by Ruth Pearce
For the last year, I have been a student in the Certificate in Positive Psychology program. Throughout that time, I have come back many times to the opportunities and also challenges of meditation. I have also developed a particular fascination with strengths—one of my top strengths is curiosity, and another is appreciation of beauty and excellence. Despite reading and hearing about positive effects of meditation on the brain, mood, and immune system, I haven’t yet managed to make it part of my daily practices. No matter how hard I try, it just does not hold my attention.
Friends who meditate regularly have shared their favorite styles. Metta, mindfulness, breath, flames, walking, music—I experimented with them all. I tried sitting, standing, and lying. Everything I tried was interesting and pleasant, but nothing stuck. Nothing felt like the right mediation for me. However, the idea that meditation could calm my monkey mind kept me on the quest for a practice that would work for me.
Then, last week, an unusual thing happened. For once, I was early for an appointment to meet a friend. I was waiting on the top floor of a building, looking out the window. It was a crisp, cold day. The previous day, we had had a small amount of snow, which still rested clean and white on the ground and on the trees. With nothing to do but wait, I simply stared out the window.
As I gazed, I tried to pick out every detail of the landscape in front of me, noticing which trees were green and which were picked clean of leaves and apparent life. I looked carefully at the wisps of ice forming on the surface of the nearby lake. I considered the shapes of the clouds as they hovered behind the peak of the hill in front of me. I looked for any hints of color in a largely gray and white landscape. As my mind settled and became focused on the challenge of hunting for every innocuous detail, however small, I noticed the tiniest single icicle hanging from the window frame. It was solitary and small, but clear and perfect, suspended from the metal frame.
For the first time in a long time, I felt my mind was still. I was only thinking about the task at hand. My breathing was slow and steady, my gaze soft, I felt unhurried. Suddenly I realized, “THIS is my meditation!” I was excited. I wanted to find other very detailed things to stare at.
A few hours later, I saw a painting of a Buddha by Virginia Peck. (The image is published here with Virginia’s kind permission.) The delicate, beautiful face comprised thousands of individual brush strokes in many colors. As I gazed upon the face, I experienced the same sense of my mind slowing down and focusing. I felt calm, I breathed deeply. I found I was smiling a small, serene smile. I stared and stared at the colors, the shapes and shadows, the layers and textures.
After a few minutes, I walked away, but I maintained the same sense of peace and ease. As I contemplated what had happened, first at the window and then in front of the painting, I came to a realization. In my previous attempts to meditate, I had always tried to find an empty space, to push against my strengths by leaving my mind idle, or focused on one simple thing, like a mantra or my breath. By finding something that satisfied my curiosity and focused on my appreciation of beauty and excellence, I had found my way to meditate!
It turns out that Virginia Peck was inspired to paint the Buddha’s face during a meditation! Similarly blessed with a curious mind, she has a particular place in her house, in front of a low window, where she likes to meditate. Rather than focusing on the images in front of her, she often focuses on the sounds in her environment. She knows she’s become lost in her mind, and it’s time to bring it back to the present, when she realizes that she is no longer aware of the sounds around her. Virginia says, “One morning during meditation, the idea struck to paint the head of Buddha. I had always loved to paint heads and so combining what I loved to paint with my spiritual practice was like an electric jolt going through me.”
So, for those of you who find it hard to sit still and meditate, don’t give up. Continue looking for your way to achieve inner peace. Megan McDonough’s book Radically Receptive Meditation is a great place to start; it opened my mind to the possibility that I could practice a form of meditation that was tailor-made for me.
Ruth Pearce is the founder of the newly formed ALLE LLC (A Lever Long Enough). Her company specializes in team and workplace positivity and in building resilience and happiness in young people, particularly teenagers. Most recently, Ruth spent a year first revitalizing and then leading a team of more than 100 technologists in the United States and India on an Enterprise Data Warehouse program. Previously, she spent 20 years as a program manager on large IT programs, primarily in the financial services industry. She is currently working with the Wholebeing Institute on the 2016 Embodied Positive Psychology (EP2) Summit at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Ruth lives in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts with her husband, Gareth, and their dog, Milo. alle4you.com
Ruth, it’s so inspiring to read how you found your own way and path into meditation, one that recognizes and honors your strengths!
Megan, Thank you so much for the lovely feedback. I find that whenever I turn to my strengths it helps me integrate new practices and increase the benefit I get from established ones. Once I read your book and realized that my stereotype of meditation did not need to box me in, I found my way into a practice that just feels right!
Ruth, so very inspiring. I have been struggling with finding the meditation for me AND utilizing my strengths in new ways. Your post is very encouraging. I am going to utilize my ‘love of learning’ strength and get my next book. Thank you for the great recommendation.
Tammi, I am so glad you found the post helpful. I find when I am struggling with something, focusing on my strengths helps get me moving forward. It is interesting that there is a small backlash against the concept of strengths building. While all our strengths are important, I find that when in doubt signature strengths win out!
I hope you enjoy your new book!