Every couple of weeks we'll feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire. Read on for Michael's first "dharmablog" entry about his introduction to meditation practice.
I’ve longed to meditate since I was in college, but it took several decades and a couple of Type-A’s -- a record-biz honcho and a Hollywood screenwriter -- to get me started.
As the 20th Century drew to a close, I was mega-anxious just about all the time. When I wasn’t working long hours as publisher of two newspapers -- LA Weekly and OC Weekly -- I worried about work. At home, I worried in my sleep.
I’d read a meditation book or two and tried sitting a few times on my own, but the effort to empty my mind -- what I thought meditation was all about -- was a cruel joke. What was cruel about it? My mind was already overflowing with worry, and trying to empty the worry gave me a whole new failure to worry about: My complete inability to meditate.
At a New Year’s Eve party a few hours before Y2K -- remember how life as we knew it was going to end on January 1, 2000 because all the world’s computers would go berserk? -- I ran into Jeff, a Type-A friend and music-business muckety-muck. He was excited about something -- his latest superstar discovery, I assumed. But in fact, he was bursting with enthusiasm about the life-changing benefits of meditation practice. “I never miss a day,” he said with classic Type-A pride. I figured if Jeff could do it, so could I.
New Year’s Day 2000 dawned and, lo and behold, the world still existed. Airplanes had not fallen from the sky; traffic signals still blinked on and off in sequence. I called Stanley, a friend since we shared a bunk at Camp Lenox in the Berkshires when we were 11. A successful screenwriter and long-time meditator, Stanley felt I needed a teacher and introduced me to John at the Shambhala Center in West Hollywood. (This was before the center moved to its spiritually convergent but geographically daunting location in Eagle Rock.) My first session with John lasted all of 15 minutes and boiled down to this: sit still, breathe and watch my thoughts go by.
In the spirit of Freud, who said neurotics do the work of civilization, I put my neurosis to work, sitting every single day just like Jeff. Forty minutes in the morning, 20 in the evening. Every minute of practice felt like torture. Since there were no distractions, my already skyrocketing anxiety levels only increased as my mind spun out story after story of imminent disaster. But almost immediately, I noticed I was sleeping better and had more moments of clarity. The cost-benefit analysis -- more suffering for one hour, less suffering for the other 23 -- was, as we say in business, a triple-net positive.
I continued practicing, continued hating it and the benefits continued to accumulate. My mind was anything but empty when I sat, so I called John and asked what I was doing wrong. He said, “Nothing. Just keep sitting -- it will get easier.” I did keep sitting, but it didn’t get easier.
Soon, at the suggestion of a friend, I attended my first meditation retreat. A weekend in the desert with a self-proclaimed guru -- whose young acolytes wandered around with clip-boards signing people up for "renunciation" as though it were a volleyball tournament –- wasn’t helpful.
Then another friend turned me on to the magnificent Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA, just north of San Francisco. And that’s where it all really started.
Next time: The breakthrough: How Spirit Rock led me to Vipassana, Trudy Goodman and InsightLA.
Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company. He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint. He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond. Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.