I live in New Orleans, a town known for many things, including delicious food and Mardi Gras. When you live here, you forget that the rest of the world doesn’t share in many of the same traditions and experiences that make up life here. Not everyone makes groceries, or eats red beans and rice on Monday, or packs cold Popeye’s chicken in their purse for a parade.
If you have never been to Mardi Gras, you should experience it. It may not be what you have in your mind when you think of it. Yes, you can overindulge on Bourbon Street. Yes, people flash other people for trinkets. Yes, costumes can be risque’. But there is another side of it that is magical, colorful, family friendly, and fun. The parades and the sights and sounds that go along with them are wonderful experiences. Little kids and their parents, neighbors and strangers, pack the streets to see the spectacles roll by. The marching bands fill the city with music that makes you come alive inside. The marching krewes are flamboyant and fun. The throws feel like treasures and you find yourself caught up in receiving what the riders are throwing, or trying to catch the attention of a krewe member to get a special throw or a photo opportunity. Before you know it, the float or the krewe has passed, and another is approaching. You may be able to hear it or see it coming. Your attention is refocused.
On and on our parades go. Twenty five, thirty, sometimes over forty floats with marching bands and krewes in between. These are all day or night affairs. One noisy, colorful, exciting distraction after another. All vying for your attention, all holding promise, all wonderful and worthy and important in the moment. Sometimes, though, it gets overwhelming, and I find I need to take a step back.
I’ve begun to think of meditation as an experience not that different from going to, and then retreating from, a Mardi Gras parade. Arriving on my mat is a similar experience to arriving on the route just as the parade is beginning to roll by. There is a lot of activity! The thoughts rolling in are exciting and important, bright, noisy spectacles that I don’t want to miss a detail of. With my eyes peeled I am trying to take everything in. Trying to catch and hold on to thoughts as they pass is not unlike jumping to catch a shiny throw, which sometimes turns out to be a meticulously decorated shoe, and sometimes a cheap plastic piece of future garbage. It’s a frenzy, a non stop barrage of thinking and thoughts.
After some time the thoughts become overwhelming, and the effort of trying to hold on to them, react to them , or silence them becomes too much. As I turn my attention to my breath, and begin to detach from my thoughts, the sensation is one of stepping away from the parade route, moving ever further backward. The parade is still going on, but it is less loud, less bright, less enticing. I continue to retreat, darkness and silence enveloping and soothing my poor overworked senses. I am able to feel my body relax, my breath settle and even out, my mind relax.
Mind you, the thoughts are still parading. Sometimes, a particularly bright and shiny one moves through my consciousness. I witness it. The difference is I am not willing to run after it, arms in the air, knocking over small children to catch it, hold it, take a piece of it home. I witness and trust that I will have an opportunity to think that thought again. I breathe.
Backing away is like vice grip releasing on my mind. I am able to detach from the fray and turn my back to it. I find myself on an empty street, the crowd cheering behind me, only a streetlight ahead and empty porches on either side of me. I walk a ways in silence.
After a couple of blocks I turn and enter a doorway that leads to a staircase. I climb the stairs and enter a room where a flickering candle is the only illumination. I approach, feeling safe and soothed by the soft amber glow. I approach the flame and sit down, layering my awareness on the light.
Being alone and focused on the light reminds me that I am more than the fray I am caught up in. It stokes my own inner fire and connects me to it. It gives me the ability to go back into the outside world with a tether to my inner guidance and wisdom. I sit and rest my gaze upon the light, for how long I cannot be sure.
Something inside me stirs. It is time to reenter the world of sound and form. I simply rise, turn, descend, pass through the door and allow my senses to take in the lingering scent in the air, the faint sound of a crowd, a sensation of coolness on my skin. I choose to move in the direction of the parade but not right up to the edge. I can keep my distance and be content with a glimpse of it here and there, and hearing the music from a distance. I am content.
This is how I feel after meditation. Perhaps you can relate. If you have stuck with me this long, thank you for going on this little journey with me. This is both an analogy, and an example of a guided meditation. With guided meditation we can allow the mind to become present to feelings and sensations we call forth through visualization.The mind does not know the difference. It is the same as waking from a pleasant dream or a disturbing one. The mind believes what it perceives, whether it is real or not. It is easy to discern dream from reality (or is it?). It is not always easy to discern which thoughts have merit and which ones we should let pass through us, which is why meditation is such an important tool for the modern human.
Otherwise, we may be eternally on the neutral ground screaming for beads and trinkets and forgetting to breathe.