I had a dream I was in bed with the Dalai Lama. Not that kind of in bed. More like a cheerful slumber party, with a feeling of being very young, lighthearted and happy and just having fun together. We were giggling and bantering, playfully pulling fistfuls of a soft orange blanket up and under our chins. Then, I realized that his pet octopus was with us, languidly relaxing on my pillow just behind and over my head. It was starting to drape puckery tentacles over one ear, toward my face and around my neck. I stopped giggling.
I was forty-four and two years into finally giving meditation, like peace, a chance. Not that I was, or am, particularly rigorous about it. I wiggle more than I am still. Making it even twenty minutes is still an accomplishment. The one thing I did reasonably well was to just keep doing it each day. Turns out, that’s really the hardest part, and really the only thing, besides breathing, anyone has to do well. Please, let me save you twenty years of angst. You cannot “screw up” meditation. Let me also disabuse you of the assumption that you have to be very serious about meditation for it to “work.” I have never taken an official meditation course. I have never been to a vipassana retreat. Nowadays, I’m lucky to meditate every other day and I often fold it into my morning cup of tea or a walk with the dogs. Still, I have seen the entire universe light up and felt the heat of divine love in my bones. I sincerely hope for everyone else to see and feel the same.
When I started studying meditation, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t amplify an answer from books alone. Reading about how to meditate is sort of like standing in the shower and trying to learn how to swim. I had to find some meditators and Just. Sit. Down. At one presentation, a man on the pillow next to me wore a t-shirt with a cartoon drawing of His Holiness holding an empty box in front of a smiling crowd of well-wishing monks entitled The Dalai Lama’s Birthday Party. Beaming as he peers inside, he declares, “Nothing! Just what I always wanted!” Up until then, I had been intimidated by my perception that the goal of meditation is to somehow empty our minds of all thought. How could we think our way into not thinking?!? But, as I kept listening, I began to understand emptiness not in the Western sense of lack or eradication, but more as the cultivation of a possible spaciousness, a literal “open”-mindedness. Oh, and I learned about mindfulness meditation, where you actually do think about something, anything from your own breath to a mantra to a full visualization. I wiped the sweat off my brow and thought, “Now, that I can do!”
Here is what I do now. I breathe slowly and think about nothing but the sensation of breathing. I wait for my breathing to become both rhythmic and unselfconscious. If I can’t even get this far, I cut myself slack and come back later. If I do basically chill, I dim the houselights in my head and imagine darkness all around me. Basic, garden-variety universe darkness. Then, I visualize myself as not this one solid body in this one moment of time, but instead as “energetically present” over moments of time and coordinates in space, so that “I” start to look and feel more like a fuzzy, pulsing, moving cloud of light in the middle of this darkness. Then, I start imagining people nearby in the same way, first loved ones and then neighbors, then every person in my city, and then onward around the globe, and outward into the universe, as far as I can go. Then, I imagine crackling electrical connections like bright energetic threads radiating out from and intertwining with all of these clouds of life. With branches of energy basically everywhere now, all of the clouds begin to diffuse and coalesce. As I try to comprehend the infinite dimension of time expanding this bright cloudy mesh illimitably, my old darkness is pretty much obliterated and all I can see is light everywhere, forever… which looks like a universe of love to me.
And feels like it, too. A few times, I have felt actual heat. I have heard of monks in Tibet so adept at meditation that they can sit outside for hours in a blizzard with only their simple robes, completely focused and utterly unaffected while snow literally melts off of them. Me, I stay inside and wear fuzzy socks. Just knowing that universal warmth truly exists, because I have truly felt it, illuminates me well enough.
Neuroplasticity is the scientifically proven ability of the human brain to heal and to grow, “to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.” [Thank you, medicinenet.com] Human brains contain about 100 billion neurons. The octopus? About 300 billion. That’s a lot of brains. As His Holiness’s purple cephalopod began to envelop my head in my dream, at first I tensed up. I glanced over at the kindest soul on earth, and he winked. No worries, he wordlessly indicated. I was relieved to feel not a cold and slimy clench, but a warm and pulsating embrace. I began to think, “This isn’t like I always feared. It’s actually so comfortable, even peaceful.” I woke up wanting an octopus for a teddy bear.
I believe that creature symbolized the Dalai Lama’s brain, or rather, the generous teachings he promulgates and all of the light and lovingkindness that they make possible. I recall his words when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” And, I giggle whenever I remember how he once put it more bluntly. “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
With a head in the clouds, a good pillow and good intentions, anything is possible.