Seriously, Sam? is a monthly column that takes a lighter look at suburban life. This month, Sam gives us a Beginner’s Guide to Meditation. A step by step guide for the meditation newbie.
I am not the poster child for meditation. I am anxious, neurotic and always on-the-go. My mental to-dos are so extensive that, when I stop, I am swallowed-up by a black hole of things I haven’t checked off of my list — one of which is usually to make a list, so I can check things off. I drink my morning coffee in the car, holding it in one hand, as I inevitably use the other to rescue something my kids dropped in the back seat, while steering with my knees. The only time I sit is to watch The Real Housewives.
It might, therefore, surprise you that I have been devoted to yoga since the 1990s. Yoga, yes. Meditation, no way. No way, that is, until the summer of 2012. That was when I gave up my corporate job to become a full-time mom and got certified as a yoga teacher. One of my training requirements: daily meditation. No meditation, no certification.
Every night, for six weeks, I sat and meditated. It was excruciating. My mind was a Tasmanian devil. Nevertheless, as the weeks progressed, I felt calmer and more patient. Apparently, meditation works even when you suck at it.
I reluctantly became a meditation believer. And with my belief, came a desire to share with others. So, since its December — the season of adrenal overload — I am here to offer you a starter guide to finding a calmer approach to life. Even if you think you absolutely, positively cannot meditate, give it like, 10 minutes a day, a few days a week. Soon you might be so radically at peace, that you won’t need to make a single resolution for 2019. Except, maybe, to keep meditating.
Sit down, but don’t get comfortable
You’re supposed to stay alert when you meditate. Get too comfortable and you might fall asleep. (And, in case you weren’t sure, sleeping is not just a deep form of meditation.) Traditionally, you sit on the floor with your legs crossed. If this is pure torture for you, like it is for most adults, you can totally start in a chair. I would suggest that you find that chair that you usually avoid, because it isn’t very comfortable. This will be enough to keep you alert and, as an extra bonus, you’ll actually be using that piece that you bought because it “completed the room.”
Become aware of your breath, but don’t change it (NOTE: this is HARD)
For me, the beginning of meditation is often indecipherable from a panic attack. I sit down (cross legged on the floor because I am now a very advanced meditator,) and begin to “notice my breath.” I start gasping for air. I feel like I am suffocating which quickly morphs into a sensation of hyperventilating, because, since I feel like I can’t take a full breath, I take shorter and more frequent ones. My heart races and I start to sweat.
I guess I keep breathing because I don’t die, and I don’t pass out.
The lesson: it’s really hard to suffocate when you are just sitting. So, hang in there!
Develop a light focus with your eyes, but don’t see anything
If meditation wasn’t hard enough, in mindfulness meditation your eyes are open. Why? Because you are training yourself to be as calm and peaceful in the world, as you are during meditation. You are supposed to see the distractions.
If, like me, you are about as calm and peaceful during meditation as droplets of oil in a hot frying pan, and keeping your eyes open doesn’t help, here is the good news:
a. Your open eyes aren’t really open, they are in a “diffused gaze.” Remember those colorful posters that they had at the mall in the ‘80s? The ones with the hidden 3-D image that you could only see when you let your vision go all zoned-out and wonky? That is a “diffused gaze.” Of course, that makes you feel heavy-lidded and sleepy. But, remember, NO SLEEP! This is meditation, not nap time.
b. You can close your eyes and re-group as necessary because meditation is a no judgement zone.
When thoughts come up, gently label them “thinking,” and come back to your breath
Again, I’ll illustrate with my own experience. I’m sitting on the floor, eyes open. All I can see is the fuzzy silhouette of a pile of Legos courtesy of my kids:
My Thinking Mind (TM): “How many times do I have to ask the kids to clean up their toys? I swear, everything is going in the trash as soon as I am done meditating.”
My Meditating Mind (MM): “Oh, right. Meditation. Thinking.” (I attempt to take a deep breath that is more like a ragged gasp.)
TM: “I am so bad at breathing. Why is this so hard? I am the world’s worst meditator. I wonder what I should make for dinner.”
MM: “Thinking” (I take an actual deep breath)
TM: “Ouch, that deep breath made my back hurt. I wonder if I pulled something. I am really getting old. I mean, I pretty much have chronic back pain. Isn’t yoga supposed to prevent this? I remember, when I was a kid, my dad threw out his back and he had to stay in bed and pee in a bottle. What a weird memory.”
TM: “This is so ridiculous. Why am I trying not to think about anything but breathing? The minute I think about breathing I get anxious and isn’t the point of this to help my anxiety. And…”
Do not scratch that itch
The goal is to “be” with whatever happens during meditation. That means that even if your dog starts French kissing you, you, theoretically, just “breathe through it.” (Obviously taking a deep breath is at the top of the list of things you want to do when your dog is sticking his tongue in your mouth.) This one is tricky and debatable. I say, scratch away. No judgements.
Give up, indulge every thought, and rejoice – time is up, and you are a real-life, actual meditator
Inevitably you feel like you have been sitting forever and you just can’t do it anymore. Usually that’s approximately when the magic chime goes off and you are done anyway. Amazingly, by setting aside this time to breathe, notice every mental flight of fancy, and attempt – even if unsuccessfully – to just “be where you are,” you are actually, truly, genuinely, being mindful. See, the beauty of meditation is that it really just means noticing your habits of thought, not making your mind blank, not avoiding or judging your reactions. Basically, it’s self-awareness with a healthy portion of acceptance.
After years of meditating, I still spend most of the time “thinking.” Nevertheless, my mind is clearer. I have more patience with my kids and compassion for others (even the evil b*tch who cuts everyone off in the pick-up line.) I am better focused and more efficient. This means I have time for the important things, like catching up on The Real Housewives which, now that you’re a meditator, you don’t judge me for; because you, too, are practicing acceptance.
Namaste. And Happy New Year
About Samantha Woodruff
Samantha Woodruff holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business. She spent most of her career at Viacom’s MTV Networks, where she oversaw Strategy, Business Development and Consumer Research for Nickelodeon and a host of other brands.
After becoming a mom and moving to the suburbs of Manhattan, Sam left corporate America and made being a mom to her 7 and 9 year old kids her full-time job. In her free moments, Sam teaches yoga and takes classes at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence. She is working on her first novel and writing essays that take a lighter look at the life of a former type-A executive turned suburban mom. Her work has been featured in Read650 and she contributes a monthly column, Seriously, Sam? to Suburbs 101.