It’s only fitting that I began my meditation practice in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Meditation is about letting go. Oddly, Tuscaloosa has become my place to let go. In August 2014, I left a piece of my heart there, when I dropped off my only child at college. Three weeks later, at Parents Weekend, I left my appendix there. Then, on a crisp, chilly morning in January 2015, alone in the Capstone Hotel on the University of Alabama campus, I began to let my ego go.
My interest in meditation began a couple of weeks before. On January 3, while watching Good Morning America, I heard about Dan Harris’ new book 10% Happier. It was that time of the year, the time when the airwaves and Ethernet are filled with self-help books and advice, capitalizing on our propensity to think we have to completely fix ourselves at the beginning of every year. I bit.
Dan’s book is a great way to begin a meditation journey, a practice. He’s an average guy, with a journalist’s sensibility, curiosity and skepticism. In How an On-Air Panic Attack Improved My Life, he tells the story of how through his assignment (by his boss Peter Jennings) to cover faith, he “explored everything from mainstream religion to the bizarre fringes of self-help to the nexus of spirituality and neuroscience. The accidental yet enormously helpful end result of all this poking around: I became a reluctant convert to meditation.” He had suffered a panic attack on live television, which he attributed to drug use, and through meditation, changed his life.
On my flight from Houston to Tuscaloosa, I had my Kindle with me. Inspired by Dan’s book, I wanted to know more. I still didn’t feel I had the knowledge or skills to actually meditate. Looking for a simple, step-by-step guide to this elusive thing called meditation, I chose Eight Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind, Change Your Life by Victor Davich. The book promised to help me “develop mindfulness, for greater clarity, lower stress, increased productivity and a happier life in just eight minutes a day.” If only.
That morning, I was giddy with anticipation. A couple of blocks away, my son Burke was being initiated into the Sigma Chi fraternity. He had no idea I was in town. I was there to surprise him. I love surprises. I love my son.
So there I was, sitting Indian style (are we still allowed to say that?) on the threadbare bedspread at the Capstone, trying to… Do what? What was I supposed to do? Breathe. OK I can do that. Try to clear my mind? Not so simple.
What is meditation?
As Harris says, “Meditation is a tool for taming the voice in your head. You know the voice I’m talking about. It’s what has us constantly ruminating on the past or projecting into the future. It prods us to incessantly check our email, lurch over to the fridge when we’re not hungry, and lose our temper when it’s not in our best interest.”
How do I do it?
Let me start by saying I am by no means an expert on meditation techniques. I have done a lot of reading on the subject, my favorite book being meditation guru Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: a 28-day Program. And I have about a year of actually doing it under my belt. And from what I can tell it boils down to this:
- Get comfortable. You can sit in a chair, lie on your back, or sit on a cushion. My preferred mode has been a straight-backed chair with a pillow behind my back for lumbar support.
- Set a timer. You might start by committing to just a few minutes each time, gradually increasing your time. Initially, you probably won’t need the timer to bring you around, but somewhere along the way, you might find you’re transported to another place and that timer will bring you back.
- Close your eyes and relax. Relax your shoulders. Relax your neck. Relax your hips.
- Breathe. It’s good to start with three calming breaths. Don’t force your breath. Just breathe naturally.
- Gently, passively notice what’s happening. If you are like me, your brain takes over, and the monkeys in your brain start chattering. Am I doing this right? My left ankle hurts. I have an itch; am I allowed to scratch it? I wonder if Cynthia got my email yesterday about my needing to change my appointment time. Oops. I am supposed to me meditating. Now how do I do this again? What’s supposed to be happening now? I am such an idiot.
- Each time your mind wanders. come back to your breath. Focus on this one breath in. Now focus on this one breath out. When those monkey thoughts pop up, it’s OK. Notice them and let them pass on by. You can imagine letting them blow away in the wind, or imagine you are sitting alongside a river and you let them gently wash down river.
- Let it happen. Don’t try make anything happen. This is always a hard one for me. I have lived my life making things happen. Meditation is about letting go. Each time you meditate it’s a different experience. And each one is perfect, regardless of how it goes.
- Try different things. Both of the “how-to” books I mentioned earlier offer several different techniques for meditation. One of my favorites is a guided full-body scan. You can Google this and find audio files. In short, you lie down and are guided through your body, focusing on one part at a time. I’ll leave you with that, but I can say from experience at the end you are more relaxed than if you had just finished a great massage or an indulgent nap.
- Do it regularly and have faith. Mediation is a practice. Even if you don’t think it’s working (doing you any good), keep at it.
So, what do I get out of it?
As a result of keeping at it for a year now, meditating probably five days a week, sometimes for only 15 minutes at a time, I am a different person. How it works is really still a mystery to me. I am calmer. More centered. More present. Happier. Much more than 10% happier.
As I slowed down and became present, I became aware of my body. My body has always just been my vehicle for doing – for getting things done. Once I slowed down and became aware of it, I realized I was tired. Bone tired. Exhausted. Completely fatigued. An empty shell. Making the mind/body connection through daily meditation has allowed me to begin to build an energy bank within my body.
I am less stressed and thus more pleasant to be around. (Not always, to which my co-workers can attest, but most of the time.) I am less reactive, a notable exception being after drinking. Three drinks and all bets are off. But by being innately calmer, I have less desire for drink. This is huge. My husband and I abstained from drinking in January, and I didn’t miss it. That would not have happened a year ago. No way.
I have much better perspective. This is hard to describe. I am able to put life’s challenges into a broader perspective which allows me to care less about – and be less agitated by — the crap that pops up every day.
I’ll leave you with that. I would love to hear from you about your meditation experiences. I want my blog to be a place where we can have a conversation about our experiences.
What’s your meditation story?