The Universal Self

9 Feb

I had planned to spend the month of February doing kegel exercises and updating my underwear with a set of those 21st century torture devices called thongs.  But as the month drew closer, I began to think about how writing about these particular experiences would go.  I knew that it would require me to discuss my- well, there’s no way around this – my vagina.  Which I would be completely comfortable doing in a blog.  However, it has turned out that a small but significant part of my readership is comprised of my former (middle-school) students and my three children.  They all know, at least theoretically, that I have a vagina, but I am certain that they really, really, really, don’t want to hear any specifics about it.

So I decided to move the focus of the month a little further north on my body – to my navel.  No, I am not piercing it.  I’m gazing at it.

I decided to spend the month meditating, which I’ve never done.  It is my hope that, through meditation, I can become more aware of the world around me, a beautiful, enchanting, unique world that I too often ignore in favor of stupid crap happening only in my head.  This month, I’m aiming to slow down the compulsive list-making and encounter rehashing and prewriting and disaster planning that occupies entirely too much of my energy and my consciousness.

Although I intended to meditate every day, it was February 3 by the time I realized the month had started without me.

And then I had no idea how to go about meditating.  I’d never meditated, I owned no books on meditation, and I didn’t know anyone who meditated regularly (believe me, I’d asked around).  My gym doesn’t offer meditation classes, and the only meditation centers I knew of were far from Westchester.

I logged onto the computer, intending to Google “How to Meditate,” when I remembered YogaGlo.  My friend Laura had turned me on to this great online resource for yoga practitioners.  I’d joined, and over several months had taken a number of yoga classes. I remembered that I’d seen meditation classes offered as well, so I logged on to my YogaGlo account.

For someone like me, who is both easily overwhelmed and a complete beginner, the choices were overwhelming.  I could do one of the series of five Kosha meditations, or a Gurubhava Meditation or Chitinri Nadri.  I could choose Visualize Your Intention or Embrace Abundance or Firm Resolution.  I ruled out Prenatal Meditation and Connecting With Baby, and I didn’t feel the need for Releasing Sadness or Releasing Anger, but how could I possibly select from all of the many other options?

I finally settled on The Universal Self, led by Tara Judelle, which is described as “A meditation about feeling yourself in your whole body, and the bigness of the universe.”  I chose it based on a combination of its length – it was fifteen minutes, which seemed doable – and the description, which sounded like what I was trying to accomplish – to feel more present in and connected to the world around me.

I spread my yoga mat out on the floor in front of my desktop computer, folded an afghan to sit on, pressed play, and got ready to meditate.

Sitting in a beautiful lotus position, Tara instructs me to find a comfortable position.  I cross my legs, not trying to get them into lotus, but even in a basic crossed-leg, I notice that my left knee isn’t touching the floor.  In fact it’s several inches off the floor.  I try pushing on it but it doesn’t budge.  I try adjusting the position of both legs; no dice.  What the hell is going on?

All the time I’m wrestling with my left knee, Tara has been giving quiet, gentle instructions.  Which I have not heard.  A minute into my first meditation experience and I’m already screwing it up.  I stand, restarted the video, and sit back down, determined to ignore my recalcitrant knee.

Tara instructs me to move the flesh of my thighs back and apart; this is familiar language for me from years of intermittent yoga practice, and I feel reassured.  Then Tara says I should take a moment to center myself, and find where my vertical axis centers in the bowl of my pelvis.

What?  What does that mean?

Determined not to let a little confusion interrupt my meditation, I rock slightly back and forth and try to imagine my upper body centering in the bowl of my pelvis.

“Finding stillness in that spot,” Tara continues, speaking slowly and softly, “allow your eyes to soften behind your eyelids…and the space behind your eyes to soften—“

The space behind my eyes?  What the hell is that?  My brain?  Or does she mean the bony sockets of my skull?  Cathleen, I say to myself, you’re being too literal.  You don’t have to freak out over every little thing.  Just go with the flow.  Which is when I suddenly remember that I need to make an Orthodontist’s appointment for Maggie.  Oh, and also, tomorrow is my father’s birthday; I need to remember to call him.  I pull up my mental “To Do” list and add two items—

and then remember that I’m supposed to be meditating—

I tune back in to Tara, who is instructing me to focus awareness in my feet.

I hate focusing on my feet.  Patty, my yoga (and singing) teacher, often begins class with students in a standing position, and gives us feet-related instructions – pull up the inner arch and activate the foot, pull up the outer arch, ground the ball of the foot – which I always struggle with.  The only feet-related activity I can really embrace is a nice pedicure.  Which reminds me, how long had it been since I’d had a pedicure?

I tune back into Tara who is instructing me to place my whole self in my feet.


I try.  I really try.  But they’re my feet.  The part of my body farthest from my head, which is where I feel that my self is actually located.  Sometimes my feet feel cold, and sometimes they get sweaty, and if I wear high heels, they can hurt.  But I just don’t have such an intimate relationship with them that I can feel my whole body in them.

“Allow your awareness to climb up your body from your ankles to your knees—“

Oy.  I’ve been trying to ignore my knees, especially the left one that is still three @#%ing inches off the floor.  Now I’m supposed to put my whole self in that knee?  Maybe my whole self will weight it down enough that it will TOUCH the @#%ing FLOOR.

After we spend some time feeling (or failing to feel, if you’re me) our whole selves in our legs, we move on to feel our selves in other parts of our body – the place where the leg bones insert into the hip sockets, the pelvis, the navel, the organs of digestion, lungs.  It goes on, and up.

I am hugely relieved when we finally get to feeling our selves in the top of the skull because there’s nowhere else to go.  When Tara says, “Feel yourself in your whole body,” I think, “Yes!”  because this I can do.  I revel in feeling myself in my whole body.

We stay there for what seems like a long time, Tara quiet, feeling our selves in our body, and I’m beginning to think maybe I can do this meditation thing when Tara says, “Feel your self expand past your body into the entire room.”


I try to see my self expanding out of my body and filling the bedroom.  I imagine stretching up and out so that my self touches all of the walls and the ceiling.  I’m just beginning to feel bigger and more expansive when Tara says, “Make yourself as big as your whole city.”

What if I don’t live in a city?  What if I live in a tiny village?  A little hamlet in the hills?  And even if I do live in a city (which I do) What if I don’t want to be as big as my whole city?  What if I really hate the blue light at the top of the Ritz-Carlton in my city and I don’t want that to be part of my self?

I try focusing on the parts of my city that I love – my street, the neighborhood park, my synagogue, Target (honestly.  I love Target) – but I can’t seem to expand my mind to encompass the whole city.  And Tara’s already moving on, telling me to envision my self as the whole country.

Should I envision the country as a map?  Or should I try to see the real places? I picture that famous New Yorker cover, where New York is larger and more detailed than everything between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean.  But that’s a cartoon, not the real country.  I try picturing Maine, and then holding on to that image while also picturing the Pacific Ocean as I’ve seen it from a plane, and San Juan Island, which is the farthest west I’ve been in the U.S., but I don’t know what Kansas or North Dakota or Kentucky looks like, and even if I could imagine them, I can’t keep all of the images in my mind’s eye at once.

While I’m still stuck on trying to imagine my country, Tara moves on to the world and then to universe.  I retreat to my city, and focus on encompassing the whole of it, on being the city.

And that’s where I am when the meditation ends.

I don’t feel energized or changed.  I don’t feel connected to the universe.  I don’t even feel particularly connected to my city, upon which I focused so much of my mental energy.

But I am surprised at how quickly the fifteen minutes passed.  And I do feel…quieter.

Next time, I’ll pick an easier meditation.  There is one called Beginner Meditation.  Maybe that’s for me.


11 Responses to “The Universal Self”

  1. Andrea February 9, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    You didn’t ask me about meditation. My father has taught meditation to at least half of White Plains, including several Bet Am-niks and classes of SSSW kids. He teaches in series of 3 classes open to all. And you get to sit in a chair.

  2. Laura February 9, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    Hah!!! I did that meditation….David Aftergood also teaches leads a wonderful meditation circle the first Saturday of every month at Bet Am. It’s wonderful. And you might enjoy Jon Kabat-Zinn’s tapes. He’s much more down to earth than Tara Judelle, who led the meditation you did.

  3. Louis Greenzweig February 9, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    I have meditated hundreds if not thousands of times. Sometimes when I am on a treadmill in the gym listening to the Rolling Stones, sometimes when walking on the Boardwalk looking out at the Ocean and mostly on the deck of my home which faces west and provides a great exposure (since I built it) to see sunset with a Vodka Martini at hand. Meditation is how you perceive it. Life goes by real fast, if you don’t take a moment to look around, it could pass you by.

    • Cathleen Barnhart February 9, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

      I need to study with you, Louis! Do you think red wine (my drink of choice) would work in place of a vodka martini?

      • Louis Greenzweig February 12, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

        It is written in the bible and certainly part of every holiday celebration that wine should be enjoyed. We even have a separate prayer for wine which is said at every simcha. Red wine will work and it had health benefits as well ask the MD in your home.

  4. John February 9, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    Sounds like a great start. Don’t give up! I also recommend Shabbat meditation with David Aftergood.

    • Cathleen Barnhart February 9, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

      Yes, I did know about David’s meditation before services…on Saturday mornings, even 9:45 feels really early, so getting up & there earlier than that – not so easy for me.

  5. Debbie Hirsch February 10, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    Cathleen-Sarah and i really enjoyed this! We were hysterical! It sounds like me in the meditation portion of my yoga class! Cheer-

    • Cathleen Barnhart February 11, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it – and that Sarah is reading it too. Thanks for commenting, Debbie!

  6. Amanda Barnhart February 11, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    I think David Fein meditates. I have some Jon Kabat-Zinn audiotapes he gave me. MUCH more accessible! 🙂

    • Cathleen Barnhart February 11, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

      It seems that everyone I didn’t ask about meditation does it – and uses Kabot Zinn’s meditations. I ordered them from Amazon.

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