Meditation is the art of freeing yourself from life’s annoying circumstances. Life’s ups and downs happen all around. Highs and lows. Pain and ecstasy. Love and loss. Meditation is the tool to free yourself from suffering and feel at ease in your circumstances.
A couple of weeks ago, I tore my ACL. Behind me is the foolishness of my pre-injured youthful self. Now I’m a grim-faced gimp. In a moment of inattention, I metamorphosed from an egotistical and childish skier who didn’t know the debilitation of injury into a sedate and crippled adult humbled by the limits of my own body.
Where formerly I would roll my eyes at friend’s descriptions of injuries to meniscus and patella, now I understand the anatomy of the knee with the same clinical accuracy that Jordan Peterson defends gendered pronouns. I hadn’t heard the sickening pop of a torn ligament and I was blissfully uninformed of the difference between MCL, ACL and PCL. They were just acronyms and I was just skiing. “No more conversation about knees…” I’d plead and loudly sigh as yet another friend detailed ACL injury and subsequent rehabilitation.
But those days are over. Skiing and normal activities stripped away in a moment of complacency; the road to recovery lies ahead. The banality of a knee injury is not lost on me. For skiers, it’s as common as a cold. The tedium of thinking about my knee is oppressive. I’m obsessed with it’s healing, I’m terrified of slipping on the sidewalk and I can’t fathom the elasticity it’s going to take to get back in my ski boots, let alone on to my skis.
So what to do? So far, I’ve made it up and down a few flights of stairs and done some step-ups onto a 4-inch box. Those feats are a significant departure from bootpacking a 500-metre couloir or even doing consecutive box jumps.
But it doesn’t matter what I could do before. All that matters is what I can do right now. Circumstances can’t be changed, regret is a waste of time and the only thing to do is whatever it takes to heal and get back to the mountain. And that includes yoga.
I’ve told countless injured friends over the years that they should get on the yoga mat. Regardless of injury, regardless of perceived inability to “do” yoga. “I can’t go to yoga because my back/neck/knee hurts.” Well, you should go to yoga because your back/neck/knee hurts. I’ve said this to injured friends, with tyrannical authority, but I didn’t have any first-hand experience on the logistics of getting an injured body onto the mat and into the practice. Until now. Bitterly tasting my own medicine.
On the day after the injury, I went to yoga. I wanted to stay home and watch Netflix. I was unhappy about being hurt. It was all so predictable. Skier injures knee. How typical, how prosaic. I was despondent and defeated by my circumstances. Yoga, meditation and the accompanying introspection was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t want to accept my circumstances; I didn’t want to be free from suffering. I was furious. This was the strongest I’d felt in years. This season was going to be mine. But that strength and confidence was gone. And I wanted to wallow in self-pity, not meditate on the gift of the present moment.
But on crutches, in pain and feeling sorry for myself, I wobbled into the yoga studio. And at risk of sounding imperious, I’m here to emphasize that yoga is, indeed, the thing. Logistically, I couldn’t do many of the poses. In fact, doing any poses was out of the question. But I could lie there and quietly breathe, do a few knee bends and focus on cultivating a positive attitude. And as cliche and over-stated a positive attitude is, it really is all we’ve got. A positive attitude, unshakeable by circumstances, is the means to survive all of life’s disagreeable circumstances. Yoga and the accompanying meditation teaches comfort with discomfort.
Yoga is so much more than the poses. The poses are only 12.5 percent of the practice. I’ve said this before, but I don’t think I truly got it until I was lying there unable to do any of the asana, but still participating in the class just by being present. The other 87.5 percent of the practice exists in the mind. Concentration, discipline, meditation, freedom from suffering.
It’s the freedom from suffering that is central to yoga and the tool to manage life’s circumstances. A knee injury is not the worst tragedy to befall anyone. It’s not really even a crisis, but it’s a temporarily debilitating detail in my story. We all have debilitating details in our stories. Whether it’s the unanticipated loss of a job, illness of a parent, being a victim of burglary, paralysis following a car accident. These are all tragic circumstances. The hard truth though is everything could always be worse. But it could also be better. The point is that good and bad things happen with equal regularity. Meditation teaches that surviving the ups and downs is possible. By meditating on the present moment, you teach yourself that the collection of experiences that populate your life’s story are not the totality of your existence. Furthermore, the collection of experiences that cause pain and difficulty do not need to equate to suffering.
The myth of the wise man sitting on top of the mountain is an archetype of someone escaping the confines of life experience in order to seek enlightenment and avoid suffering. It’s a story to illustrate meditation as a transcendent and literal state of being. But glorifying meditation in this unlikely scenario is a hyperbolic way of viewing the practice. Literally escaping the trappings of society and its accompanying pain and sorrows isn’t necessary because meditation provides an avenue to metaphorically escape the confines of difficult circumstances. The trick is to use meditation to pay attention to the present moment, cultivate a positive outlook and refuse to suffer from unfortunate circumstances.
Experiences and circumstances are sometimes beyond control. Events that cause pain are unavoidable. But choosing to suffer (or not) is definitely within your control. Practice meditation as a strategy for accepting and coping with difficult circumstances. Learn to be comfortable with discomfort and maintain a sense of ease through all life’s injuries.
Lying on my yoga mat with a swollen knee, I didn’t feel prepared to accept my circumstances. But recovery will follow a specific trajectory and there isn’t any way to expedite the healing. I can’t change what happened and my ski season is over. So many details in my life are different now: the inability to walk the dog, waking up to searing pain because my knee twisted in the sheets, boredom with the only cardiovascular exercise I can currently do (swimming). But my ability to tolerate these frustrating changes and to thrive as a contributing member of society is predicated on making the conscious choice not to suffer.
Suffering from these circumstances is easy. Using meditation to alleviate suffering and to understand my intrinsic worth is hard. Living a worldly existence populated by experiences and injuries is easy. When something as consuming as injury happens, it can be hard not to obsess with the story and the healing. But circumstance does not represent the totality of existence. Meditation is freedom from preoccupation with circumstances. Pain and difficulty is mandatory. Suffering is not.