Written By: Stephanie Keiko Kong
The following article is based on a journal entry I wrote as a letter to myself back in 2014. At the time, I was at the very beginning of my journey into meditation, feeling frustrated and blissful by turns.
Currently, I teach mindfulness and meditative singing, and I’ve enjoyed a strong, consistent practice for years now. However, as you’ll read, this wasn’t always the case.
I’m a meditator. Sort of.
I meditate on a daily basis for about four days in a row. Then, I miss a day. Like today.
It’s day 4 of my brand-new-again daily practice. I’ve squirmed every time I thought about sitting on my cushion today. It’s as if my butt is a magnet of the same polarity as my meditation spot. I get near it, and I can feel invisible forces driving me away.
Somehow, on days 1, 2 and 3, I woke up knowing I had to start meditating immediately. Maybe it’s because I knew I would otherwise get distracted. I didn’t even brush my teeth first. From my horizontal sleeping position, I slid off the side of the bed, onto the floor between the bed frame and my closet, and there I sat. I picked up my mālāfrom my nightstand and off I went.
But today is day 4, and something happens to me on day 4. Every dang day 4.
By now, my body has figured out that I’m getting up early. I bounced out of bed this morning, no alarm needed. I figured, hey, I might as well brush my teeth and wash my face before getting started, so I can show up all fresh and clean for meditation for once. I took my mālāfrom off the nightstand, looped it around my wrist and then…
It’s stuffy in here. Let’s open a window. Ugh, the sills need dusting. Better do that nowbefore I forget again. Ah, hang on. A load of laundry should go in now, so the wash will be done by the time I’m done meditating. Alright, where’s that sponge to wipe the sills—oh, I should do the dishes nowtoo, so that they’ll dry in the dish rack and I won’t need to dry them with a towel. I’m so efficient! Must be because I’ve been meditating every day. Oh, there goes the washing machine. I need to change the laundry around now, so the no-dryer items will have time to hang dry. And I might as well hang them nowwhile I’m at it, it’ll just be a couple minutes, I’ve got time.
Ah, the dishes are dry. I should put them away now, so I’ll have a clutter-free house in which to do my medita… Gosh, my stomach is rumbling. What time is it? I should’ve had something to eat by now. I’ll just make a real quick breakfast, before I get even hungrier. Let’s see, coffee, eggs… Mmm. Should I do a green smoothie?
Whew. I’ve been working hard all morning—I guess meditation really does help with productivity. I deserve to relax for a minute, and then I’ll meditate. Just one sudoku puzzle. And maybe I should pack my lunch for the day since it’s still early. I’ll meditate right after I…
And at this point, the whole day has gone by and I’m here journaling. Like, what the heck, Stephanie? Just do it. It’s not even 20 minutes of sitting. It’s not a big deal. Why am I avoiding it?
Can you relate?
I’ve often wondered why this same thing seems to happen at every day 4. I seem to get a bit cocky at this time. I assume I’ve well established my meditation habit far before it’s really solid. I think I’ll handle more distractions than I actually can. With the last three consecutive days of meditation, I’m feeling really good. I’m happy with my consistency. I want to keep it up. I’ve started to experience the inner quiet my teachers talk about. I want to meditate, I know it’s good for me. Why am I not doing it? What gives?
To answer these questions, I dove into the writings of Lorin Roche, specifically his layered rendering of the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantraentitled The Radiance Sūtras. Loosely translated, the title itself means “the terror and joy of realizing oneness with the soul.” Aha! This very phrase, in brief, is exactly why I feel so squirmy resistant to sitting down to meditate today and why I’ve felt this way on every single day 4 for a good while now.
On day 1, I start tapping into the “joy of realizing oneness with the soul.”
On day 2, more joy.
On day 3, still realizing joy, mostly, and then…
Boom, the terror part starts creeping in. I’ll keep myself busy to avoid confronting it, and I might even deny I’m feeling uncomfortable at all and instead make up “legitimate” reasons why I don’t have time or such-and-such needs my urgent attention. If I actually sit down and let myself feel this terror bubbling up, I can’t stand it, it feels like fire.
Huh? Terror, you might ask, of what?
Roche writes of this very fire in verse 29 of The Radiance Sūtras:
Live for a few days in the meditation,
“I am immersed in the flame—
The flame of time,
The flame of love,
The flame of life.
The universal fire flows through me.”
And then, this impossible request:
Step into that fire wholeheartedly,
Starting with the big toe,
Then surrendering everywhere.
Well, shoot, there it is. The fear of surrender. When I meditate, I start to release old thought forms that keep me “safe” — in other words, meditation gradually dismantles my unexamined mental habits. These fear-based patterns would otherwise keep me locked into a limited idea of myself and limited ways to recognize love, security and nourishment.
But, but, but… This means love might show up in a way that I’m not conditioned to receive. This means I really can appreciate anything, even tragedy or trauma. This means my expectations are illusions, and that makes me feel like I know nothing. Oh mah gaaaah, of course I feel resistant to meditating. I’m terrified of these results, or at least parts of me are.
Sure, I realize that the only things really hitting the fire are my limiting beliefs, my conditioned ideas, my attachments and illusions — all things I do really want to burn away — but it still feels like my whole self is ablaze.
The parts of myself that are likeliest kindling are fighting for their lives. This subtle fight is the resistance I feel, and I now know it for what it is.
To continue meditating, I have to be willing to burn. To let parts of myself incinerate. To be taught and purified by tapas, the light and heat of my inner fire.
Somehow, simply realizing that I’M ON FIRE HERE and admitting that yeah, that’s a tough challenge to surmount, I feel more up to doing it. I’m no longer confused about why this is happening, so I’m not beating myself up about it anymore.
Okay, this is me, going to sit on my meditation cushion. Now I know I’m walking into the fire. I know it’ll burn, I’ll burn. But I’m shining my light of awareness on the battle I’m fighting inside, and that gives me the courage and perspective I need to go on.
The struggle is day 4. I assume there will be more fires and more struggles ahead. I hope I’ll remember this writing when the time comes:
Dear future me (and dear reader),
Keep going. I know it burns. Don’t tell yourself it’s nothing, that it’s no big deal. There are parts of yourself that will fall away, and that’s scary. But you’ll be just fine. Stronger, even.
Let the fire catch hold of you. It’ll be uncomfortable. Stay with it. You are not greater than the fire, but don’t worry. You are the fire. You’ll come out radiant.