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Deep Breaths: Meditation and the (Tricky) Art of Letting Go

In Meditation, Work/Life Balance on January 19, 2013 at 11:45 am
The serenity we see in nature is not always as easy to capture in our own minds.

The serenity we see in nature is not always as easy to capture in our own minds.

You’ve probably heard about the recent lipservice paid to the physical and mental benefits of meditation. Better focus, renewed energy, calm, and peace of mind. All of this great press reinforces my NYE resolution to meditate daily. For me, meditation is about grounding myself, reflecting on my core values, and increasing deliberate mindfulness. You could say that meditation is my way of savoring life (thanks, Leo), although it can never replace my daily chocolate addiction. Thankfully, I’m pretty certain that you can savor more than one thing, otherwise I’d be in trouble.

My first, brief flirtation with meditation was back in my college days. I was freshly arrived on the East Coast and waved around my California suntan and Santa Barbara beach stories like some kind of protective flag. A friend, convinced by my hippie/surfer charade, told me about a flyer they’d seen advertising a meditation group. Afraid to dispel my carefree image, I declared that I would go. After all, don’t all Californians meditate? Needless to say, I arrived at the class wholly unprepared for what was about to happen.

The room was bare, bathed in gloomy light and suffused with the spicy, make-your-throat-itch smell of incense. Myself and the other newbies uneasily circled the instructor, a thin, grey-haired man in his late fifties, who was calmly seated cross-legged in the center of the room. He invited us to join him, and we awkwardly plopped to the ground, the wiser of us landing on the sad-looking pillows we’d brought from our dorm beds. The instructor briefly explained the concept and then we closed our eyes. Therein ensued some of the longest, most drawn-out minutes of my life.

For those who have never meditated before, allow me to shed some light. We spend our days wrapped up in a frenzy of mental and emotional activity. We’re hardwired to be “on” constantly, and give ourselves little room to relax, much less empty our minds. Meditation runs against the very grain of this paradigm and challenges us to attempt (what seems) the impossible: to turn off our thinking minds. No time. No judgements. No emotion. Nothing.

Simple enough, right? To the uninitiated, meditation feels more like slamming the brakes in a semi-truck going 70 miles per hour. Instead of stopping, what happens is that everything suddenly clamors for immediate attention. You hear the brakes screaming, the tires skidding against the pavement, horns honking all around, and little voices telling you that this was a bad, bad idea. This, my friends, is what it was like for me to meditate that first time. I was wholly unprepared for inner battle that would ensue the moment I closed my eyes. At the end of the thirty minutes, I was exhausted. Instead of feeling connected to some greater energy, I felt like I’d been pounded by waves for hours.

I only went back to that meditation circle once or twice more. I hadn’t expected meditation to be so challenging and I was ashamed of my failure. Several years went by sans-meditation. Occasionally, I’d feel a glimmer of guilt. Then one day, I realized that I was ready to give it another try. This time, it was much easier, especially since I knew what to expect. I had matured enough  that I didn’t give up when I didn’t instantly achieve a state of nirvana.

This brings us to today. My meditation practice is going well, thanks in part to some lessons I’ve picked up along the way. Lesson #1: start small. I try to meditate a minimum of ten minutes a day. I’m gradually building from there, but ten minutes is small enough to seem achievable, especially when balancing a busy schedule. At the stage I’m at, even ten minutes can be a challenge.

Lesson #2: acknowledge and release. The first time I tried meditating, I felt like a failure because I couldn’t empty my mind. I now know better. Instead of trying to instantly empty, I try to acknowledge the thoughts and emotions running through my brain and then one by one, let them go. This is a remarkably cathartic process. As I am discovering, sometimes peace of mind is as simple as recognizing that for ten whole minutes, I don’t have to fix everything. The world no longer rests on my shoulders, and I am free to just be.

***

Currently Reading: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi dissects creativity with a highly objective eye. He asks us to let go of our preconceptions of creativity as something whimsical and erratic; instead, he paints a picture in which true Creativity (with a capital C) stems from rigorous work and interactive processes. One of his most intriguing claims is that in order for anything to be creative, it needs to be validated by others working in the same field.

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