“It’s as if I’d been drinking only juice my entire life, and now I’ve been led to my first glass of cool spring water.”
By Larissa Kosmos
March 17, 2017
I regularly tend to parts of myself which need attention: I lotion my hands, brush my teeth, feed my belly. On occasion, I paint my toenails. Yet somehow, for a lifetime, I have neglected to tend to my mind.
I’d periodically considered trying meditation—I was aware of its allure—but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. The guidance I needed materialized recently in the form of a website by New York’s MNDFL meditation studio that features videos of meditations led by various teachers. The site comes with a free seven-day trial and costs $19.99 a month.
Knowing I’d have direction from these chill, cross-legged gurus, I seized the challenge of meditating daily for a month. I wasn’t sure what to expect—but I decided to keep a log to inventory my findings. After about a week, I could see that meditation didn’t fit my neat, systematic approach of daily entries. Its effects were fluid, like a wave that would wash in and out of my thoughts, unexpectedly, in different phases of the day, depositing treasures. I chucked the log book, realizing I needed to experience meditation according to its design, not mine. Now, after a month of meditating daily, here’s what I learned.
Lesson learned: Meditation is not something I can do well if I’m opening an eye to check on the time. I must be engaged. In my very first meditation, I remained present because I limited “the present” to a five-minute video. Baby steps. On my second day, however, having plunged into a 30-minute meditation (did I say baby steps?), I was tested: While training my attention on the teacher’s voice, trying to follow his gentle lead, our dog persisted in scratching at my closed door. Frustrated, I paused the video and texted my husband—Sam scratching!—so he’d call him away. It was hard enough to enter this meditative zone without outside interruptions.
Until now, I had assumed that I was always engaged with myself—whether deliberating my outfit in the morning or sampling cheeses at the grocery store, I can’t escape myself—but meditation is entirely different: It’s just me and the moment. I’ve found it unusual and even difficult to do nothing other than pay attention to my breath or my emotions or the fact of my body on the earth. I had never considered myself in this fundamental way. Instead, I think of myself in terms of the roles I play—mother, wife, daughter, writing consultant to college students, friend.
To take pause and perceive myself as purely a breathing body is far-out and beautifully simple. Meditating is like a reorganizing in my mind, inviting me to temporarily push aside all the furniture in order to appreciate the hardwood floor. Katherine B. Howard, a licensed professional counselor, puts my understanding of meditation in larger context: “Our minds are busy places and letting go may be one of the most effortful tasks we attempt.”
A couple weeks into the challenge, when I could quiet my mind by focusing on my breath more successfully, I felt liberated, albeit briefly, from thoughts of after-school logistics, doctor’s appointments, and e-mails I hadn’t yet addressed. Also, I can subdue the brain activity that disrupts meditation. For me, that activity is often a train of the mundane: What should I make for dinner? Not chicken. We’re constantly eating chicken. What can I defrost? Do I need to stop at the store? Grrr… I’m supposed to be meditating! The simple practice of labeling incoming thoughts, emotions, and logistics can help me dissolve those thoughts. The exercise of sitting still and developing my ability not to think has been revolutionary.
Instead of forcing myself to focus on something, which I’m in the habit of doing, the meditation teachers are slowly converting me to the practice of “opening my mind and setting an intention.” It’s like taking a chill pill to go with your ambitions, which actually helps achieve those ambitions sans stress. Taking this alternate path alleviates the pressure I often put on myself so that I can enjoy the things I want to focus on.
This fresh approach is most useful in my efforts to write, when I sit down to the computer and my unruly thoughts stray in various directions. My fallback strategy has always been to reprimand myself and try to stick my mind into a yoke. But now, thanks to my MNDFL meditation teachers, I am—literally and figuratively—taking a deep breath and treating this differently: Writing is my passion. I love the challenge of finding words to deliver my ideas. Once I relax my expectations, and get okay with the likelihood of a meandering thought, I can, and should, relish my time writing.
Compared to caffeine, which revs me up temporarily, meditation, brewed with only my internal resources, stimulates an alternate kind of mood shift. It’s a positive mental reset, making me feel uplifted and calm. My experience is not unique. “Many studies show, for example, that the physiological changes associated with mindfulness practices lead to lowered blood pressure, less muscle tension, enhanced alertness, and improved memory,” Howard says.
With the help of meditation, I’m working on feeling more patient, particularly with myself. Ironically, while I am patient with the college students who need my help writing papers, and I consciously try to be patient with my daughter and son, I am often short on patience with myself. For example, I beat myself up when I run out of time to house clean before leaving on a trip. In contrast, it’s refreshing to hear the meditation teachers suggest not judging yourself as you meditate. I’m attempting to transfer this nonjudgmental attitude to my daily life (but I know it will take awhile to stick).
Meditation has the potential to shape my day. For example, a few of the meditations suggest setting an intention or identifying a personal quality I’d like to cultivate that day. The simplicity of that idea is appealing. It’s doable. I’m nudged toward a small, private mission to try to fulfill. Instead of just trudging through routines and obligations, the mission imbues the day with purpose. Also, meditation has awakened in me an appreciation for things I normally take for granted, like the fact that all my organs are functioning perfectly—invisibly, silently—according to their design. And for the first time, on the suggestion of a MNDFL teacher, I have tried listening, really listening, to sounds—without judging them as pleasing or not—so that, occasionally, even the scratching of my dog’s claws on my closed door registers differently, not as a nuisance, not as a delight, but merely as a sound that I am privileged to hear. A month of daily meditation has inspired me to be grateful for being a creature on this lively planet.
Learning to meditate has amounted to discovering an essential element that I didn’t know I needed. It’s as if I’d been drinking only juice my entire life, and now I’ve been led to my first glass of cool spring water. Meditation feels natural. Pure. Restorative. It enhances my well-being. The more I partake of it, the healthier I feel. And the best part? Meditation is always within my reach.
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