I’m sitting in a grassy meadow in lotus pose, which, thanks to hours and hours of patient practice contorting myself into this position, does not make my kneecaps want to run screaming from my body. My eyes are closed and my arms are outstretched, my hands balanced upon my knees, palms up, thumb and middle finger forming a circle. I can literally feel the earth’s energy coursing through my limbs. The world is a dumpster fire, but none of that can touch me. I have disconnected from the material world. Here in my quiet meditation meadow, I am at peace.
LOL juuuuust kidding. My body is incapable of lotus position—I can barely manage criss-cross applesauce these days. There is no meadow, no serene place. Like most of you, I have kids who are out of school and need far more attention than usual thanks to distance learning, thanks to a global pandemic, thanks to this new, unwelcome low-key COVID-anxiety that permeates every corner of our lives. I am most definitely not at peace.
But I did start meditating. I started on a whim shortly after shelter-in-place started because an ad appeared in my Facebook feed for a free month of Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation app. A friend who has been nagging me to try it says it’s the best app she’s found so far, and she is very choosy about whose voice she’ll allow into her meditation routine, so I figured, what the hell. I’ll try it.
The app has a feature that allows you to set up a reminder to meditate. In the first week, every time it went off, I swiped the notification away with every intent to get back to it, and then of course forgot. Finally, I made myself stop what I was doing and take ten minutes to sit and listen. My dog crawled into my lap and curled up. Is this allowed? I wondered. In the next room, my son was practicing electric guitar. Whatever. I’d just have to manage. The first lesson was simply a guide to focusing on the breath. Sam’s voice periodically reminded me to bring my focus back to my breath. He reminded me that this is part of the practice—noticing that my mind has wandered and bringing it back without judgment.
Ever the skeptic, I told myself the calm I felt after sitting for ten minutes was due only to the power of suggestion. But I kept doing it, not every day because, as noted before, I’m kind of a hot mess at the moment. And every time I meditate, it’s followed by the same sense of calm. Every other day or so, I sit for five to ten minutes, with or without the app, and focus on my breathing. Well, I try to focus on my breathing. My house is noisy, and I am easily distracted. But even with life’s mayhem swirling around me, meditation helps.
In fact, I have learned that noise and distractions are perfectly fine when it comes to meditation. Chaos is a part of life, and it can be a part of meditation too. In the fourth guided meditation in the Waking Up app I’ve been using, Sam specifically directs the listener to focus on noises outside of themself rather than on their breath. He points out that you can just as easily use other sounds as a locus of concentration as you can your own breathing.
Who knew meditation could be so compatible with the shit show of motherhood? A couple of days ago my 10-year-old daughter interrupted me halfway through a session. I asked her to sit with me for the last five minutes, and she did. We focused on our breathing even as the dog licked our knees and my 14-year-old son shouted angrily at his computer game in the other room. (He would probably benefit from some meditation.)
Research has shown that mindfulness meditation can positively impact many areas of our lives. A team of researchers at Harvard studied a group of individuals who committed to meditate daily for eight weeks. At the end of that period, the researchers discovered some surprising outcomes, including a change in the expression of 172 genes regulating inflammation, circadian rhythms, and glucose metabolism. Participants demonstrated “a meaningful decrease in their blood pressure.” Other research suggests that regular meditation can produce structural changes in the brain—literally thickening brain matter. Meditation also seems to slow age-related atrophy of certain parts of the brain.
But I’m not taking MRIs of my brain. I’m just a work-from-home mom trying to muddle through a global pandemic. So what does meditating for a few minutes per day do for me? To put it simply: It calms me. That’s it. My everyday anxiety usually manifests as either a hollowed-out feeling or an uncomfortable tightening in my chest. When I meditate, this sensation is noticeably eased.
On days I meditate, I am more in the here and now—more present. I gain a renewed sense of perspective. So much is out of my control, but there’s also a lot in my control, from little things, like the meals I prepare or whether or not I change out of my pajamas, to harder things like whether or not I exercise or calmly mediating an argument between my kids. I can choose to make the best of a hard situation. I can acknowledge that my situation is objectively easier than many others’ and use that awareness to fuel my gratitude rather than as a tool to shame myself for struggling emotionally. I can panic about uncertainty or I can accept and embrace it.
I’m probably not doing meditation “right.” My house is noisy, my thoughts wander, the dog is in my lap half the time, and for some reason I always feel an urge to cough when I’m meditating. But something about sitting there and simply acknowledging my thoughts without judgment, coming back to focusing on my breathing, however scattered that process may be, really does help.
If you’re curious to try meditation for yourself, below are a few apps to try. The thing to be aware of with meditation apps though—the higher rated ones anyway—is that they generally aren’t free. This makes sense, because it would be hard to fund a meditation app using ads the way game apps or podcasts do. They’re supposed to be calming you, not bombarding you with ads.
Waking Up (the one I have been using): Free trial, $99 per year. BUT. Sam doesn’t want money to be the reason you don’t use his app, so if you are struggling financially, simply email and app admins will set you up with a year free, zero questions asked.
Headspace: $12.99 per month or $95 per year. This appears again and again as a most-recommended meditation app.
Smiling Mind: FREE. This one is geared toward young people (starting with age 7) though adults have given it great reviews for themselves too.
Buddhify: Just $30 annually, this app is consistently rated highly as one of the least expensive paid apps. It’s designed for meditating in short bursts no matter where you are.
Insight Timer: FREE. This app is generally rated the best free app available.
And, of course, you can always simply sit for ten minutes and focus on your breath.