We are all given work here, and it turns out that my work assignment is to scrub the temple floors. So that's where you can find me for several hours a day now--down on my knees on the cold marble with a brush and a bucket, working away like a fairy-tale stepsister. (By the way, I'm aware of the metaphor--the scrubbing clean of the temple that is my heart, the polishing of my soul, the everyday mundane effort that must be applied to spiritual practice in order to purify the self, etc., etc.)
My fellow floor-scrubbers are mainly a bunch of Indian teenagers. They always give teenagers this job because it requires high physical energy but not enormous reserves of responsibility; there's a limit to how much damage you can do if you mess up. I like my coworkers. The girls are fluttery little butterflies who seem so much younger than American eighteen-year-old girls, and the boys are serious little autocrats who seem so much older than American eighteen-year-old boys. Nobody's supposed to talk in the temples, but these are teenagers, so there's a constant chatter going on all the time as we're working. It's not all idle gossip. One of the boys spends all day scrubbing beside me, lecturing me earnestly on how to best perform my work here: "Take seriously. Make punctual. Be cool and easy. Remember--everything you do, you do for God. And everything God does, He do for you."
It's tiring physical labor, but my daily hours of work are considerably easier than my daily hours of meditation. The truth is, I don't think I'm good at meditation. I know I'm out of practice with it, but honestly I was never good at it. I can't seem to get my mind to hold still. I mentioned this once to an Indian monk, and he said, "It's a pity you're the only person in the history of the world who ever had this problem." Then the monk quoted to me from the Bhagavad Gita, the most sacred ancient text of Yoga: "Oh Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, strong and unyielding. I consider it as difficult to subdue as the wind."
Meditation is both the anchor and the wings of Yoga. Meditation is the way. There's a difference between meditation and prayer, though both practices seek communion with the divine. I've heard it said that prayer is the act of talking to God, while meditation is the act of listening. Take a wild guess as to which comes easier for me. I can prattle away to God about all my feelings and my problems all the livelong day, but when it comes time to descend into silence and listen . . . well, that's a different story. When I ask my mind to rest in stillness, it is astonishing how quickly it will turn (1) bored, (2) angry, (3) depressed, (4) anxious or (5) all of the above.
Like most humanoids, I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the "monkey mind"-- the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl. From the distant past to the unknowable future, my mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined. This in itself is not necessarily a problem; the problem is the emotional attachment that goes along with the thinking. Happy thoughts make me happy, but--whoop!--how quickly I swing again into obsessive worry, blowing the mood; and then it's the remembrance of an angry moment and I start to get hot and pissed off all over again; and then my mind decides it might be a good time to start feeling sorry for itself, and loneliness follows promptly. You are, after all, what you think. Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.
The other problem with all this swinging through the vines of thought is that you are never where you are. You are always digging in the past or poking at the future, but rarely do you rest in this moment. It's something like the habit of my dear friend Susan, who--whenever she sees a beautiful place--exclaims in near panic, "It's so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!" and it takes all of my persuasive powers to try to convince her that she is already here. If you're looking for union with the divine, this kind of forward/backward whirling is a problem. There's a reason they call God a presence-- because God is right here, right now. In the present is the only place to find Him, and now is the only time.
But to stay in the present moment requires dedicated one-pointed focus. Different meditation techniques teach one-pointedness in different ways--for instance, by focusing your eyes on a single point of light, or by observing the rise and fall of your breath. My Guru teaches meditation with the help of a mantra, sacred words or syllables to be repeated in a focused manner. Mantra has a dual function. For one thing, it gives the mind something to do. It's as if you've given the monkey a pile of 10,000 buttons and said, "Move these buttons, one at time, into a new pile." This is a considerably easier task for the monkey than if you just plopped him in a corner and asked him not to move. The other purpose of mantra is to transport you to another state, rowboatlike, through the choppy waves of the mind. Whenever your attention gets pulled into a cross-current of thought, just return to the mantra, climb back into the boat and keep going. The great Sanskrit mantras are said to contain unimaginable powers, the ability to row you, if you can stay with one, all the way to the shorelines of divinity.
Among my many, many problems with meditation is that the mantra I have been given-- Om Namah Shivaya--doesn't sit comfortably in my head. I love the sound of it and I love the meaning of it, but it does not glide me into meditation. It never has, not in the two years I've been practicing this Yoga. When I try to repeat Om Namah Shivaya in my head, it actually gets stuck in my throat, making my chest clench tightly, making me nervous. I can never match the syllables to my breathing.
I end up asking my roommate Corella about this one night. I'm shy to admit to her how much trouble I have keeping my mind focused on mantra repetition, but she is a meditation teacher. Maybe she can help me. She tells me that her mind used to wander during meditation, too, but that now her practice is the great, easy, transformative joy of her life.
"Seems I just sit down and shut my eyes," she says, "and all I have to do is think of the mantra and I vanish right into heaven."
Hearing this, I am nauseated with envy. Then again, Corella has been practicing Yoga for almost as many years as I've been alive. I ask her if she can show me how exactly she uses Om Namah Shivaya in her meditation practice. Does she take one inhale for every syllable? (When I do this, it feels really interminable and annoying.) Or is it one word for every breath?(But the words are all different lengths! So how do you even it out?) Or does she say the whole mantra once on the inhale, then once again on the exhale? (Because when I try to do that, it gets all speeded up and I get anxious.)
"I don't know," Corella says. "I just kind of . . . say it."
"But do you sing it?" I push, desperate now. "Do you put a beat on it?" "I just say it."
"Can you maybe speak aloud for me the way you say it in your head when you're meditating?"
Indulgently, my roommate closes her eyes and starts saying the mantra aloud, the way it appears in her head. And, indeed, she's just . . . saying it. She says it quietly, normally, smiling slightly. She says it a few times, in fact, until I get restless and cut her off.
"But don't you get bored?" I ask.
"Ah," says Corella and opens her eyes, smiling. She looks at her watch. "Ten seconds have passed, Liz. Bored already, are we?"