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“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of these things and still be calm in your heart.” ~Unknown
I began the morning with a meditation. After taking my dog out and brewing the coffee, I sat in my sunny living room, my little dog Frankie nestled beside me. I perched cross-legged, a blue pillow on my lap for warmth. I closed my eyes and began to focus on my breath.
When ten minutes passed, I raised my hands in appreciation. “Thank you for this day. Thank you for my family and for our health. Give me strength, wisdom, and love.” Then I extended my hands forward, “So that I may give strength, wisdom, and love.” Finally, I stretched both arms out sideways, wiggling my fingers in my peripheral vision, a reminder to be fully aware. This is how I start every day.
It wasn’t always this way. My older brother Marc tried to get me to meditate when I was fourteen. Although he was a patient teacher, I didn’t understand the point of the exercise.
“Let’s sit together. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breath.”
“Why do I have to do this?
“Just sit, Lise. It’s good for you to learn. We will do it together.”
“OK, but why?”
Marc tried, but I resisted. I stopped meditating as soon as he went back to college.
Years later, as part of my psychology training, I took classes which touted meditation as a stress-reducing technique. During the classes, there were demonstrations which I always enjoyed. I sat back, breathed deeply, and felt a deep flow of relaxation inside me. But, back home, I had no follow-through. Once the classes were over, so was my meditation.
My breakthrough into daily meditation happened in 2020, one of the few good things that arose from that dreadful year. I was home, virtually every minute of my life. I didn’t have to dash from of the house, brave traffic, and arrive at the office by 9:00. Mornings stretched more languidly. It was easier to find those ten minutes to breathe every morning.
Now I sit every day. I scan through my body, noting points of tension, areas of pain and pressure. Simple awareness of the tension shifts any pain, and my body settles.
My mind, free from my constant to-do lists, drifts along, as if floating on the waves of a gentle sea. I hear the sounds of the house around me, the heater outside, working mightily to warm our home; Frankie the dog beside me, sighing. My stomach muscles unclench. I notice thoughts drifting in. I don’t attend to them. The thoughts fade away. Peace.
Of course, that’s when meditation goes well. Sometimes every minute slogs on. My scalps itches. “I forgot to return that phone call,” I think, and my body tenses into high alert. “Oh no, I have to write that woman back!” My throat tightens. “What if that editor doesn’t like my submission?” My stomach jams into a knot. I cannot let these thoughts go. “I suck at meditation. Why can’t I just breathe? When will these ten minutes be over?”
Sometimes meditation goes like this. It isn’t always peaceful, and it doesn’t always feel good. The key, I’m told, is to keep at it. Like any skill, the more we practice, the better we get at it. It is no accident that we say one “practices meditation.” I didn’t get decent at writing in one year either.
If you are like the fourteen-year-old me, you might be asking, why meditate at all? There are so many benefits I don’t even know where to begin; here is a partial list. Meditation…
- Soothes anxiety: When you learn to focus the mind, your thoughts don’t spin off into anxious “what-ifs,” spiraling into anxious ruminations.
- Calms anger: Focusing on breathing calms the mind, stopping our internal tirades over people who have wronged us.
- Improves the immune system: The body is not designed to be in a constant “fight or flight” mode. When we are tense, our immune system works poorly. When we relax, our immune system resumes its work.
- Lowers blood pressure: Meditation is a proven technique for improving hypertension.
- Manages emotional reactivity: This is a big one. It is easy for me, sensitive soul that I am, to feel hurt and wounded by other people. Meditation allows me to detach from the provocations of the moment, and to tap into inner peace. Once I have calmed myself, I find freedom from reacting emotionally. I can bring more thoughtfulness and wisdom to my relationships.
Happily, the benefits of meditation extend past the ten minutes into the whole day.
Now that I practice regularly, I notice when my shoulders leap to attention. With mindfulness, I can lower those shoulders down.
I notice when my stomach tenses up, and I can breathe that tension away.
I notice when my mind anxiously swirls around my to-do list and I can tell my mind to relax.
The awareness that comes from a regular ten-minute mediation follows me throughout my day, helping me stay calmer and more serene.
A while ago, I was getting ready for a radio interview, as part of my recent book promotion. I had an hour to spare, and I thought I’d make a quick phone call to an insurance company.
This “quick” phone call dragged into an infuriating forty minutes. I was on hold, listening to inane music, on some incessant torture loop. Finally, the customer service rep came on, but we had with a terrible connection. I could barely hear her, as she was undoubtedly on another continent, and I couldn’t understand her either.
After a brief exchange, which I barely fathomed, she declared she couldn’t help me. I got off the phone in disgust.
“I’m so aggravated! I just wasted an hour on the phone with this stupid company and now I have an interview in fifteen minutes. What a colossal waste of time! I have this radio interview and I am so upset I can barely think!”
My husband gazed at me. “Why don’t you do your meditation thing?”
I glared at him. I really just wanted to righteously complain. But my husband was right; I was a wreck.
I sat in my bedroom and closed my eyes, focusing on my breath. Immediately I sensed my body’s distress. My heart rate was elevated. I breathed rapidly. My shoulders were raised and my stomach was in spasm.
“My god,” I thought. “My body is completely dysregulated, all from one stupid phone call.”
Quietly, I focused. I felt my muscles relaxing and my heart rate slowing. I ended the meditation, feeling like a different woman, and started the interview with a smile on my face.
That is the power of a regular ten-minute meditation practice.
Let’s be clear. Everyone, no matter how busy, has ten minutes to spare. You can do this, and build yourself a calmer, more peaceful life, in a healthier body.
One final tip: it is best to find a regular time of day for your meditation practice. Do your breathing every morning, or every bedtime, or every evening after work. Otherwise, you will keep putting it off until later. If you are like me, you might even put it off for forty years.