Although I’ve done yoga for my whole adult life, I’m not a very Zen person. In fact, kind of the opposite. I have friends who are really into meditation, and I’ve tried it a number of times, with very limited success and a lot of frustration. Basically after about eight seconds of focusing on my breath, squirrel brain would set in: Are we out of laundry detergent? What’s that noise in the hallway? Is the cat bored? That kind of thing.
And then… Back in November, I started having some significant anxiety issues, due to general life stress, the pandemic, and juggling all of the above plus work and my grad school program (which I love, so I didn’t want to drop anything!). I’m generally a pretty non-anxious person, and never had physical anxiety symptoms in my life. And all of a sudden there I was: racing heart, racing thoughts, shaking hands, having trouble sleeping, having trouble concentrating, feeling like I couldn’t breathe, the whole deal. I knew that if I couldn’t dial back the external stressors, I had to bump up my own coping skills, so I decided to try meditation. I’ve now meditated every day since December 6, and it’s honestly made a huge difference. Of course, no coping skill exists in isolation, and in addition to meditating, the external stressors have gotten a lot less intense. But I’m now a huge fan of meditation. A number of changes that I’ve noticed:
- Meditation is a subtle, incremental thing. It’s not like when you start lifting weights, and within a couple of weeks you’re seeing some major changes in your body. At first, I mostly noticed an absence of unpleasant symptoms, rather than a presence of pleasant symptoms, if that makes sense. Like, “Oh, wow, today is actually pretty off the rails and I’m not having trouble functioning.” My physical anxiety symptoms are completely gone, which makes life a lot more enjoyable.
- After five months of meditating every day, I mainly notice that my thoughts feel slower and quieter. That may sound weird if you’ve never meditated, but I mean that I’m more able to pause and respond, rather than reflexively react to things. Or even think, “Hmmm. What do I want to do about that? Do I need to do anything?” rather than “OH MY GOSH HERE COMES ANOTHER DISASTER, TIME TO FREAK OUT.”
- Another big change I notice is more of a feeling of observing my own thoughts rather than being immersed in them. I notice this in very practical ways. One of my goals in my interpreting practice sessions is to “blacklist” certain words, i.e. never start a sentence with “If…” “And…” or “But…,” because then I’m often backed into a corner that I can’t get out of. And before meditation, I had a very hard time doing that: the word was out of my mouth before I even felt it coming. Now I’m still not at 100% avoidance of those words, but I have more of a sense of, “Here comes the urge to start a sentence with ‘If…” Better rephrase that.” I honestly think it’s made a big difference in my interpreting.
- I feel more tolerant of my own and other people’s negative emotions. One of my problems in life is excess positivity, to the point of thinking that everything is surely fine, when it’s surely not fine. Meditation has helped me take more of an accepting approach to things that are not fine: to see difficult emotions for what they are — feelings that just exist on the spectrum of feelings, rather than feelings that need to be fixed.
If you’d like to start meditating, here are my admittedly not-expert tips:
- Start with a small amount of time, but many times a week. A lot of evidence suggests that you have to meditate at least five times a week to see the benefits, and I’d agree with that. I started with five minutes a day, seven days a week.
- If, like me, you’ve tried and failed at meditation before, I’d suggest doing guided meditations where the narrator talks the whole time, so that you have something to focus on besides your breath. I know, real meditators can sit there and focus on their breath for days at a time, but I definitely cannot. You could start with a five-minute meditation podcast, of which there are a number available on any podcast app.
- There are also tons of free guided meditations on YouTube. I like The Honest Guys, and I’ve honestly (haha!) probably done Tess Whitehurst’s meditation to clear limiting beliefs at least 50 times.
- My go-to now is the Calm app, and narrator Jeff Warren’s meditations called The Daily Trip. As the name suggests, there’s a new one every day, and it’s 10-15 minutes. I love Jeff’s voice and his approach to meditation; I honestly find Calm’s main narrator a bit saccharine, but I love Jeff.
- I found it helpful to integrate meditation into my daily routine. I meditate as soon as I get to my office on weekdays (don’t even turn on the computer beforehand), and right after I eat breakfast on weekends. I always sit in the same spot (I just sit on the floor, nothing fancy) and use earbuds so that I don’t get a lot of ambient noise.
If you’re into meditation, or if you try it, I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!