By the second day of silence at last week’s five-day meditation retreat, the mental static of everyday thoughts had mostly passed.
During the 9am-11am session we switched techniques from focusing on breathing to scanning the body for sensations and letting them pass. After one or two scans I found I could hardly sense anything subtler than, say, my shirt on my arm. Frustrating.
Another scan brought me back to my last retreat, a twelve-day in 2007. I realized then I was holding tension in my chest muscles and how, until released, that tension blocked my ability to sense subtle sensations near that muscle. This time my chest muscles weren’t tense; my back muscles were.
Later I realized how tense my whole back, shoulders, and neck were. At this point I could only sense the tension in my back muscles around the bottom of my rib cage. Sensations from areas around the inner muscles were hidden by the tension in the outer ones.
With awareness and calm focus, I could feel the outer muscles relax. It felt great. I moved my back to experience the relaxation. That motion revealed tension higher up previously masked by tension in lower muscles. As I relaxed each higher muscle, I could sense the tension in the next set of muscles.
That session ended at 11 for lunch. After lunch I restarted in a private room so quiet I could hear my own breath. I could focus more than in the group room I was in before. I restarted at 1pm. Muscle by muscle, as I moved my attention up my back, I found I could relax each next muscle up, feeling good and revealing tension in the muscles above them. Tension vanished. Flexibility increased. I could breathe unhindered. My chest opened wide. It felt like someone replaced muscles that felt like old, brittle, dry rubber bands with… I don’t know, like clouds. I think I started to laugh it felt so free. As each muscle relaxed, I could feel the sensations on my skin near the muscle and within the muscle. I felt good.
I moved my attention to my shoulders and neck. The tension in my neck was harder to release, but with motion to highlight its precise location and working from the outside in, it went away. I would focus on a muscle, sense the tension, move my head or back to locate the specific muscle holding the tension, and with patience relax it and move to the next muscles.
When I left the clock said 2:15. Wow! I had sat for an hour and fifteen minutes. Longer sessions mean deeper progress, which I like. The next group sitting was 2:30, so I only had fifteen minutes’ break.
I walked—almost bounded because of my energy—to the path in the woods by the pagoda. No one else was there. I felt so good I had to express it. I stretched my arms out wide, like Julie Andrews on the Sound of Music poster. A straight, male version, anyway. I would have been embarrassed if anyone saw, but I had to. You have to let that out. Then I remembered a picture of a girl I know jumping for joy on the beach. She’s in a bikini, mid-jump with her arms and shoulders back, her legs back too, like she’s jumping forward, and a big smile. I thought, “That’s how I feel. I want to jump like that because that’s how I feel.” So I looked around. Nobody. Good. So I jumped like her.
I jumped for joy!
Jumping felt great. Not just because it’s fun, but because it expressed exactly how I felt. And it made me feel better to do it. Feeling better made me want to jump more, which made me feel better. So I jumped a few more times in a few different ways. I could feel my heart beat stronger with the exercise.
I was jumping for joy! When had I jumped for joy before? Had I ever? How often do people jump for joy? Had I been risking going my whole life without it? When would I ever had expected the motivation to come from sitting in a dark room alone for an hour and change?
Meditating later that afternoon, I continued my pattern of finding and relaxing tense muscles, reaching increasingly inner, protected ones. I have been trying yoga for a couple months with modest progress. This meditation made something about yoga click: I was trying to stretch muscles by pushing against the resistance. This technique was different: stretch to highlight the position of the tension, then, once aware of it, mentally relax the muscle to let the tension out.
Before, when tension kept me from doing a yoga pose I would relax my form to go farther, even though I wasn’t doing it right, only as best I could, evading the tension. Now I saw the point was to maintain the form to highlight the tension, hold it, and be aware of it, that being the only way to know what to release.
I left the meditation hall to do some yoga poses. It was like I was doing it for the first time with the realization that the point of the poses wasn’t to challenge me, it was to reveal the tension. A couple poses I breezed past where I used to have to stop.
But now I’m getting past the jumping for joy part of the story. I could go on about awareness, discipline, focus, letting go, and other meditation stuff, but the jumping was the remarkable part this time.
(Edit: less than a week later I found myself jumping for joy at a come-from-behind win at a Yankees game. Maybe I do it more than I thought without realizing.)
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