Begin Again: An Exercise In Meditation

I love silence, not because it allows me to relax and experience peace, but because it gives my consciousness the chance to expand and fill the empty space space.  Being in silence gives my mind an excuse to race and fill the silence with thoughts or ideas, chase scenarios, rationalize the past, and build mental walls.  Chasing this silence pushed me to drive cross country, and survive college, and create physical and mental art.  The thoughts that inhabit this silence were my constant companions, and something that kept me sane, or as sane as someone with voices in his head can be.  As much of a benefit as this has been, it does have it downfalls, namely years of isolation and decades of lying awake and staring at the ceiling waiting for sleep to come.  Over the past few months I have fallen into a habit of trying to silence my mind during these quiet periods and instead of processing the past or envisioning the future I have taken the opportunity to explore a time that I don’t often inhabit, the present.

I have dabbled in meditation over the years, from breathwork to calm flying anxiety to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy lead by a psychologist to help fight my chronic headaches.  It was never traditional and was never anything that I fully committed to, but it did seem to give me a small respite in a turbid world.  Last winter I decided to forego the “woo woo” aspects of meditation and try to develop a mindfulness practice.  After listening to 150 episodes of the Tim Ferriss Podcast and hearing about two thirds of this high performing guests talk about their meditative practices I started thinking that it was something that I should try.  I downloaded the Headspace app and planned to give it a shot sometime in the unspecified future.

About a week before Christmas I had a terrible day at work in what I just knew was going to be a long and frustrating stretch.  I went home in a terrible mood and couldn’t shake it not matter how I tried. I grew frustrated lying awake staring at the ceiling, so I pulled out the Headspace app and gave it a shot.  After 10 short minutes I was able to relieve a lot of tension and anxiety and fall blissfully asleep.  The next day went so smoothly it shocked me, not because it was an easy day, but because I was so calm and relaxed, and the only thing that I could point to was the magic of meditation and I committed to giving it a try.

Unfortunately meditation isn’t always as easy as it seems.  Over the next few months I kept trying to use Headspace but got annoyed at the British voice that guided the meditation.  I tried just sitting and following my breath, but I found it incredibly boring, and since I find boredom maddening I would be angrier after a meditation session.  A friend suggested reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris, which is something that I now appreciate, but the first time I read it his descriptions of his past anxiety walked me right into panic attacks.  I tried to explore local mediation groups and events but those all verged into the religious and crunchy aspects which made me far more uncomfortable than the idea of secular mindfulness meditation.  I listened to talks by Sam Harris and Tara Branch but found both of them off putting for different reasons.  I struggled to even define meditation, constantly questioning if I was doing it right and wondering if I was supposed to hit some special place where I would be hit by a beam of cosmic light that would take me to nirvana.  Eventually after several months of hacking at it and trying to Alpha male my way into peace I got frustrated and just gave up, which apparently was all that I needed to do.

A week or two later I was getting ready for bed and felt the overwhelming need to meditate.  I downloaded a different app called Calm and was lulled into a meditative state by a nice woman with a pleasant voice.  And the next day I tried it again with the same results, and again and again before I decided to upgrade the app and pay for a subscription that would allow me to try different guided sessions.  For a few dollars a year I had access to sessions that covered self acceptance, forgiveness, non judgement, sleep prep, and a bunch of other topics that I need to work on.  The calm and non judgmental voice kept telling me that the point of meditating was that when my mind wandered and fell into the thought stream to just return to my breath and begin again.  And after all the fighting and battling from my previous attempts it was nice to just fall into a practice where I was fully in charge, yet not in charge of anything.  For a few minutes a day I just existed, and that quickly became my favorite part of the day.

A lot of meditation books talk about the benefits on and off the cushion.  When meditating (on the cushion) I found it easier and easier to find the moments of peace because I was exercising the focus “muscles” that allowed me to return to my breath or point of focus.  After years of multitasking my way through life I was purposely singletasking, and focusing on just one thing made me even more efficient.  Off the cushion I found that taking those few minutes a day had lasting after effects.  I felt more at peace and in touch with my emotions, and when I was in a bad mood or something angered me I found it much easier to detach and re-frame things for a positive outcome.  I found myself having more moments of spontaneous happiness and was able to appreciate more of the little things.  It wasn’t instantaneous, but over time I started noticing how I felt when taking the first sip of a coffee, or while stepping into the sunlight on my way to my car in the morning, little moments that had become part of the background were brought to the forefront and made life a little bit better.

Over time I worked my way into a daily meditative practice where I sit and meditate for a 10-20 minutes each day.  I also started making time to take a few deep breaths and find my center whenever I find myself losing control.  I found that to meditate you don’t need to sit on the floor in the lotus position while wearing an orange robe and anointing yourself with oils and crystals.  Instead I can take a few seconds to push the past and future away and appreciate the here and now.   And I learned to be ok with having my mind wander a bit, and to explore the reaches of my psyche, as long as I recognize that it is wandering, bring it back to breath, and begin again.

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