In those moments when we’re left alone with our thoughts, who’s to say what we’re really like? I am a composite of personalities, revealed and reinforced by context. When I’m alone, I often feel worried. Am I on the right track in life? Should I change something big? How do I create authentic meaning for myself? And even when the questions aren’t concrete, the feelings are. How often do we suppress them by filling our time with activities and social engagements?
Before, a dark sea of unidentified emotions sloshed inside me. The first time I tried guided mindfulness meditation, it brought these feelings front and center. I began to learn the tools to confront and process these feelings. Two years of practice later, I’m still learning.
As far back as I can remember, it took me hours to fall asleep. My mind was full of thoughts and memories of the day, or the command to sleep. I felt powerless. In my inner monologue I shouted, “Go to sleep!” Then the final syllable would echo and echo in the darkness until I said something else. At some point, I gave up and let my mind wander. I prayed for unconsciousness. Then I became impatient again, trying to force it. Counting sheep never worked.
When I was around ten years old, someone suggested focusing on physical sensations and the breath. The first few times, I struggled to stay focused. Over the course of a few weeks, it got easier. I was getting to sleep faster. At some point, sleeping became easy, and I no longer needed the technique.
For years, friends told me about the benefits of meditation. I told them, “I don’t want the spiritual baggage. I’m not stressed. And anyway, I learned to do the basics when I was ten, so I don’t need guidance. I can do it any time. Sometimes I do.” I didn’t think I was missing anything.
Two years ago, I sat down with seven friends to talk about our psychological hygiene. We focused on what clutters or clears our minds, how we arrange our physical spaces, and how both of these affect our sleep. At the end, we did the meditation exercise below to try one person’s favorite method. We sat on the carpeted floor, turned down the lights, and hit the play button on his phone.
When the recording ended, I opened my eyes. A tear or two rolled down my cheeks. I wasn’t crying, but my eyes had teared. I felt like someone had just massaged my brain… or was it my heart? Tightness in my chest that I hadn’t even noticed before beginning the meditation had loosened. There was no spiritual stuff, just visualization and focus. Something real had happened. I liked it. I wanted more.
I downloaded Headspace, though there are now many alternatives that are equally good. I meditated for 10 minutes almost every day. It was just the kind of secular introspection I wanted. Once I got through the 30 foundation sessions, I chose the 30-session anxiety track. Friends were surprised. “You don’t seem anxious. You seem happy all the time.” I also thought that. But if I’m honest with myself, I was only able to maintain that illusion if I spent my time distracted by work, food, etc. Deeper emotions might unexpectedly come out in the form of an uncharitable response to a friend, or unwarranted annoyance at something unimportant. During the foundation track, I often felt anxious in a way I had never noticed before. Thinking back, it must have been present for a long time, but I didn’t have the tools to recognize it. Choosing that track was an acknowledgment that I had learned something new about myself.
My favorite analogy from the hundreds of sessions I’ve done
Negative emotions are like rain. You can’t stop the rain. But you can change your relationship to it. The goal of meditation is to allow us to stand indoors, looking out at the rain, rather than getting soaked.
— Andy Puddicombe, Headspace
I’ve thought about this again and again since I heard it the first time. Sometimes all it takes is a single deep breath to get me indoors. Sometimes it takes much longer.
My second favorite track is the 10-session one I’m doing now on motivation. Each session focuses on a different question, for example
What’s most important in your life right now?
What is your goal?
Is your happiness dependent on your goal?
I’m excited for my next session. These are questions I ask myself far too rarely, and with the wrong intent. The important thing is not to come up with an answer, but to situate myself with respect to any answer that comes to mind. By explicitly considering what my true goal is, I can more easily judge whether I’m on course. If I am, then I’m content. If not, I can start making concrete plans to get myself there, or at least to start pointing in the right direction.
And finally, I love the one-offs that aren’t part of a track. One, on sleep, suggests fast-forwarding through your memories of the day starting from when you first opened your eyes to getting into bed. Then you count backwards from 1000. I’ve never made it past 900. Another, on walking, helps you feel less rushed as you’re going from place to place. Going to be late? Don’t keep telling yourself how late you’ll be. Accept it and be in the moment.
If you haven’t tried modern guided mindfulness meditation yet, I can’t recommend it enough. I meditate because it gives me the tools and the space to understand myself better. It has made me happier, more relaxed, and more intentional about my life. It has helped me break out of loops I was stuck in. It’s quick. You’ve got no excuse! Just do it!