This last explanation wouldn't have occurred to me until recently: to be sure, I was never the "new age" or spiritual type. As a lapsed Catholic (very devout until the age of 13) I was suspicious of all things religious and even spiritual; in my teens, I'd toyed with the hippie culture of the times (as hippie as you could get in Italy, of course), but I was always the rebel who refused to read Castaneda and take acid on a "vision quest just because everybody else was doing it. I was always the skeptic, the questioner, the non-joiner, and, for the longest time, cynical about all manners of spiritual practices and communities.
And yet, fate had other plans for me: at the end of March, finding myself emotionally and physically at the end of my tether, I decided to take a trip to the Expanding Light, a spiritual retreat in Northern California. Their website told me this was the Ananda Village, home of the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda (a yogi from India who came to America in the 1920s), and his disciple Swami Kriyananda, an American man who founded the Ananda Village where I took my retreat. Yes, I'd read all that, but I was ignorant of what any of it meant, and probably all the better for it, as I was able to approach the situation with an open mind.
When I booked into the retreat, I had no idea what I was getting into; I was just seeking a quite place where I could rest, recharge, read, eat healthy foods, and maybe do some yoga. Meditation wasn't even on the cards for me at that point: I'd always believed myself incapable of sitting still for any amount of time without doing anything. Indeed, judging from the million people restlessly thumbing through their iPhones at any given moment on the bus, in the streets, at the restaurant, even at concerts or the movies, this must be the disease of our epoch.
I was at the retreat for nine days, with no television and no cellphone reception up there, at least not for my cellphone, though the folks at Ananda have decided to bow down to the pressure of modernity and the place did have wireless internet everwhere.
For nine days, I ate healthy vegetarian meals, I slept, waking up to the sound of birds and nothing else, and participated in the daily yoga and meditation practice. After just a couple of days, I began to feel a calm and peace inside I'd never experienced before in my life.
I have always considered myself a lazy person, yet I am also deeply neurotic (a very common combination in my hometown of Naples); meditation did something to me that nothing else—no drugs or lovemaking or other nearly-ecstatic experience—had ever done: it helped me quieten (sometimes even completely silence!) that little voice inside that has kept chatting for as long as I've been a sentient being.
Most neuroscientists today have finally come to the conclusion (millennia after non-Western cultures, and even Christian religious practices, had already discovered this) that meditation can be a great help for a host of diseases, mental and physical, and is generally a good thing to do even if you're in perfect health (but who is these days?). There are many articles and books out there that talk about this—one I've found particularly good is Buddha's Brain.
One sentence the Ananda people were very fond of repeating was a quote from Yogananda: "Environment is stronger than will power", and after returning from the retreat, I could see why as I struggled to maintain that sense of inner peace and bliss. There was a slow waning of that peace starting from the moment I came "down the mountain", literally in this case as the retreat was in the Sierra Nevada, and had to regain my place in normal, everyday life again.
As I felt that bliss slip away little by little every day, I had to face a deep crisis of loss—a similar sensation to having experienced a great passionate love and then seeing it wane through the unavoidability of everydayness. You know it's out there, you know it does exist, you know you felt it, but now you don't feel it anymore.
Thus with the intensity of spiritual practice: I don't know how other people who don't live in a spiritual community approach it, but for me it's been a struggle to find the time and place and mental space and willingness to meditate every day.
And yet, I've tried, and even the trying alone has made me feel better at times.
And I have come to see that meditation is very much like writing: you know it's inside you, but it often doesn't want to come out, yet you still have to sit and meditate everyday, whether it will "work" or not, just as you must sit and write every day, and the discipline of doing it will make you write better and more, eventually.
Writing is also like meditation in that it requires a pulling away from the trappings of modern life: the blogging, emailing, the online chatting, facebooking and twittering that seem to waste so much of our writing energy and capacity these days. Despite constant advice that I should, I have chosen not to participate in the "social" networks, but I do use email, far too much because all my friends are far away; and I also blog, though of late I have felt that I needed to take a break from this, to follow the inner lead of silence and contemplation without action that the meditation gave me.
We live in a society that doesn't support "non action", the practices of "just sitting", meditating, contemplating—anything that doesn't appear to have a sense of purpose and a visible, practical outcome; anything that doesn't yield a "product".
This is also true about writing, and perhaps our greatest crisis as writers occurs when we feel reluctant to give ourselves permission to say "I am a writer" because we haven't been published or received public recognition yet. And yet, we may have been writing away for years, silently and quietly and lonely, just like one does with meditation...
I'm still a novice at meditation, and a reluctant self-disciplinarian at both meditation and writing, but I am learning, exploring new meditation techniques and schools as I have explored poetry and fiction before getting into writing non-fiction. This is as much an anthropological curiosity with me as a way of perfecting a tool that I can use for the rest of my life.
Meditation and writing seem to go hand in hand, and I'm sure the meditation I am practicing now could eventually make the writing better and different, by taking me it into writerly directions I may not have been open to before.
Most of all, meditation takes me inside myself in a non-judgmental, non-active way, allowing all thoughts to flow and pass me by, without the need to arrest them.
There is a mind cleansing aspect to this that cannot but be beneficial to creativity.
And so, I will continue to meditate (or try to), despite the house renovation still going on, the fights with the husband, the lack of a job and publication, and the neighbors' barking dogs...