By this river – journaling and meditation

Jack McKenna, on a moment of discovery, two years ago, during his time at university. First written and published on his site


By this river, I finally understood the value of meditation. Powerful waves worked as full white noise: irregular fountains of sounds that drowned thoughts of leaf-littered sunlight spilling through squeezed eyelids and the pinprick distractions of soaring insects surrounding my stillness.

Sat by a river in the shade of a tree, with Astral Weeks by Van Morrison on in the background, watching a glowing butterfly circle by (white and orange).’ [21st April 2019]

This idyll represented a brief break from a strange time in my life: my first year of university, sandwiched between walls of new people in a new city with pressing deadlines that seemed momentous to a confused eighteen-year-old. It was a whirlpool of change, and I did little to acquaint myself with the velocity. 

I had started journaling, expressing how I was not enjoying university and even debating dropping out, a thought that seems so odd now I’ve finished my degree. Journaling is great for expressing and recognising such thoughts but does little to change them – I knew I needed something else.

Under the guise of a miniature wooden statue of Budai, who I, like most, assumed was Buddha, sat on the floor of my student accommodation room (cross-legged, as I expected any real meditator should be), I pressed play on a guided meditation. It simply asked me to visualise that I was atop a hill, that every time a thought popped into my head it was a balloon that I held; ‘let go’, it asked, and ‘watch them fly away’. 

It’s all about attachment – previously, I let thoughts linger unaddressed. By visualising them as balloons, letting go of thoughts went from an abstract to a practicable concept. Silence grew as thoughts flew: social anxieties, academic concerns, noisy-neighbour irritations, and even those random, disparate thoughts passed up and away. 

‘It’s been a hard few weeks, but I’m getting better & finding my feet, the worst of it was all in my head.’ [12thApril 2019]

Often what overwhelms you is not necessarily what is happening, but how you internally process it. By never turning inwards, we let thoughts and feelings fester, but stopping and letting them happen to us often reveals their shallowness, leaving the ones worth attending to.

What remained for me was the clamour for purpose: a reason to persist through deadlines and noisy nights. My thoughts and feelings were a by-product of these grievances, and they stopped me from doing anything about them. Negative thoughts don’t affect anything but yourself – why experience something stressful, then experience it again through these by-products? By thinking you are not doing anything about the problem. 

‘When you’re in nature, it just does its own thing, no matter what. We’re supposed to be more evolved, yet we get held back by ourselves and our thoughts.’ [22nd April 2019]

The more I realised this the more I tried new things, lots of which didn’t stick, but one that did was writing. I didn’t, and still don’t, see it as my purpose in a capitalistic way (I would’ve pursued a much more fruitful avenue if so!), but in a kind of ‘spiritual’ way, for lack of a better (or less cringe-worthy) term. It pulled the threads of my life together: a reason to continue with university, a reason to work as a dishwasher at the time and save money for experiences to write about, a reason to have those experiences that generate material, and to grow, as an individual and a writer.

I only realised this whilst meditating. Of all the random thoughts that pop up and away, sometimes one appears and resonates deeply, ‘catching the big fish’ as David Lynch calls it. By spending time with your thoughts and feelings you can correlate them to their cause, the deeper desires they are a by-product of. 

To do this you have to let go, suspend yourself, and use your breath as a way to detach. Sometimes, not always, meditation allows you, the Freudian ego, the sense of I, to fade away. This proto-nirvanic state is called the ‘ego death’, but this name suggests violence or loss of something; I would instead describe it as a kind of becoming or realisation of what really constitutes you when all those balloons fly away. In these states, it’s much easier to realise what you want in life. 

These states are temporary, we can’t sit silently inside ourselves all day. While meditation helps you connect with yourself, it also helps you form a new relationship with your surroundings. 

Opening your eyes after meditation can be intense – you experience the immensity of apprehension, so long withered by thoughts and anxieties. There’s this transition as your mind switches back on, you see everything in a pure and vibrant way, like waking up in the morning with full sensory awareness. In this regard, some of my deepest meditations were by the River Swale in Yorkshire.

By this river, I meditated amidst all these thoughts, let go, and opened my eyes: colour appeared first, nuances in leaves and grass, green once uniform as diverse as a rainbow, little flowers sprouting pale yellows and blues; movements, the powerful stream gliding, the jagged rocks piercing through and slicing the surface of the silvery waves, the trees slow dancing with the wind; textures of light, embodying the rhythms of the waves, glinting off darting insects, piercing the leaves, and easing past the streaky cirrus clouds. All this illuminated by a cleansed awareness. 

‘And you’re high on your high-flying cloud
Wrapped up in your magic shroud as ecstasy surrounds you
This time it’s found you.’ [Van Morrison, ‘Besides You’]

Meditation takes the edge, your edge, off reality and reveals this kind of soft totality, truly beautiful and affirming. Thoughts can only be positive in this state of mind while surrounded by such a space. I opened my phone and was reminded by one of the things afflicting me, my mood turned sour immediately from something as trivial as an image on social media.

‘You only find bad if you look for it.’ [22nd April 2019]

Regardless of meditation, you still think, you still feel, you can’t and shouldn’t change that; but, if thoughts and feelings are by-products, you control them by turning to what creates them – what you see, hear, and do. If an image on social media sparked my change in mood – why would I expose myself to anything that can achieve that? 

‘Dwelling on the past brings its negativity back.’ [22nd April 2019]

Thoughts and feelings happen to you, like hunger, they are reactive – the goal is to create the external conditions necessary to experience an ideal internal condition. As for the things you can’t control, detach and let them happen, for thoughts don’t change a thing but your mood. This is easier said than done, that’s the comfort in religious concepts such as reincarnation, knowing you have many lifetimes to reach this goal. 

The beauty of it, though, is not in the end but the process, in the struggle – la belle lutte. Every meditation is like a new start, where you let go of everything and sit with yourself, your breath, to come out refreshed. 

‘To lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again.’ [Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’]

It takes time and work, many meditations feel fruitless, but it’s always worth it. By connecting this whole process to the breath, you are creating an association between perhaps the only thing you can do at any time and a focused state of calmness. You are using your body to forge an anchor out of your breath, so when all that is superfluous floats away like balloons, you are what remains. 

In 2019, I lacked purpose and found myself afflicted by the past, what meditation did was aid me in forming a sense of purpose, severing my ties to the past, and securing myself in the present. I still struggle with these things and likely always will, but with every meditation, I get closer to myself, and that is why I continue to do it every day.

‘To never, never, never, wonder why at all
To never, never, never, wonder why at all
It’s gotta be, it has to be
You breathe in, you breathe out
You breathe in, you breathe out
You breathe in, you breathe out
You breathe in, you breathe out.’ [Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’]

By Jack McKenna, Aug 2nd, 2021

Author: Workers' Archive

Covering sensitivity at work and beyond on my website:

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