Number 25 on my list was to meditate daily. It was a good thought. But truthfully, I have not been able to keep up with this practice every day. Interestingly, it is precisely because of my meditation practice that I can admit publicly that I have not been able to do something perfectly. And that is okay. It is the attempt that matters.
When I began my meditation practice, I was stuck in my head, overwhelmed with anxiety and stress, and weighed down with emotional armour. I didn’t want anyone to know I had weaknesses and I was convinced I could deal with whatever life threw at me on my own. I didn’t need anyone else. And there was no way I was going to share my feelings with another person.
In September of 2017, I returned to a regular yoga practice after a twenty year hiatus, and I slowly learned to get out of my head and into my body. Meditation followed, and I learned that I could observe my thoughts and let them go, without having to attach too much meaning to them.
A year later, my reasons to meditate have changed, but my appreciation of this practice has not. I love that we refer to meditation as a practice. I have a bit of a tendency toward perfectionism, which probably adds to my anxiety…or maybe is the root of it. So to refer to something as a practice gives me the freedom and permission to learn, to make mistakes, to change my understanding of what it means to work toward a goal. A year ago, my meditation practice was awkward and frustrating. I couldn’t control the thoughts and feelings and I was trying to adhere to a set of instructions. A year ago, I had three main reasons to start a meditation practice. Those reasons were: to get out of my head, to learn to be present (and stop spending all my energy in the past or the future) and to simply slow down.
Getting out of my Head
When I began talk therapy, I was under the impression that I could just share what I was thinking about things going on in my life, and the therapist would tell me some simple yet profound advice and once I put it into action, all my fears and anxieties would disappear.
Yes, I know that is not how therapy works.
What happened instead was a profound new understanding for me. Feelings and thoughts are not the same thing. I remember my therapist asking me how I felt about a situation I was dealing with. I told her I thought I was angry…and proceeded to tell her all the angry thoughts I was experiencing. Then she asked me to tell her where in my body I felt anger. WHAT? What was she talking about? That was the beginning of me beginning to understand why I needed to get out of my head.
Meditation helped me to get in touch with how I experience emotions in my body. Where do I feel them? What colour are they? How does my body feel as I experience different emotions. It took some time, but as I observed my thoughts through meditation, and released them, I could more clearly see and feel my emotional landscape.
Learn to be Present (not living in the past or the future)
I used to spend far too much time either ruminating on the past, replaying conversations as they happened and as I wished they had happened or projecting into the future, setting up expectations for what my life should look like, and how disappointed I would be if it looked any different. I spent very little time in the present, experiencing what was happening around me NOW, appreciating the people in my life, valuing the life I am privileged to lead.
The problem with living in the past is that you can’t change it. There is no way to go back and change the events, the conversations, the choices we made. And to continue to wish things were different robs us of seeing how our past has shaped the present.
The problem with living in the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. When we live expecting the future to look a certain way, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Yes, we can work toward a future we want, but if we spend our time in the future, we miss the present work we need to do to create that future we hope for.
Living in the present has allowed me to just be, to see my life as it is, not as I wish it could be or how I hope it might look one day. Meditation, and mindfulness in particular, is a practice which helps me be here now.
To Slow Down
Sometimes I feel like my life is just rushing by. Being a parent, a partner, a teacher, principal and leader can keep me moving at a quick pace all the time. Part of my motivation for beginning to meditate was to give myself a moment, two or five or twenty minutes of just slowing down, really breathing, and getting grounded. In the busyness of our lives, how many times do we just stop for a few minutes to breathe, to taste the food we are eating, to fully engage in a conversation. Meditation helped me slow down my mind and body long enough to recognize where I was in the world around me.
The reasons I continue to meditate have changed a little. While I still strive to be present, to get out of my head and to slow down, I have found more benefits to meditation. And while I don’t meditate every day, despite my best intentions, the practice continues to improve my mental and spiritual well being. I continue meditating (and to continue working toward a daily practice as part of my 45 things project) to understand how I feel my emotions (without my thoughts getting in the way), to have more self-awareness and to calm my thoughts and my physical reactions to anxiety.
Feeling all the Emotions
Emotions are uncomfortable for me. And not just the ones like sadness or vulnerability or embarrassment. I am talking about all emotions. I prefer to think rather than to feel. When I discovered that emotions are felt in the body, and opened myself up to feeling without numbing, I found all emotion, even the ones we aspire to feel, like joy and pride and love, to be overwhelming. I will talk about numbing in another post, but for this one, it is enough to say that meditation has taught me that I can sit with emotion, feel the discomfort, let it wash over me and retreat like a wave. I know that there is no emotion that lasts forever and that feelings are information, not facts. Meditation lets me get curious about how I am feeling and what my intuitive body wants me to know and do. It’s still super uncomfortable, but I am working on it.
Being More Self Aware
Meditation has this wonderful benefit of allowing me to be an observer – of my thoughts, of my feelings and of how I show up in the world. As an observer, I can (in theory) recognize my experiences as neutral – neither good nor bad – and can become more aware of the judgement I attach to those experiences, making them good or bad. Learning to be aware of the emotional triggers I feel, the thought patterns that can colour my day and seeing myself as others see me gives me a sense of freedom. At this point, I am pretty self aware…I am just not great at expressing what I am feeling or thinking yet.
Calm Thoughts and Physical Reactions to Anxiety
One of the truly practical gifts of meditation is having a tool to deal with stressful situations or times when the brain’s amygdala takes over and takes control. When I find myself having racing thoughts, bizarre physical reactions like an inability to breathe, sweating for no reason, or sudden headache or when my thoughts send me into fight or flight mode and I NEED to find a way out of a room NOW (for example), meditation and mindfulness are tools I use to remind my brain that I am safe, to calm my sympathetic nervous system and to engage my parasympathetic, rest and digest system. When my thoughts begin to race, and I can only see the worst case scenario (and am no longer in the present), a minute of mindful breathing or repeating a mantra can bring me back to a calm state. I am not really great at recognizing when I need to do this, though, so part of my practice will be to apply these skills more regularly, and preferably before I spiral.
Tomorrow I will share some of the specific meditation tools I use. Some are apps for guided meditation. Some are structured practices. And some just require quieting the mind and taking a breath.
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