I’m on the road again, in Los Angeles after a summer of relative quiet at home. This week, I’ll teach a meditation workshop, give a lecture at a yoga conference, see some students and a few friends. It’s been a year of major change for me and this month, I feel for the first time that the transition phase of this new life is ending, that I’m beginning to see the shape of it.
These days, I describe myself as a meditation teacher, though that term doesn’t entirely convey what I do. Most people, even some meditators, think that teaching meditation is a simple matter of telling people how to sit and giving them a way to focus the mind. In fact, what is taught is something much subtler and deeper—a way of approaching your inner world that lets you enter into a relationship with parts of yourself you may not have known were there.
For instance, when I started meditating 30 years ago, my idea was that meditation would give me a handle on my runaway mind, so that I would feel better—that is, less worried, insecure, and discontented. Those shifts happened fairly quickly. What also happened—which I hadn’t bargained for—was a radical reordering of my ideas about the world and myself. For example, my unexamined habit of blaming other people and situations for my own discontent got thrown up in my face, and I had to learn how to take responsibility for my own state. And that was just the beginning. Meditation can be a revolutionary process, so teaching it is not just about techniques; it’s also about philosophy, psychology, relationship skills, and a lot more.
For me, at this point, it’s also about balance—bringing contemplative skills into a host of new and unexpected situations. For just under 30 years, since 1974, I lived, studied, traveled, and taught inside the ashrams of a Hindu-based spiritual tradition called Siddha Yoga. For 20 years I was a swami, a monk, who wore orange or red or rust-colored robes and answered to the name Swami Durgananda. (I still answer to the name Durgananda, since a lot of people in my life haven’t got used to calling me Sally.) In June of 2002, I officially put aside the monastic robes, moved to California, and began to learn a whole new set of navigation skills. I was amazed to discover how much you have to do to begin a new life, especially when your old life has been spent inside a well-organized spiritual institution. Siddha Yoga is very different than, say, the Catholic church. Nonetheless, being a swami has something in common with being a priest. For one thing, whenever you put on religious robes, you step into an archetypal persona that has its own power and its own unique social niche. For another thing, being part of a spiritual institution protects you from a lot of the mundane details of life in 21st-century America. So, when I made the decision that it was time for me to let go of that persona, I discovered that there were all sorts of things I’d forgotten how to do.
Choosing colors, for example—for over 20 years, my eyes had ignored everything on the rack that wasn’t some shade of red. (I solved this problem, at least initially, by buying everything in black.) Setting up a household, for another. Making my own travel arrangements. Troubleshooting my computer problems. Keeping track of the people who want to study with me. The Chinese call this level of experience “the ten-thousand things,” which I think is a great description of the endless streams of detail that fill up your mind when your life is on startup. What made my situation feel even more like a roller coaster ride was the fact that I had just published a book. That meant six months of touring and teaching workshops related to the book, then another six months of touring on my own. It also meant explaining that Swami Durgananda, author of The Heart of Meditation, was the same person as Sally Kempton.
One thing in my life that hasn’t changed is the habit and structure of my meditation practice. Every morning, I sit for at least an hour and 15 minutes, sometimes two hours. The practice now does itself, no matter what else is going on. I sit until my mind lets go of whatever it is hanging onto—practical details; feelings of urgency, or excitement, or pressure—and relaxes into openness. In the evening, I sit again for about an hour. Different rooms, different towns, different moods—yet whenever I sit for meditation, a door opens into that open, expanded state. It’s what lets me enjoy the ride.