On July 13, I started meditating (again). Meditation has been an off-and-on thing in my life for the past 30 years. I got started courtesy of an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course I took in graduate school. We did eight weeks of skills development for using mindfulness to reduce stress and tolerate pain (in case of those with chronic illness). I have to say, it didn’t take. To say I was a bit resistant is an understatement. Maybe this illustrates it better:
But something must’ve wedged itself in my subconscious, because a mere 10 years later, I took the course again. This time, I was wide open; I had just been denied tenure and was trying to figure out what I was going to do– apply for academic jobs, leave the field, run away… Nothing was certain. But, I discovered stability and grounding in sitting and breathing. That’s it– just sitting and breathing.
Fast forward a bunch of years, and I’m in an academic job I love (mostly), living in a place I love (completely, except for the traffic), and I’ve reintroduced yoga as a regular habit. Several of my yoga teachers use short meditations at the beginning or end of class, and I came to look forward to it. Sometimes I couldn’t settle– maybe I was hungry, or idly thinking about online shopping— but I got used to the quieting of my body, sitting, and focusing on the breath.
Still, meditation outside of class never made its way into my weekly schedule.
Until July 13, 2020.
I took a 4-day meditation workshop at 7:30 in the morning (which is the equivalent of 4:30am for most people) with yoga and meditation teacher Alex at Artemis, my beloved local yoga studio. I blogged about it here, saying what I learned in 10 days.
Now it’s day 101 of meditating every day. Really. I promised myself I would meditate each day, even if it meant doing a 3-minute meditation on the breath, or a meditation for sleep at bedtime (and in bed).
My life, post-100 days of straight meditation, is different. What has it done for me?
#1: When some emotion or feeling arises (sometimes feeling like a bus bearing down on me), I have some mental space between me and the feeling. That means I can now a) recognize that something’s happening; and b) take a moment and look at it to see what it is.
This is huge. Huge. HUGE.
#2: When I engage in the process outlined in #1, I focus on what this experience of whatever-it-is feels like in my body. I ask: a) where in my body is it? Throat? Belly? Head? Somewhere else? And then I ask: b) what does it feel like? Is it tingling? sharp pain? Pulsing or thrumming? Wavy? And then c) I take another moment to watch it, notice it. And what I notice is that it changes. Whatever feeling I have, it morphs, waxes, wanes, fades, dissolves, transitions to some other feeling.
This is really huge. Why? Because when I’m having an experience of, say, panic or shame or fear, I have somewhere to go, something to do. Which is:
- Then resume whatever I was doing.
- Notice that nothing much happened.
- But also notice that something tremendous happened.
Meditation isn’t a cure-all. It’s not even a cure-anything. It’s not about curing. Here is what it doesn’t do:
#1: Change me into a person who isn’t vulnerable to fear, panic, anxiety, shame, and other strong emotions that I struggle with.
I still experience strong feelings, and dealing with them takes time, medication, support from friends, family and therapist. Those activities are also important for self-care, and they’re not going away in this lifetime.
#2: Solve other behavior change aspirations I have and work on when I’ve got the oomph to deal with them. I’m not neater, more punctual, a better paperwork processor, or an everyday exerciser. Or if I am from time to time, it’s probably not because of meditation. It’s rather that I approach these aspirations and hopes and plans with a greater sense of awareness of my feelings around them, and self-compassion for the difficulties I have and have always had around them.
At the same time, I am happier, less judgmental of myself and others, and sold on the idea that daily sitting practice is indeed just what the doctor ordered. And that doctor is me.
Readers, if you meditate: what does it do for you? what doesn’t it do for you? I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.