Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…but the meditatin’ ain’t. At least, not for me.
Wait, let’s back up a minute. (See? Lack of focus. That’s part of my problem.)
Barton Springs is beautiful anytime, but my favorite times to visit are during the free hours — and not just because I’m cheap. At nine o’clock in the evening, after a sweltering, sluggish day, there’s just nothing like a visit to the Springs. The air near the water is cooler than the air farther up on dry land. The water itself is a sweet, cold revelation. And it’s dark enough out to imagine that it’s, say, a hundred years ago — back before A/C, when Austinites probably came to the Springs of a summer’s eve because it was the only way to cool down. I mean the only way — there weren’t any Polvo’s margaritas or noon shows at the Alamo Drafthouse back then.
The Springs are also gorgeous at around six-forty-five in the morning, when the sun is coming up and it’s just you and a handful of other lap-swimmers doing the eighth-mile length of the pool as many times as you can take it. That first plunge into the water takes your breath away, but since it isn’t too hot out yet, the shock isn’t as bad as it is in the afternoon. Your body adjusts. You surge forward, and then it’s just arm over arm, breath after breath, water in your ears, lungs tight but strong as you watch the fish twit back and forth in the reeds beneath you.
Before I moved back to Austin, during my four-year sojourn in San Francisco, I was a kickboxer. Like a lot of people in that city, I headed west when a love affair went really, really bad. I needed kickboxing: needed to pound it out on a heavy bag or my sparring partner, to use not just my fists but my knees, shins, elbows, heels, and also my speed and my instincts — my tools for avoiding injury. I’m untouchable. I’ll mess you up, but you can’t get me, never, ever again. You can see why martial arts might appeal to the brokenhearted.
It also appealed to me because it was the only time of day when I was thinking of just one thing: how to make my muscles keep going; how to get through the ninety-minute class without passing out or dying. I wasn’t fit, back then. I hadn’t known until then that exercise could quiet an overcrowded, constantly chattering mind. My obsessive, pessimistic, second-guessing thoughts just evaporated when I was kickboxing, vaporized by power, sweat and exertion.
By the time I moved back to Austin, I didn’t need such an aggressive workout anymore. My broken heart had healed. I got into more meditative forms of exercise: swimming, biking, running. You know, triathlons.
Meditative. It means “involving or absorbed in meditation or considered thought,” and it is one of my favorite qualities of some of my most favorite activities — running, playing music, writing. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about flow, the state of engaged focus and absorption in a meaningful task that leads to, or perhaps is equivalent to, optimal experience. This touches on what I’m describing: When I’m doing something I find meaningful and interesting, something that requires my focus and shuts out the jibber-jabber of my slightly neurotic brain, I’m in the flow, a meditative state that is either happiness or something even a little bit better.
So if I can achieve meditative states, why, oh why, can’t I meditate?
Here’s an example of what happens when I try. At Barton Springs this morning, after swimming a half-mile, I get out of the water feeling pretty darn good. Muscles tight, skin chilled but warming up under the morning sun. I walk over to my towel, keeping my stomach sucked in, though there aren’t too many people around yet; probably no one’s looking. Hey, maybe I’ll take advantage of the early hour, sit and close my eyes for a few minutes, and just focus on my breathing. That’s what meditation is, right? In its simplest form? That’s what many people and Web sites and texts have told me.
So I sit, cross my legs, get comfortable. Close my eyes. Breathe, in, out, in, out. I’m conscious of the sounds of splashing water, birds calling to each other, insects doing their thing. I try to do what I’ve heard I’m supposed to do, and let those sounds enter and exit. Don’t attach to them. Don’t attach to my thoughts. If they surface, I can just let them go, like catch-and-release fishing.
Remember that time when a fish bit the crap out of my ankle when I was standing in the deep end? That thing left a fish-mouth-shaped scab on my leg! I swore there were piranhas in Barton Springs!
Oh, crap, I’m thinking. Let it go. Back to focusing on my breathing. In. Out.
And then…suddenly, the sounds of splashing and insects and bird calls and people’s voices came together in a swelling orchestra, and she let the sounds enter her, and she was One with the sounds: One with Barton Springs —
Argh, thinking again. This always happens — whenever I try to meditate and stop thinking, I start narrating my meditation! Okay, I’m focusing, I’m focused —
Maybe I should write an essay about this. Narrating your mediation. That’s kind of funny, right? Maybe that happens to a lot of people when they try to meditate —
I stop, and give up for the day. It was a good try — four-and-a-half whole minutes. I’ve read research studies that show just 10 minutes of quiet time at the beginning of each school day helps students perform better academically. Maybe 270 seconds of quiet time will help me meet the rest of my day with greater comprehension, compassion and equanimity.
Or maybe, if meditation forever eludes me, meditative acts can serve as a close cousin. I think, with a brain as garrulous as mine, they’ll have to do.
The Barton Springs free hours are between 5 and 8 a.m. every morning, and between 9 p.m. and closing time at 10 every night. You can also go at other times of day for just $3 (adult entry fee). Visit the Barton Springs Web site or call the hotline at 512-867-3080 for more information.