Finding Freedom

Each of us has a journey to meditation. Mine began early, and at the same time not a moment too soon, in my junior year in high school. That was when my Social Studies teacher gave me my first survival tool. He explained that humans were stimulus-response machines. We had buttons other people pressed, triggering habitual responses.

He said there was a series of “tapes” inside our brains, tapes that looped around endlessly and trapped us in their scripts, preventing us from breaking away from these prescribed lines, which he called our habits and conditioning.

But we could break out, he suggested. We could find freedom. How? Meditation. Mindfulness could give us the tools to transcend these perceived limits and find our ultimate natures, which were limitless and loving.

He had me at “freedom.”

So I sat cross-legged at my desk chair and tried to focus on my breath. He guided us in meditation, asking us to watch each thought that passed as if it were a cloud moving through the sky. I couldn’t keep up with all the clouds. It was more like a thunderstorm. My eyes shot open.

“This is useless,” I said, shaking out my half-numb legs as I tried to stand up. “It doesn’t work!” I insisted.

“You have to keep at it,” Mr. Sereno replied.

“Why, if it doesn’t work?” I countered. I thought I had all the answers. I thought I knew everything. What teenager doesn’t?

“It’s not a quick fix, but it sure beats the alternatives,” he informed me.

“Like what?” I asked, skeptical.

“Depression and delusion. Drugs and alcohol. Unhappiness and fear.”

I laughed, but something in me sat up and took notice: He was onto me. I didn’t want to go down that road, which would have been so easy to do, and so available already.

So day after day in my junior year in high school, I sat in my little wooden desk chair, legs folded up beneath me, watching my breath, letting the thoughts pass like clouds.

“I think I’m having a nervous breakdown,” I confessed.

“Maybe you are. Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“What do you mean, don’t worry? You mean it’s okay to go crazy?”

“Of course not,” he said. “If you’re aware of your thoughts and feelings, you’re not ‘going crazy.’

It’s the ego, trying to hold on at all costs.”

“How do you go beyond the ego?” I asked, feeling as if I were being stripped bare.

Mr. Sereno said we had to go to the deepest, darkest corner of the soul and sit there with ourselves. We would understand the changing nature of thought and everything else in the world. We would “get” that we weren’t our bodies. We weren’t even our minds.

If we aren’t our bodies and our minds, what are we? I wondered. Wisely, I kept that question to myself.

“Look, kid. It’s a lifelong process. It’s something you commit to every day. And then one day, you’ll understand where things come from.”

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“From your own mind. That’s the awakening. That’s when you’ll notice the conditioning. You’ll find awareness and choice. You’ll find freedom. You’ll find peace.”

Mr. Sereno said if we stayed unconscious, we’d be nothing more than a quivering mass of external influences. But somewhere underneath it all, we had a core that was unchanging, a boundless essence connecting us to the universal energy field, to love and peace, just waiting to be unearthed. Meditation helped us tap into that place.

“How long will it take?” I asked.

He smiled. “The realizations come from disciplined practice,” he said. “That means sitting every day. It could take years, or it could take lifetimes.”

“Lifetimes? I don’t have lifetimes,” I said, frustrated and impatient. After all, I was 17.

“Just practice,” he said. “Once you get a glimpse of the limitless realm, you can’t go back. You can’t walk out the door. You stay—and then you experience yourself just as you are. Not the story, not the ego, but what’s behind the story.”

“What’s behind the story?” I asked.

“The space of unity, of wholeness. Of love,” he said, grinning. I frowned. It was all a bit too New Age for me.

But I had noticed I was calmer, less reactive, less angry. So I went back to my seat. And all that year, I watched my thoughts and watched my breath. I began to see glimmers of something beyond. Those glimmers turned into moments, which translated beyond the meditation cushion into my everyday life.

Decades later, I’m still sitting. And I’m grateful to my high school Social Science teacher, because everything he suggested was true. Mindfulness opened the door to peace, awareness, compassion, and yes, to freedom. When life is tough and when life is joyful, I sit and hold it all in compassionate awareness. What a gift I was given.

It’s my honor to share the practice of mindfulness meditation with you.

Leza Lowitz, M.A.

Leza offers a “Meditation Teacher Training” Course with us each year virtually. Our fall session begins October 4, 2023.

Leza is a graduate of the 2-year Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification program at the Awareness Training Institute and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Main teachers: Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.

Leza’s passion is to share these ancient practices with a contemporary, heartfelt and authentic approach. She has shared mindfulness, meditation, yoga and self-transformation with thousands of students around the world.

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