I wish I could say that I had a nobler cause, that my goal was to increase empathy or compassion or that I was looking for my purpose in the world, but the truth is, I came to meditation as so many others have, for semi-selfish reasons. Personally, I was in need of some grounding. I’ve never had anxiety or a panic attack, but life has been pretty busy, and I didn’t feel I was managing it very well for a brief period of time. Anyone who knows me, even a little, knows that I’m super type A, always in control. But being a type A control freak has its limits.
So, for a little background…I quit my steady baby catching job as a full-time midwife in NYC, the only career I’ve ever known and that I have had an intense love-hate relationship with from the start (A blog post for another day). Then I sent my only kid off to college and she’s the absolute best kid, so I miss her like crazy. Then I moved across the country to this wacky, lovable city in the south called New Orleans and I promptly started a business, one that requires a lot of conversations because people don’t quite understand what I’m doing or why I’m doing it yet (Midwife turned trainer, huh?). Meanwhile, I have a million side jobs keeping me afloat while I grow this thing and honestly assess myself to determine if, in fact, I have the ovaries for entrepreneurship. Then, I was accepted into Propeller, a start-up accelerator, “Tackling inequities in New Orleans by supporting entrepreneurs since 2009.” I needed this desperately because no one teaches you how to run a business in nursing, medical or midwifery school. It was such an honor and a gift, and I learned so much and made tons of progress towards my goals but it’s safe to say that by this point, I was in over my head.
Then, I turned 40 and it wasn’t a big deal. Really it wasn’t. It’s just a point in time that is now forever linked to the start of a meditation practice that I hope will remain a part of my life for, well, ever. So here I was, not coping as well as I wanted with the juggling act that had become my new life. I had a feeling of impending doom, like I might drop a ball at any second. When friends asked how I was doing, my answer had become, “I’m great. I love everything I’m doing; I’m just doing too much of it.” This was the absolute truth but I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that this was also code for, “I’m not fine, I think I’m about to have the first ever panic attack of my life and I’m terrified that if I let that happen, that Ill drop every ball I’ve been juggling and then what?”
Shortly after my birthday, I discovered an app called Ten Percent Happier and I haven’t missed a day of meditation since. TRUTH: Once in a while, I miss a day of waking meditation so I will do a sleep meditation instead and the app says it counts, so it counts J. Anyway, what I’m trying to say here is that for years I have flirted with meditation. I’ve done yoga on and off throughout my life and I’ve even been to Kripalu a few times (a yoga retreat and meditation center in the Catskills of Massachusetts) but something always deters me very early in the process. Mostly, it’s that I have been led to believe that meditation is about clearing one’s mind, being able to focus on the breath and otherwise not think. On some level I knew this was impossible and that made me wonder if meditation was a sham but I would brush that thought off because there is so much research on the positive effects so I defaulted instead to feeling that it was my fault and my failure and no one wants to feel that way. This is not unlike all the reasons that we favor certain movements while avoiding others in the gym. We like to walk away from experiences feeling successful and good about ourselves. Anyhow, it is only now, with this silly little app, that I have learned that this, empty mind business, is not at all the goal of meditation. Why in the world have we all been so misled for so long? Why did it take Dan Harris having a panic attack on national TV for this incredible tool to emerge?
Anyway, now that I understand, and more importantly, believe, that the goal is to use the breath, or any number of other things, as a landing zone, a place to ground your awareness, rather than as an end goal, I am golden. I can do this thing I thought I was bad at, that I was just to type A to do well. Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, two well renowned meditation experts and teachers heavily featured in this app, keep reminding me of this. I now understand that my goal is to be aware that I have strayed from the breath and that I am thinking, to acknowledge my thoughts and then come back to the breath, without judgement. To my surprise, it is even possible (and not wrong) to allow space for thoughts in a more mindful way. Of course, this is the work that I will take to my grave, but I have felt glimmers of what is possible already. Getting back to the basics though, the key to meditation is coming back to the breath without judgement. It doesn’t matter if you have to start over every one or two breaths, it’s still called meditation and you are still working on calming your nervous system and retraining your brain. Dan Harris said it’s like exercise for the brain and of course that one worked for me.
And once Sharon said to think of thoughts that occur during meditation like seeing an old friend in a crowd, the friend is the breath and you are focused on getting to her. You don’t tell everyone else in the crowd to go away. You stay focused on her, i.e. your breath, and let all of the passersby, i.e. your thoughts, pass on by. This analogy resonated with me and has kept me feeling steady in my newfound practice of meditation.
I share this story because the last time I felt a breakthrough this profound was when I found Crossfit. I believe it makes me a better person, more resilient. In truth, it is a daily reminder of what I felt almost 20 years ago moments after I birthed by baby girl. In that moment I knew I could accomplish anything I set my mind too. With Crossfit, I get a little dose of that every day. Crossfit and meditation may not sound like they go very well together but they do, and I would argue that they should. If we are going to push ourselves physically then we need to create space to recover. Anyway, I don’t actually care how you get there, with an app, with a book or totally on your own. And, you know what, I don’t even care if what you do is or isn’t formal mediation. If taking a walk in the woods does it for you, then go do it. But find that thing that helps you to decompress and therefore approach your entire life, your family, your friends, your work, and probably most importantly yourself with kindness and compassion and do that thing as close to daily as possible.
That is my wish for you in the New Year. Bring it 2020! May you enjoy the holidays and find peace in the New Year Decade (eek!)