I’ve had a love–hate relationship with meditation for most of my adult life. I’d hear about it from people who incorporated it into their life, or from books, stories of those who went on retreats to meditate in silence for days on end, or friends who woke up early to meditate every day.
Something about it appealed to me, the peacefulness of it, the idea of calming my anxiety, wanting to experience the… I–don’t–know–what, that keeps passionate meditators on their cushions every day. I didn’t really understand how to do it, though, so I looked for ways to learn.
I think my first experience meditating was in a college class, when I was going to school and working full–time. At the end of a long day, we lay on the floor in a dark room, and I fell asleep every time to the teacher’s soothing voice.
I had better luck doing sitting meditation. I took a short class on it at our Unitarian Universalist church. Later I took workshops with Natalie Goldberg, who combined writing practice and meditation. I liked that a lot. She taught us walking meditation too, where you meditate while walking very slowly. One day we did walking meditation for 3 hours outside on one of the first days of Spring. I’d been quite intimidated by the idea of it— 3 hours?— but it ended up being strangely blissful to walk at a snail’s pace through a park with a silent group of people. I think we looked like a bunch of those old–fashioned slow zombies.
Classes and workshops were great, but then I’d try to meditate at home. I‘d set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, sit up straight on the floor or in a chair. I‘d pay attention to my breath, watch my mind wander, count, notice my thoughts were racing. Sometimes I‘d feel calm, but sometimes bored and impatient for it to be over. A common theme for me was feeling discouraged, thinking I was doing it wrong, frustrated that my mind just kept going on and on and I might not even notice until the ending chime. It felt useless to me. Why am I doing this?
So I would try, here and there, for awhile. Then I‘d stop. I didn‘t see how it was supposed to help me, because I wasn‘t noticing anything changing. And yet, I kept hearing about mindfulness meditation everywhere. It was recommended, advised, prescribed, encouraged, in so many places. I heard about the benefits. I just wasn‘t seeing any of it in my life.
One day last year, I was talking to my therapist. I‘d been having lots of anxiety and Complex PTSD fight–or–flight reactions from an ongoing stressful situation in my life. She pulled out the meditation advice again, told me how it really can help. I decided to see if I could get some clear answers.
“I don‘t get it. How does it help? I just sit there with my thoughts swirling over and over again.”
Her eyes lit up (she loves talking about this stuff). “Mindfulness meditation is about training your brain. Your mind is going to wander and you just keep bringing it back to the present moment, like training a puppy. It‘s just practicing coming back to your body, to your breath. Every time you bring yourself back to the present, you‘re strengthening that neural pathway, like lifting a weight and putting it back down, over and over, so that when you go about your life, you‘ll have more practice being aware.”
I let that sink in. “Ohhhhh, I always felt like I was failing because my mind was distracted so much.”
“Meditation is the act of bringing your mind back,” she said. “You‘re not failing. You just keep noticing and coming back, noticing and coming back. That‘s mindfulness.”
It was a huge epiphany for me. I‘d always thought I was supposed to get to a place of no–thinking, of having a clear mind, and I never seemed to get anywhere near that. Now I could see it that it was okay that my mind was so busy thinking–thinking–thinking all the time. I recalled Natalie talking about Monkey Mind, the restless, busy mind, the inner critic. That is the nature of our mind: always thinking.
This bit of information has changed everything for me about meditation. My mind is still pretty busy and running amok, but I know I’m just practicing noticing and bringing it back to the present. A friend told me about a really great app called Insight Timer. I’ve tried a lot of apps and this one really works for me. There are tons of guided meditations by a lot of different teachers on a wide variety of topics. Or you can set a timer and choose background sounds or music. The free version is wonderful, and I use it many times a week.
But still, Why Meditate? I mean, yeah, they talk about how good it is for you. But it takes time. It doesn’t “feel productive.” There are so many other things to do. Why sit there and pay attention to your mind?
You don’t have to look too hard to find the science about the benefits of meditating. I know I’ve been hearing about it my whole adult life. Studies show that mindfulness meditation improves:
- the immune system
- the efficiency of oxygen use in the body
- the production of the anti–aging hormone DHA
- attention and concentration
Meditation also decreases:
- blood pressure and hypertension
- anxiety and depression
- the production of stress hormones
Additionally, meditation helps preserve your aging brain: it keeps your gray matter volume from decreasing so remarkably as you age. It’s helpful in recovering from various types of addiction. And meditators have higher pain tolerance, a truth I experienced when I went through a super-painful knee procedure a few years ago.
It’s a pretty impressive list. Looking at it, I think: how can I not meditate?
Thanks to my therapist and her explanation, meditation now makes sense to me in a way it never did before. Understanding the purpose and the goal of this mindfulness practice helps me to go with the flow when I’m meditating. It’s taken the burden of frustration and perceived failure off of me. Even if my mind is very busy and stays that way during my session, I know it’s okay and I just try to keep coming back to the present moment. I try to fit in 10 or 15 minutes of meditating several times a week. For now that feels very doable.
I know there are a lot of others out there like me, put off of meditation for the same reasons I was. I’m glad I can share what has turned out to be a pivotal piece of information. Maybe it will make a difference for you.
It’s free, it’s simple, it’s self-care, and it’s unquestionably beneficial for my mind and body. For me, that’s pretty irresistible. How about you?
Do you meditate? What has been your experience or interest-level in it? Please share in the comments!
“The Mind Explained: Meditation” –Netflix program (a fascinating 30 minutes)
[Photos by Jared Rice, Saffu, Ian Stauffer, Jyotirmoy Gupta, Ksenia Makagonova, and Greg Rakozy, courtesy of Unsplash.]