A few months ago, I hit a wall. Everything overwhelmed me: my marriage, my kids, the rotting-out windows of my house, the dog barking every time the delivery guy came to the door, and not least of all, our nation’s mind-boggling political reality. This overwhelm came out in startling bursts of anger and quiet bouts of sobbing. Caffeine, my hyperactive schedule, and surges of productive-anxiety kept me going. Staying positive and present in my everyday life was a challenge.
I knew I needed to make a change. I considered acupuncture, weekly foot massages, and even a cleanse, although banning all my favorite food groups from my life seemed downright masochistic. After consulting with various friends and overhearing the barista at Starbucks describe her miraculous transformation from the queen of stress to the goddess of chill, I decided to give meditation a try. In 2012, nearly 18 million adults in the United States used meditation, according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics. I was ready to join the party.
Meditation sounded like the best thing since Amazon Prime, but I’m a bit of a skeptic, so I did my research. Guided meditation, at least to start, is recommended. The best time to meditate seems to be first thing in the morning. Benefits include increased relaxation and focus, decreased stress and anxiety, improved perception and memory, and even slowing of the aging process. All I had to do was find a quiet place to sit, close my eyes, and breathe deeply. Oh, and I had to spend time meditating every day for it to work effectively. Wait, what? What if I missed a day or two? Who knew what could prevent me from my daily lotus? The 5-year-old could get the stomach flu. I could get the stomach flu.
Could it be that meditation — the mere idea of it — was making me anxious? I refused to quit meditating before I even started. I banished my worries to a teeny tiny corner of my brain and downloaded a meditation app, one narrated by a particularly pleasant sounding British guy named Andy. The next morning, resolved and ready, I woke early before the other four people in my house, settled into my favorite chair and gave myself over to Andy for 10 of the longest minutes of my life.
Andy assured me meditating would feel easy some days and hard on others. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what all he said because I was totally distracted by his soothing accent and only half awake because I hadn’t had my coffee yet. What good was this going to be without coffee?! Never mind. I breathed in and out, in and out, just like Andy told me to.
Then the neighbor’s dog started barking, which meant my dog was about to start barking. I tried ignoring it, but then Andy told me to pay attention to the sounds around me. Okay, fine, I paid attention, but that made my heart rate spike because that damn dog out there was about to trigger a howling match which meant my kindergartner was sure to pop out of her bed and bust into my so-called circle of Zen. I spent the remaining seven minutes of the session listening for the 5-year-old, wondering if I had enough sandwich bread for three school lunches and antsy to make my next haircut appointment before my stylist’s calendar filled up.
Clearly, this first day was one of the hard ones. I stuck with it though, dutifully rolling out of bed and trudging sleepily to my chair to sit and breathe. I wish I could say it totally worked, that after almost two months of meditating for ten minutes a day, I was a happier, calmer, more productive person, but that’s not exactly how it went down.
During the silent minutes of my meditation sessions, I might start out visualizing my body filling up with liquid gold until a shining light of loving kindness shot out of my head, but my thoughts would always drift into super-stressful territory. Soon I’d be retracing all the possible escape routes from our house were it burning, imagining what I’d do if an earthquake hit while I was driving across the Bay Bridge (we live in Oakland), and on Tuesday mornings, desperately fighting the urge to look out the window to see if my husband remembered to take out the trash bins.
Andy told me to notice how my brain wandered, concentrate on my breathing, and gently bring my thoughts back to the here and now. The problem was, the more I cleared my head of the top-level clutter, the more room I made for my deeper worries to shimmy out of the shadows. In my non-meditating hours, I often felt more anxious than ever, yet entirely unmotivated to do anything about it. I gained 4 pounds. I forgot to pay the bills. I could barely keep my eyes open past 8 p.m. I missed my anxiety-driven motivation. At least then I got shit done.
My family will tell you that I was nicer, as in, I wasn’t yelling as much, and maybe that’s true, but I wouldn’t say I was happier. Not being pissed all the time was an improvement, but I didn’t feel like myself. I felt detached. I couldn’t quite shake the stressful thoughts that surfaced while meditating, including the idea that I wasn’t doing this meditation thing right.
Eight weeks into my meditation journey, I stopped. It’s totally possible that I might go back to it at some point when I’m ready. Until then, I’ll keep practicing the one takeaway that stuck with me because shooting bolts of liquid-gold loving-kindness at all the assholes who cut me off on the road really does feel better than cussing them out.