Mary Raymond’s cat Mavis has never found relaxing to be particularly complicated. I wish I could say the same! My mind does cartwheels at night and sometimes even sets off fireworks. Mary set out to convince me that meditation can help. See the end of today’s post for the Bacon Meditation Challenge!
My first foray into meditation was, at best, underwhelming. I had heard all about the benefits of meditation and knew that everyone from Phil Jackson to 50 Cent raved about their “practice.” I place a premium on healthy living, so I had more than a passing curiosity about this mysterious discipline. I finally decided to give meditation a shot when I realized that I could get reward points through my employer’s wellness program for practicing stress relief techniques. Since there is almost nothing I won’t do for reward points, I decided to learn how to meditate.
It helped that I had recently read Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing my Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story.
Harris’s book outlined the basics of meditation, and I dutifully focused on my breath and tried to silence all other thoughts for ten minutes a day for three months. At the end of three months, I had my reward points, but nirvana proved more elusive. I wasn’t sure if I was doing it wrong or everyone else was overselling the benefits. Either way, I decided that maybe meditation just wasn’t for me.
This approach worked just fine until later that year when my friend Ellen gave me the gift of Oprah and Deepak’s 21 Day Meditation Experience.
Having failed at meditation once before, I saw Ellen’s gift for what it was: an act of aggression dressed up in Buddha’s robe. If I didn’t complete the experience I would have revealed myself to be ungrateful, undisciplined, and unenlightened. In a triumph of ego over animus, I decided to give meditation another try.
Begrudgingly, I listened to the first day of the meditation experience. I don’t like meditation, I thought as I clapped on my headphones and began the first session. I don’t even really like Oprah. Living my best life just sounds like an awful lot of work. Soon the sonorous tones of Oprah’s voice – accompanied by music that reminded me of visiting the planetarium – interrupted my silent complaining. After a few moments Deepak spoke and then guided me into a meditation in which I was instructed to focus on a Sanskrit mantra. Then, silence – except for the planetarium music – as I focused on my breathing and the mantra for the next ten minutes. I am certain I was forcing my way through it that first time, but I remember opening my eyes at Deepak’s behest after it was over and feeling marginally more relaxed. Maybe this is what meditation is supposed to feel like, I thought. At any rate, twenty more days to go.
I soon found myself looking forward to those twenty minutes each day when I shut out the world, listened to Deepak and Oprah, and focused on my own breathing. I have never been much of a napper – not even when I was a child. In the rare instances when I fall asleep during the day, I usually wake up startled, disoriented, and mildly homicidal. This was different. I felt refreshed after meditating and luxuriated in the twenty minutes each day when I intentionally relaxed. After three weeks with Deepak and Oprah, I started all over again.
Around this same time, I read Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges.
The book is a fascinating study on the mind-body connection and how assuming power poses can reduce fear and anxiety. I read with particular fascination Cuddy’s retelling of Stanford University researcher Emma Seppälä’s work with survivors of post-traumatic stress (PTS) and how they benefited from yoga and mindful breathing techniques. As Seppälä explained, “breath is such a wonderful way to reduce your physiological activation. Understanding you can control your breathing is a first step in understanding how you can control your anxiety – that you have the tools to do it yourself. When your mind is racing, when something unexpected happens in a social situation, when you don’t know what to do, you know you can calm yourself by controlling your breathing.” Seppälä’s subjects were war veterans with well-documented resistance to previous PTS interventions. After one week of yoga and breathing instruction, the veterans experienced significant reductions in their PTS symptoms. The benefits held even when the participants were evaluated a year later.
The results for the veterans were dramatic, and I had experienced something similar on a much smaller scale. You can try it yourself. Take a deep breath in, pulling the air deep into your abdomen, filling it with the intake of oxygen. Then slowly exhale, feeling your abdomen collapse as the air escapes. Do this several times, and I challenge you not to feel a deeper sense of relaxation.
Having begun to experience the stress relieving benefits of meditation, I wanted to read more about the practice. I knew myself well enough to understand that the more I learned about the positive effects of meditation, the likelier I was to stick with it. This idiosyncrasy explains why I continue to eat kale. Harris referenced Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation as a particularly helpful guide.
Salzberg’s book helped me better understand that meditation was not about shutting out thoughts entirely. Rather, it was the exercise of gently pulling my thoughts back to my breath as they inevitably wandered. Letting go of the sense that I had to conquer my thoughts helped me relax into meditation and experience a deeper sense of calm. My task wasn’t to stop my thoughts, but to notice them without judgment and return my focus to my breath. Salzberg explained that meditation helps us “become aware of a calm, stable center that can steady us even when our lives are in upheaval. The better you get at concentrating your attention on a chosen object, the breath, the deeper the stillness and calm you can feel.”
From a practical standpoint, I found that my periods of intentional calm and relaxation taught me how to return to that serenity even when I wasn’t meditating. It perhaps sounds counterintuitive, but by becoming more aware of my thoughts and emotions, I could identify the negative interlopers and put some space between myself and those thoughts. Harris described his experience of the same phenomenon: “Once you get the hang of it, the practice can create just enough space in your head so that when you get angry or annoyed, you are less likely to take the bait and act on it. There’s even science to back this up – an explosion of new research… demonstrating that meditation can essentially rewire your brain.”
If I hadn’t experienced this myself, I would not have believed it. I remember the first time I pulled myself out of my own thoughts after I had begun meditating. I was at a restaurant with colleagues, celebrating a friend who was leaving for another job. We were a large crowd, and it was taking a long time for our food to arrive. I was having a hard time following the conversation because the restaurant was so loud, and I was stressed about being away from work during a particularly busy time. Plus, the restaurant was freezing (side note: why are all restaurants always freezing?). I felt myself slipping into a swirl of negative thoughts: I’m starving and freezing and just wish we could wrap up soon so that I can finish my work.
Then a funny thing happened: I caught myself and paused to observe my internal chatter. Yes, it was cold, but I was in no danger of freezing. Yes, I was hungry, but surely the food would come soon. Yes, I had a lot of work back at the office, but couldn’t I be a good friend for one lunch? Wouldn’t I regret it if I wasn’t fully present just because of a passing inconvenience? Stopping the influx of negative thoughts gave me the space to choose which kind of person I wanted to be in that moment. Being more mindful made me a better friend.
One of the most beneficial results of meditation has been my improved relationship with change. I naturally resist change and even had some misguided notion that “success” meant figuring out a way to avoid it altogether. Salzberg points out that “trying to avoid change is exhausting and stressful. Everything is impermanent: happiness, sorrow, a great meal, a powerful empire, what we’re feeling, the people around us, ourselves… Meditation is a tool for helping us accept the profound fact that everything changes all the time.”
I have come to believe that we can all benefit from more stillness and calm in our lives. Want to try it? Focus on your natural rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. When your mind wanders – and it inevitably will – notice the interrupting thought and then gently redirect your attention back to your breath. Try, and fail, and try again.
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Bacon Meditation Challenge:
Here come the holidays, with all their joy – and stress. I’m beginning Oprah & Deepak’s “Manifesting Grace Through Gratitude” on December 1st. I’ll report back on my experience the last week of December and would love for you to join me and share yours!!
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And finally: Happy Birthday, dear Mary!