One afternoon 5 years ago, I hunkered down on the cold, sticky floor in my pantry with my head between my knees, gazing down at a single, lonely cheerio by my right toe. Beck warbled out from the cell phone I had tucked under my arm so it wouldn’t be baptized in the glop on the wood boards.
In the next room, my oldest son unceremoniously crashed something into something else. And there I sat, contemplating the sheer vertical wall of obligation that I felt to my work, and my family, and the dogs, and my mother, and to the thirsty garden had I left to sprout weeds in the back of my house. Beck continued his muffled serenade from my armpit, balefully strumming along. “Baby you’re a lost, baby you’re a lost cause.”
I needed something I couldn’t even define. It wasn’t relaxation exactly, but rather reconnection. I wanted my life to intersect again with something that I had become untethered from a long time ago. But who can really articulate a gut thing like that? And if you can’t take it out of the abstract, how can you find a solution for it? When, a few months later, a friend of mine suggested I try meditation, I rolled my eyes at her. “Yep, because if I could simply sit and not think about stuff, I would just effing do that, Suzan. Meditation sounds like an excellent way for me to make myself even more anxious and frustrated trying not to think thoughts. Sorry, I have a busy mind. I don’t think I’d be any good at it.”
The thing is, I was woefully misinformed about what meditation really involves. Rather than believing it to be a gentle process of helping all my mind-body horses pull in the same direction, I thought it was about brutally censoring my interior process and forcing the body to fall into line. Believe me, gentle reader. If that were the case, I wouldn’t suggest it to you, because frankly, I couldn’t do it myself.
Culturally, we have rendered busyness and stress poetic so that we can anesthetize ourselves to the fact that they’re poison apples. To make sense of frighteningly frenetic lifestyles, we cultivate a kind of self-congratulatory resignation to crushing ourselves ever more completely between the cogs of the hustle. We’ve grown so used to lives with no expansiveness—no space to be bored or contemplative or simply unoccupied, that we don’t know how to slow down. Not doing feels like death or failure or maybe both.
I’m worried for my generation and for the youth of today. As much as I am the absolute person for whom social media was created (because I really do enjoy photos of your dog dressed up at Halloween) I fear that it robs us of the ability to be dimensional humans. What if we love creating these electronic shadow boxes because somehow they’ve become a stand in for the genuine presence and human interconnectedness we instinctively know is needed? Hey, at least we can check up on our friends and family at lunch and stoplights. Done. Relationships accomplished. And, it’s been documented online so it must be real. Worse still, sometimes we prefer the online version of ourselves to the more complex version that’s walking around in daily life. You know, the one in which people see you at unflattering angles and have uncrafted, unpredictable conversations. This social busyness without real substance has a narcotic quality that when consumed in unchecked quantities, drives us away from our core.
The landscape of what clients are asking from therapists has changed dramatically over the past decade. Folks who came in complaining of crippling anxiety or deep feelings of meaninglessness used to be a subset of what I saw in my office. But now, it’s the most common thing I’m asked to address, no matter how high functioning the client may otherwise be. This terrifying feeling of being adrift on the white waters, headed for rocks is a root issue. And those roots bear fruit in the form of loneliness, burnout and a genuine sense of frazzled dread. People are dragging themselves to counseling to ask (no, beg) for a way to pump the brakes in a world that won’t give them permission to slow down at all.
But here’s the thing: we’re all appropriately anxious. Why wouldn’t we be? We’re doing too much of the wrong things and not enough of the meaningful ones that can make us feel anchored. There isn’t a therapist walking this good, green earth who can talk you through selling out your core need for groundedness. You don’t want that kind of voodoo anyhow. Rather, you need to change your approach. Behaviorally. You have to choose reconnection with yourself, and choosing it means actively engaging in it. Purposefully.
Meditation is one of the most powerful ways I know of to foster calm and presence, and to combat anxiety, rage and overwhelm. There are a host of impressive physiological benefits associated with a meditative practice, including increased wellness in brain, heart and immune function. But when I teach it in my practice, I am offering it as an antidote to busyness and all the attendant emotional and spiritual catastrophes that result from failing to remind yourself that you, as much as anyone else, deserve your compassion, tenderness and focus. I don’t know how to wave a magic wand and help you ignore your problems so that you can keep forging ahead. But, I would love to ride along with you as you return to yourself and discover how to be present with whatever exists at that moment—good or bad. That is joyful living.
I think most people don’t meditate because they have heard or imagined some really persuasive reasons about why it’s difficult, time-consuming or only for patchouli-scented weirdoes. I mean, disclaimer here; I can’t claim that I’m not a patchouli-scented weirdo. I still listen to way too much Deep Forest, and not in an ironic, “I’m so 90s” kind of way. But I’m also just like you—type A, over-scheduled, worried about how many of my children I’m raising to be outright serial killers, and in general, just doing the best I can to hold it all together. In the spirit of us being life twinsies, let me debunk three of the biggest stumbling blocks to starting a meditative practice.
1) I have to be able to clear my mind and stop thinking: No. No you don’t. Really. Seriously. I’m not even kidding right now. Soak that in for a minute. Instead, the process of meditation is about noticing the thoughts as they drift by, and then gently coming back to whatever you’ve chosen to focus on for that session. It’s noticing and returning over and over again with a spirit of compassion for yourself. As you progress, it’s about being present in the gap between the thoughts. This is a much different, and more honest experience than hoping against hope that your mind will simply stop doing its schtick.
I struggled with the idea of meditation for years because I happen to be a person who likes to engage in a great deal of recreational thinking. I’m a writer and a professional problem solver for heaven’s sake. Thinking is kind of my jam.
It didn’t help that my very first meditation teacher told us imposingly that we just needed to “clear the mind completely.” There I sat on my meditation pillow, breathing in the bliss of the people around me, developing a cramp in my crossed legs and in general NOT succeeding in clearing my mind even a little. My practice at that time in my life was impressively short-lived because I felt like a failure. “Whatever those folks have that enables them to clear the ol’ mental movie screen must be special about them,” I mused, deflated.
Later, I had the good fortune to learn with really wonderful instructors who helped me understand that meditation is developing an ability to be present with thoughts, emotions and sensations without chasing them, and to also be present with the gap between the thoughts as well should that arise. The space between thoughts is what most people mean when they think about clearing the mind. But the gap, cool as it is, is transitory for all of us. Every meditator in the world is a thinking person who experiences thoughts as part of the meditative experience. In other words, you and I don’t have to panic about having perfectly normal brains. Rather, we can practice being present in that moment, whether it’s a gap moment or a thought moment. That alone is a special and rare experience in a world in which life compels us to keep running, planning and executing at all times.
One of the teachers I’ve been privileged to learn from is Swami Atmavidyananda Giri, a senior monk with Kriya Yoga International. Yes, I know his name makes him sound like he’s sitting around in his bare feet wearing a cool monastic robe. Spoiler alert: he actually totally is. “Meditation,” he said, “is not about imagining, it’s about perceiving. If you are trying to pretend that you are not having thoughts at all, or are pretending that you’re having different thoughts than the ones you’re having, that is imagination. That is not presence. Instead, we observe the thoughts and do not pretend that they are not there. “ I loved this because it allowed me to cultivate being the watcher rather than being the thought slayer.
Many times when we meditate, we are using a point of focus like the breath or a mantra. When you notice that you have wandered off, simply acknowledge that you have drifted and gently come back. As another wonderful teacher of mine, Davidji, notes, the noticing that you have wandered off towards a thought is the very essence of mindfulness. In that moment of noticing, you were truly awake. If you have noticed that you’re thinking of something else, (and you may notice this many times during a session) simply return to the object of your focus. Davidji likens the experience to being on a swing set—drifting from focus to thought and back again. Even Swami Atmayidyananda, when asked if he ever thinks while meditating, replied that sometimes notices he is having the thought, “I am meditating.”
2) I need an altar, 3 hours and a $150 mala I saw on Instagram: Let’s be honest here. It is so tempting to look at those clean, sun-burnished ritual spaces in Yoga magazines and assume that meditation will be supercharged by a special space or fancy equipment. But it doesn’t require that. It requires you. Period. That’s all.
At least several times a week, I meditate in my parked car. That’s the space where I don’t have children, the phone in my office, or my dog competing for attention. Parents, you know you spend 10 minutes in the parking lot at Target listening to the radio or flipping through Facebook. Since you’re going to be there anyway, allow yourself to close your eyes, watch your breath and meditate for 10 minutes instead. Space in schedule made. I suppose it’s possible that one day someone will think I’m dead in my car and tap on my window. But, that just gives me the option to open my eyes and scare the Bejesus out of them. Score.
When I’m at home, I meditate on my son’s orange velour video game chair. I got it on Amazon for about $30, and it allows me to sit on the ground with my legs crossed and a bit of back support. Sure, it looks like some wannabe Romeo from the 70s with a gold chain and lots of curly chest hair would have been pleased to have it in the back of his slightly-creepy panel van. However, that chair gets the job done.
I’m don’t mean to imply that it wouldn’t be awesome and entirely worthwhile to intentionally create a beautiful space in which to practice every day. Rather, I want you to know that the most beautiful, sacred thing you bring into your practice is your authentic presence. That curious, reflective place lives inside you all the time no matter where you meditate. The more you visit it, the more you pave a superhighway back there rather than the bumpy dirt road that seems to be the only way in now. You can access this space in the most ordinary of places, with time you have carved out from the schedule you already have, no handmade mala blessed with the tears of a Himalayan monk required.
3) I Already Have Other Ways to Relax: Sometimes, when I introduce meditation as an adjunct to psychotherapy for clients suffering from existential overwhelm and anxiety, they note that they already knit, play tennis or read to blow off steam. While I love macramé cat scarves as much as the next person, I’m not suggesting that you meditate as a vehicle for relaxation. Of course, meditation may offer some relief from tension. But, as your therapist, I want you to cultivate a deep mind practice in order to reconnect, not relax.
When anxiety, and all of its accompanying dread, cyclical thinking and runaway body sensations arise, we come unmoored from processing the present moment effectively. Instead, we are trapped in our heads, planning and ritualistically rehearsing worst-case scenarios. Provoked with people and processes that drive us into reacting mode, we lose the ability to alight anywhere for long. For happiness and ease to exist, the capacity for centeredness must be cultivated with care. We have to remember, sometimes moment-by-moment, how to return to ourselves and to the now. If you would like to get realigned on a deep level, practice meditation in order to grow your ability to reach that place and stay there.
Would you like to discuss how to reorient to a more robust version of yourself? Are you curious about how mediation can compliment psychotherapy? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.
Your Partner in Healing,
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