On Sitting

The other day, as I was adjusting the settings for my spin bike at the gym, the instructor started up the music. Without thinking, I came in on the downbeat and sang along, noting rhythm, harmony, changes of pace and energy. Several bars in, I thought to myself, just when and how did I master “Don’t Stop the Music,” by Rihanna? I’ve been struggling to find the time to meditate, stopping and starting multiple times over the last couple of years. I’d just been reading a book about meditation on the subway, trying to get myself motivated to start practicing again—next week, next month once [insert work-related task here]—because meditating seems like such a massive, difficult, time-consuming project that I couldn’t possibly do something as rash as just start any old time. I can’t spare five or 10 minutes in my day to meditate, and yet somehow I’ve managed to carve out enough spare time to memorize and rehearse a catchy, but artistically banal, pop song. Hundreds of them, actually, from Abba to Def Lepard to U2. With harmony.

The road to enlightenment is a long and winding one… (and yeah, I know that one too).

What prompted me to finally try meditating in the first place was The Panic. I’ve always been anxious (really? you don’t say…sorry, no infamous confessions today): when I’m not fretting or worrying, I’m planning and scheduling, or occasionally engaged in imaginary conversations where I’m scolding other people for not fretting, worrying, planning, or scheduling enough. I’ve been like that for so long that I (thought I’d) become quite used to the hectic psychic environment (on a good day, like a well-run Dutch airport, on a bad day, like JFK during a baggage handlers’ strike). But for a variety of reasons, including just cumulative wear and tear, in the last couple of years that anxiety had evolved into the Panic. Every day, I’d wake up feeling more or less normal (by my anxious standards). By mid-morning, I’d find that, in the middle of a  conversation with a friend at work, or an email requiring some small degree of response, I’d start to feel a tightness in my stomach, and would start to feel short of breath, like I was hyperventilating and couldn’t breathe deeply enough—and the more aware I was of the symptoms, the more uncomfortable they become, increasing the awareness. I had moments where I felt like if I didn’t stay vigilantly focused on my breathing, I’d stop altogether, which, not surprisingly, only made the feeling of Panic worse.

I called across the hallway to a colleague, who happens to be a specialist in stress and illness—I described my symptoms to her and said, is that panic? and she offered her learned assessment: yup. But I didn’t understand where it was coming from—when The Panic started, I was finishing up the school year and looking forward to relaxing a bit in the peace and quiet of the summer. Things seemed reasonably under control. I looked about me: nope, nothing was on fire. No financial or professional crises were looming—at least, no more than usual. I was worried about this, anxious about that—but in a way that was habitual and normal to me, and nothing that had ever caused this kind of physiological response in the past. What was happening?

Several of my friends are enthusiasts of self-help books, so I took some of their recommendations and did a little reading (a lot actually, Jon Kabat-Zin’s Full Catastrophe Living is a comprehensive place to start). I learned that Panic—a fight or flight response to an imagined threat—can build up cumulatively, but that once the response is turned on, your body learns to continue to respond that way, to the point where the response comes to be a self-sustaining cause of panic, rather than a reaction to any real, specific threat. And then responding to panic by worrying more about everything else AND the panic just—so efficient!—keeps the panic going.

At first, The Panic was simply irritating—it’s uncomfortable and distracting. But then after days living like a penguin on a piece of ice surrounded by hungry seals All.The.Time —it started to become exhausting, wearing me down physically and emotionally. Or maybe I was worn down anyway, which made the Panic worse, thus wearing me down more. Nothing Panic loves more than a vicious cycle.

Feeling increasingly aggravated and fragile, I thought, I’m a competent, respected professional woman who keeps her s@&% together. I’ve got to do something about this.

So I figured I’d start meditating. There’s nothing but good news about meditation. Oprah and Deepak are doing it. Researchers continue to find proof of its efficacy: Monks, MRIs, monks in MRIs—all the data suggest that a simple meditation practice using mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques can improve physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being. It can’t solve all your problems, but, where a disproportionate response to even the smallest problem is the real problem, it can be very helpful in getting you to step back, out of the fray, to just compassionately and kindly accept yourself and be in the present moment.

Yes, I’d read a lot of books and articles about meditation—enough to know that you don’t meditate to solve your problems, but rather to see through, and hence dispel, all the drama we manufacture in response to our problems, and which makes us miserable. I understood that you’re not to expect any miraculous transformations in one session, that you don’t try to control your thoughts, you just let them pass by—all that matters is to just sit down, and breathe, and compassionately accept whatever comes up. That all sounds easy, right? I found a guided meditation class at a local yoga studio, and committed to going, to follow the teacher’s instructions to just sit, and breathe.

So, I sat, and breathed.

And immediately burst into tears. Proceeded to cry for the whole session. And did that the next day and the next. What the hell? All I was doing was just sitting and breathing—what on earth was happening?

As I sat, and breathed, and allowed myself to observe my thoughts and feelings with compassion, I realized several things right away, and powerfully:

1. The instructor reminded us to relax our bodies and our faces. I realized that I’d been deliberately working at smiling whenever I was in public—not because I was always happy, or necessarily feeling friendly, but because I was trying to look approachable, and—seriously—I was trying to prevent frown lines. That is, I had been putting a considerable amount of effort into disguising myself, and pretending I was someone else, out of fear of many things, and that was exhausting and painful. When the instructor reminded us to relax our expression, i felt like that was the first time I’d been myself in weeks.
2. One central technique to help focus your attention involves noticing when you’re starting to think, when your mind is starting to wander through work and worry—and labeling what’s happening “thinking” without getting involved in the thoughts themselves. I noticed that I had to apply the “thinking” label constantly—no sooner had I noticed some “thinking” over here, then more “thinking” would bubble up over there—it was like digging a hole in the sand too close to the water’s edge—the thoughts would just flood in faster than I could calmly notice and label them. And what were all these thoughts? Mostly, planning and scheduling—“I should do this. Did I remember to do that? I have to remember to do the other thing. I need to check with X to make sure she took care of Y.” Then I’d start those imaginary conversations with X about why we should do Y and the thoughts would cascade out of control from there. When I was younger I used to spend a lot of free mental time imagining—roaming around the neighborhoods conjured up by books and movies, or thinking about what it would be like to be a rock star, a dancer, a jewel thief, an assassin, a journalist. And then somehow, a lot of that imaginative play got pushed to the side, by concerns about school, and work, and money, and health; constant planning to stave off disaster; constant imaginary arguments to put imaginary foes in their place, when I was powerless to do anything about them in real life but still desperately needed to feel like I was right and doing something about it. That’s a lot of “thinking” that just runs all the time in my mind like a bunch of computer sub-routines, taking up space and memory, and preventing the machine from doing anything but overheat. No wonder it was so hard to find the time to meditate, not to mention focus on anything creative or fun anywhere else in my personal or professional life.
3. And what really made me cry was the experience of compassion itself. Giving myself the time and space to sit, and then the permission to just kindly accept what was happening in my poor worn out brain—I realized how badly I had needed that compassion. All of 1 and 2, above, were all fueled by a desire to behave well—motivated by a fear of behaving badly and provoking rejection from others. And that’s really, really hard work, trying to make people do what you want, including people you don’t even know or haven’t even met, especially when they can have no idea that that’s what you’re doing.

Just sitting in one spot for 20 minutes made me realize that I had slowly and relentlessly developed several habits meant to protect myself and hold onto people—and most of those habits were doing nothing more than wearing me down and cluttering up my sense of myself so much that I could barely even find myself amidst it all. The Panic now made perfect sense.

Wow, I thought. Amongst many other things, I need to do more meditating.

After those initial intense experiences, though, I started to run into other challenges. All that clutter, and the Panic it creates, made it hard to keep sitting down day after day. In the same way that having so many papers on the desk that you can’t find a single pencil makes it hard to work, having so much panicky chaos in my mind made it hard to sit—there was always something else that needed doing more pressingly. If i did sit, I’d feel guilty about not doing some other seemingly-vital thing. I’ve finally figured out (and somewhere, cognitive-behavioral therapists are doing a little “by jove, I think she’s got it!” dance) that while the many things I panic about might be problems, the real problem is the panic itself. But that panic has accumulated over years, and the mental habits that feed it are very deeply ingrained, so intellectually understanding what’s happening and being able to take 10 minutes to just step outside of it on a daily basis are two very different things. All the more reason to sit.

And yet, there was a simple pragmatic problem of where to sit—I have a small, very urban apartment and no room for a special meditation corner, like Oprah undoubtedly has (I think she has her own island…?)  Wherever I’d sit I’d find myself looking at something disorderly, or that reminded me to do some other task—a basket of laundry I should be folding, a bike to ride, a pile of papers to grade. I could try to tidy things up enough to create some tranquility—but then my meditation time really would be used up and I’d have to go to work, or a social engagement, or the gym, or wherever I felt obligated to go. Once the warmer months came, I thought I’d finally be free—I can sit on my deck, I thought, or go to a park. Then I discovered that I live in a city. My quietest parts of the park are full of people who are also in search of tranquility, often with friends or children in tow. Someone, anywhere, will be talking or yelling or laughing—living their lives. Or a siren will sound as some emergency vehicle rushes past. Or a dog will bark. Or the city will decide to undertake a major construction project across the street. Or I found that the artists at the local metalworking studio like to work outside in the nice weather too—grinding and polishing metal for hours at a stretch. Maybe someone who’s already found some peace and calm could meditate in the midst of all of that. For someone who’s scattered and cluttered and beset by constant panic, it was all but impossible.

So I stopped sitting.

And The Panic continued, and ebbed and flowed. In calmer moments, I worked on making my space more calm as well—a white noise generator, some reorganizing and a bit of new furniture to try to find a comfortable space to sit with a view out the window instead of the laundry basket. And If I couldn’t meditate, I kept doing other things that help clear the clutter—hiking and walking, being with friends, helping friends when they need it, dancing, reading, writing. Memorizing Rihanna lyrics and singing. And when I can sit, I do that too.

I asked one meditation teacher how to tell if I’m doing it right, and he repeated what another teacher had told him—as long as you do it, as long as you get your behind onto your mat and sit there, you’re doing it right. I can’t guarantee what I’ll do tomorrow or the next day, but as soon as I’ve posted this little meditation, I’m going to do what I try to do every day—commit to myself, and take a few minutes to just sit, and breathe.

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