Posted on December 31, 2023 by Jenn Zatopek
The first time I meditated was freshman year in 1996 at the girls’ dorm on a warm autumn day. I gripped a packet of worksheets in my hands, which elucidated the benefits of meditation, encouraging me to relax and let go. Easy enough, I thought, as I sat on the soft quilt with warm spring colors, staring out the huge windows facing southward. Studious but impatient, I skimmed the first few pages and resolved to try myself, no one else around to offer support. After all, my counselor said I could handle it on my own, so why not try it?
I’m sure you know where this is headed.
As I turned towards the light pouring into the room, slowing down my breathing, I gasped as the awful truth dawned on my body. My heart sped up and terrible images swept through my mind, I fled my bedroom. Running around campus, I knew movement would slow down the wild thoughts careening around my mind, sweat pouring over me. A few days later, I threw the packet on my counselor’s floor and cried emphatically, I’m never doing that again!
Thus began my first great foray into mindfulness, something I wouldn’t try again for almost twenty years.
Reader, that was not one of my best moments, I’ll grant you that. A painfully shy university student, I was given only an admonishment to practice and no real instruction. No one knew much about trauma back in the nineties, how it lives in the deepest places inside us and tends to arise when we are in a relaxed, alert state like a mindfulness meditation. And because of past conditioning and a learned submissive stance, I didn’t bother to ask.
But after a long while of climbing my way out of heartbreak in my twenties, I entered the ever-widening pastures of possibilities in my late-thirties, finding my way back to the arms of mindfulness through Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC). Even then, I struggled to practice MSC meditation regularly because I practiced alone, never in the presence of a teacher or a group, though I knew of one at the local UCC church on rolling green hills in the southside part of town.
The painfully shy university student still lived within me, desperate for the fullness of healing but deeply afraid of connecting with others. We can’t heal alone, I would encourage my counseling clients when I worked at the low-income psychiatric clinic in town. Visiting homes in housing projects with no air conditioning or on tree-lined avenues in wealthy neighborhoods, I’d sit with my clients and offer the same advice but failed to see the irony: I never joined a practice group because I thought I could do it on my own.
Only twenty-four years later did I finally taste deep love when I slipped into online sits through the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion and Mountain Cloud Zen Center. As I allowed all emotions, thoughts, and body sensations to arise without harshly judging myself for having them, I became intimately acquainted with myself, no longer abandoning my heart. This is my spiritual practice, one I learned through my experience of showing up, again and again, to those live online sits.
As 2023 ends, I recall my word for the year rise, and consider how mindfulness helps me to rise with resilience, intimacy, sensuality, and ease. I honor my pain by becoming intimately acquainted with my wounds, which allows me to return to myself, a beautiful homecoming. I lean into the sensual gifts of a mundane existence found in an abundant universe–the radiance of a sunset over the river, the warmth of a cup of tea, the tenderness in someone else’s gaze.
This year has brought with it challenges and blessings, as each year always does. I do not know what pain and joy you hold, but nonetheless, I salute you for being here, for surviving, for choosing to show up however imperfectly to your life, just as it is. This is how we rise–we choose to honor our pain by turning towards our suffering with great kindness and offering ourselves love because that is how we heal, how we can experience more ease and wellbeing in each of our moments.
May you become your own advocate by turning towards the shadowy parts of yourself, the ones you have pushed aside and forgotten about it, and welcoming them home. May you stop abandoning your own precious heart and give yourself the marvelous gift of your own sacred and divine presence, knowing you are worth loving.
Image: Pino Trail at sunset, Albuquerque, New Mexico