On January 1, a particularly gross hangover inspired me to resolve that I was going to cut back on my drinking. On January 2, I realized this was going to pose some problems for me, as trying to relax sans my nightly glass(es) of wine was proving pretty dang challenging. (I will write more about this, but in another post.)
So that’s when I decided I was going to try meditation.
I’ve tried meditating in the past and it has always been a disaster. Either I’d get bored and lose interest, or I would fall asleep. And I could never quite get the hang of what it was exactly I was supposed to be doing. Am I supposed to be clearing out my mind of all thoughts? How do you even DO that? And why did it seem like the harder I tried to do that, the more impossible it became to do so?
It felt like my brain would see that I was trying to not think, and so it would take the opportunity to serve up every stinking thought it had in storage, from a work assignment that’s due tomorrow to the shitty thing I said to my friend in eleventh grade that still makes me burn with shame to this very day, twenty-one years later. My brain is such an asshole.
This was all in the pre-smartphone days, though, back when an “app” was the plate of potato skins you ordered to eat while waiting for your actual meal. This time, when I tried, I decided to do so with the help of meditation apps.
I tried two apps – Calm and Headspace – and I ended up going with Calm. Headspace was nice and I liked Andy’s British voice very much, but the lack of background sound in his guided meditations usually meant I fell asleep while listening to them, which is nice but not what I was looking for.
The guided meditations in Calm have a little bit of natural white noise in the background, which helped me stay alert. I also like that it has a function where you can just breathe in rhythm with some soft chiming. It’s good for when I need a quick calm-me-down but don’t have a full ten minutes to dedicate to a guided meditation. I ended up buying a year subscription to Calm, and I consider it one of my better discretionary purchases.
One of the things I learned right away was that I’d been trying to do it all wrong in the past. Instead of fighting my brain by playing a frustrating game of Wac-a-Thought, I followed what the nice lady told me through my earbuds, focused on my breathing, and let my thoughts go.
So I started meditating nightly – and drinking herbal tea, which made me feel really nice and cozy and also helped me overlook the fact that I am slowly turning into a kale-eating, athleisure-wearing, kombucha-sipping fitness cliche – and did it almost every night for the month of January. Here’s what happened:
- Right away: Meditation did wonders to help me fall asleep. That was good. That was what I wanted. That was the whole point.
- Within about a week: I noticed the effects of my meditation seeping into my waking life. I’d have moments of frustration or anxiety, and my mind would almost reflexively detach itself from the rising emotional tide and say, “Hey, you’re feeling frustrated right now. Let’s sit with that for a second and feel it, and then we’ll let it go.”
- Two weeks in: During racing, my mind would slip down the spiral of suck but I would catch myself before I went too far, and I could bring myself back by focusing on my breathing and counting to one hundred, over and over again. I told Brian I thought this might be key to helping me develop mental resilience for my upcoming races, including Ironman Florida.
- Three weeks in: I no longer needed to listen to the car radio to distract me from traffic during my commute, and that I was OK just sitting in silence while trying to navigate gridlock.
They’re all small changes, but I like those small changes. It’s been enough to keep me going, to see if I can continue to develop some degree of discipline over my mind and heart.
Up until January 20, I’d primarily focused the benefits of my meditation on what it meant for me: how it helped me be less anxious, how it helped me sleep at night, how it helped me be more present and resilient as an athlete.
And then January 20 happened, and like a lot of us, I’ve spent most of the 13 days since trying to cope with the tsunami of shocking and upsetting news coming out of the Trump administration. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m afraid to look at my NYT push alerts because I’m afraid to find out what shocking thing has happened next. It really seems like anything is possible, and when you’re talking about geopolitics, that is not a good thing.
It was a few days ago that I realized my newfound meditation practice could very well be my biggest tool in resisting what’s going on. I don’t think it’s accidental that the Trump/Bannon administration is hitting us with so much stuff in such rapid succession. I think it’s deliberately intended to confuse us, emotionally overwhelm us, and leave us exhausted and drained and eventually incapable of resisting. It’s meant to burn us out so we can’t fight back.
I see that happening to me too. At least once a day I have a moment where I look at everything that’s happening – stripping environmental protections, muzzling scientific agencies, blocking refugees and immigrants, Betsy fucking DeVos, Trump’s shameful speech about Black History Month – and I feel like it’s too much, there’s no way I can do anything about all of this, I should probably just give up and be grateful I have no children who will have to suffer through the world we’re creating for them.
But meditation has taught me that whatever I’m feeling will pass, even feelings of crushing existential despair. It has taught me that I have the potential to be focused and disciplined in my thinking, even though it’s still quite hard for me. (Thirty-seven years of mental habits cannot be undone in a single month, no matter how awesome the app may be.)
And it’s showing me that the best thing I can do right now to resist is refuse to be overwhelmed into paralysis and to not let my emotions be hijacked by the autocrats in charge. It’s showing me that I can fight back by refusing to be manipulated by “shock events.”
This is especially true since I’ve taken steps to get involved with community organizing and local activism. (I went to my first Organizing For Action meeting last night! Getting trained by the ACLU next week! Having a ladies’ activism potluck at my house this month!) I don’t want to burn out. I want to be in this for the long haul, and the first step is making sure I can do so in a way that is emotionally and psychologically sustainable.
I know it’s easier said than done. I woke up two mornings ago at 5 a.m. and remembered that Trump had fired the acting Attorney General the night before and could not fall back to sleep, even with the help of my Calm app. I know I’m going to have many more moments like this, but what’s important is that I now have a way to help me deal that doesn’t leave me feeling foggy and sluggish like alcohol does.
I can assure you, on January 2, it never occurred to me that meditation would become my most powerful tool in resisting what’s going on. But as we get further and further into the Trump/Bannon administration, it becomes apparent that this is exactly what meditation is. If I cannot keep a clear head in the face of everything that’s going on, I’m no good to anyone – not to myself, not to my community, not to the world.
So yes, I’d say I picked the exact right month to take up meditation.