I have a complicated relationship with meditation.
On the one hand, I know about all the benefits, and they’re pretty profound. A meditation practice – according to truckloads of research that fills the pages of everything from the Harvard Business Review toO, The Oprah Magazine – improves sleep, focus, memory, creativity, sex, physical health, mental health and, I’m sure, how good ice cream tastes.
I’ve been reading about how great meditation is for years, but I haven’t been able to break through those awkward first few days/weeks and establish an honest-to-goodness daily practice. This last month has been the closest I’ve ever come to sticking with a program. And while I’m not ready to say it’s transformed my life, I can attest to some benefits that I hope will accumulate as I get better at it.
I wish I could tell you that I had cracked this nut on my own and that I was able to break through my meditation wall by the sheer power of my own gumption. But the truth is I used a technological crutch: the Headspace app.
I had played with different meditation apps before, but none of them ever took. Either they didn’t offer enough guidance (thereby leaving my mind to wander aimlessly down every rabbit trail it found) or the guidance it offered was so annoying that I finished the exercise more stressed-out than when I started.
What I like about Headspace is its super-basic approach and the way it won’t let you jump in with both feet. You have to start with a 30-day foundation program, and you’re guided through 10-minute meditation sessions that all pretty much follow the same pattern:
· Some deep breathing
· An awareness of your body and the physical space it occupies (e.g. all the contact points with the chair and the floor)
· A head-to-toe scan of your body
· A focus on your breath, counting up to 10 (1-inhale/2-exhale/3-inhale/4-exhale, etc.), and then starting back at one
· A designated “let your mind wander” section, followed soon thereafter with a “bring your mind back to the breath” part
After you’ve finished the first 30 sessions (which you can do in less than 30 days if you do more than one a day, as I have), you can unlock the rest of the “Headspace Journey” and try out more comprehensive meditations. (I’m not that far in yet; stay tuned…)
I’ve come to realize that meditation isn’t about clearing your mind, which is – as far as I’m concerned – impossible. It’s about staying in the present, mindful of what’s happening in the moment. It’s something we all struggle with, living in the here and now, rather than running over what’s happened in the past or anticipating what’s going to happen in the future.
One of my favorite movies in recent years was Bridge of Spies, in which Tom Hanks plays a lawyer appointed to defend an accused Soviet spy. After Hanks’ James Donovan informs the spy, Rudolf Abel, that the U.S. government wants to execute him, Abel looks unconcerned:
James Donovan: Do you never worry?
Rudolf Abel: Would it help?
I try to keep that attitude when I’m tempted to get anxious: worrying doesn’t help, so I may as well stay in the here and now.
I’ve made living in the moment a priority, particularly as I’ve spent more time in recent years traveling. When you have a packed itinerary, it can be easy to fall into the trap of rushing from place to place and never stop to appreciate the wonders in front of you. But I decided a few years ago that, particularly if I might never be in this spot again, I need to breathe it in and experience it fully while I’m here.
That’s a lot easier when you’re surrounded by foreign sights and sounds than it is when you’re back home, bathed in the familiar and wishing you were somewhere beautiful. But life, as John Lennon wrote, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
Much as I love to travel, most of my time is spent in my hometown, going to work, running errands, and living my life. Are there beautiful mountains and stunning architecture on my commute to work? Sadly, no. But that doesn’t mean I want to sleepwalk through my time here, marking time until my next trip.
Meditation – and mindfulness in general – has helped me gain an appreciation of the here and now. And even if I never become an expert meditator, that’s already a win.