts are as clear and focused as if I had spent an hour or more on my cushion, and yet I’m standing in the kitchen, balancing a baby on my hip and making what smells like one kick-ass curry. Pray without ceasing. Sweet.

Day 15

It’s the weekend again, but unlike last week I’ve scheduled my meditation time better. These are different sorts of meditations. After my eye-opener the other day, I’ve realized that I needn’t be so rigid about forcing a “perfect” meditation into my day. This is good, because I’m actually on a mini-holiday right now, camping with my family on the shores of Lake Huron. Yesterday I meditated in the car on the drive up here; today I’ve planned something that I hope will be more memorable. The campground is showing a movie this evening in an old barn. My son wants to see it, but it’s way past my daughter’s bedtime, so we agreed that the movie would be a father-son activity while Mommy stays behind to tuck the smallest Smallwood into her sleeping bag. This is the sort of opportunity I’ve been looking for, and I wave the boys off as dusk begins to creep over the woods where we are camped.

My daughter is still awake but rubbing her eyes and yawning furiously. I take my cue from her and begin my preparations. I lay twigs and kindling for a small fire. I pile bigger logs close at hand. It’s a cold night for mid-August and I plan to spend as much of it as I can under the stars. No sense freezing though. I feel like these preparations are already part of the meditation. My daughter either catches my calm mood, or else is just so awed by the newness of being outside in a forest while the dark slowly comes that she sits in my lawn chair, just watching.

We walk slowly, hand in hand to the washhouse. She has only just started walking, so the 100-yard trip may as well be 100 miles. We dawdle, and I don’t care. More and more I catch myself being calm where once I would have been impatient. I attribute this positive change directly to the meditations, and I am pleased. Finally, some measurable result!

We get washed, my daughter gets changed into warm pajamas and we head back to our site. It’s almost full dark now and my flashlight is in my tent. I don’t care. The stars are bright, and my little girl is now beyond awe at the newness of everything. Her tiny hand is warm in mine, and in its hold I can feel the pulse of her excitement — and beyond that, something even more touching. Her little fingers hold mine, and the trust she feels is implicit in her grasp. I think about this bond children form with their parents — a deep and unshakable faith that Mom and Dad are a refuge from all worries, from any fears. As an adult it’s harder to feel that same sense of unbreakable trust. One too many hard knocks and the universe can feel a frightening place. I lay my little girl down in the tent, and we cuddle and sing, and finally her eyes flutter gently closed and she releases herself to sleep.

I emerge from the tent and immediately light the fire. Dusk has given way to night and the flames leap up orange-red against the backdrop of shadowy trees. I settle myself in my chair and lean way back, gazing at the stars. I had hoped for an opportunity to meditate under the stars, and I feel rewarded by a crystal clear, moonless, night. I don’t expect the movie to be finished for at least another hour.

I start my meditation by engaging in what is now a familiar routine, some deep breaths, followed by time spent relaxing my body. I use the black smoke visualization to release any negativity and then concentrate on clearing my mind. But I want to go farther today, to go beyond emptiness. I had attended another class at the Dharma Centre this week and listened to a teaching on compassion. I was moved by the earnest way in which students talked about wanting to relieve the burdens of their fellow humans.

My eyes are open, and looking into the infinite depths of outer space I feel a deep connection to the source of universal love. I feel the ancient power raining down on me, through my crown and resting in my heart. I feel so full of love. I remember the feeling of my baby’s hand holding mine. I find myself surrounded by a love so deep and tangible that I, too, can feel trust and faith. I imagine this love emanating from my body and reaching out to my family, my friends, my town and then beyond. I want to flood the world with light, and I visualize myself doing just that. I’ve always believed that one day I would do something to change the world. Tonight, sitting beside the campfire, looking at the stars I feel like I have been given the tool to do just that.

My husband and son return full of chatter from their movie. We spend the rest of the evening roasting marshmallows and making up silly jokes. I don’t look for irony. I don’t think sarcastic things about how one minute I feel I am reaching this mind-blowing summit and the next minute I am listening to a 6-year-old perfect his armpit farts. It’s all good. “How wonderful, how wonderful! All things are perfect, exactly as they are.”

Day 21

Morning arrived today the same way it has for most of the summer. The baby stirs and mutters as the Sun’s rays start creeping underneath the blinds. My husband and I try to grab five more minutes of precious sleep. My tousled son wanders into our room, rubbing his tired eyes. The only thing remarkable about today is that it’s the last official day of my meditation vacation.

Have I accomplished anything during these three weeks of deep breathing, clearing, concentrating? I think yes. For one thing, after-lunch Quiet Time has become a household institution. My son actually looks forward to having an hour to get up to his own devices. My little girl naps peacefully on my bed, while I sit on my cushion and what — what is it that I am doing when I still my mind and go inward for refuge? In the broadest sense of the word, I am meditating, but I realize that I do best when I am not bound by a particular tradition or teaching. Sometimes I follow the Buddhist way and seek out emptiness and the worlds of understanding that lie beyond that. Sometimes my meditations become something more akin to prayer. But always I feel lighter, freed of negativity and filled with clarity and love.

What’s more meaningful to me is what’s been happening when I open my eyes and move back into my day. Inside me is a seed of patience that has never been there before. I can stand in the middle of my chaotic, topsy-turvy house and feel good that things are unfolding as they should. I still blow my top from time to time, but every so often I find myself remembering to breathe and feel centered and loving and able to quiet the storms around me without getting noisy myself. It’s a baby step down a long and enticing path. I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up — but I have gotten a glimpse of who I want to be, and I look for her now when I settle myself down on my cushion for my daily session. I am a meditation junkie, and that cushion has developed one heck of a great “ass groove.”