Learning how to meditate seems like one of those idealistic goals—the type you set at the start of a New Year only to discover that it’s totally not going to happen. Meditation is for people with quiet lives, people who live in houses overlooking the beach, people who prepare all organic vegan meals and enjoy every bite. Not ordinary people like me who spend their days overdoing it and then doing damage control with a glass of wine.
I’ve tried meditating before, deducing that, at the most basic level, I was supposed to turn my mind off, but success has been elusive. In college, when insomnia was creeping in, I discovered a visualization that would at least allow me to clear my mind long enough to fall asleep: I’d imagine my brain as a giant chalkboard across which an enormous eraser would swipe back and forth, back and forth, until the board was blank. Then, I’d try to keep it that way: blank, black space. Nothingness.
But I discovered that, like a lot of people, I’ve actually misunderstood meditation over the years. In his TED Talk, a young, bald, English guy who also happens to be a former Buddhist monk named Andy Puddicombe explains:
“…most people assume that meditation is all about stopping thoughts, getting rid of emotions, somehow controlling the mind, but actually it’s quite different from that. It’s more about stepping back, sort of seeing the thought clearly, witnessing it coming and going, emotions coming and going without judgment, but with a relaxed, focused mind.”
Wait a minute. What the hell is that supposed to mean? That curiosity led me to try Andy’s app, Headspace, which is supposed to teach you how to meditate in just ten minutes a day.
Sounds too good to be true, especially when coupled with the health benefits scientifically linked to meditation: reduced stress and anxiety as well as improved focus, self-control, and creativity.
So one night, once the house was quiet, I snuck into the guest bedroom, sat cross-legged on the floor (that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?), and tuned to Day 1 of the guided meditations. For ten minutes, Andy’s soothing voice lulled me into relaxing my brain, not turning it off. He seemed to get that mindfulness and stillness are tricky things for busy adults and even offered opportunities for my brain do whatever it wanted, even run wild, which is what it did.
After that first session, I felt…well, nothing. No different. It was a quiet ten minutes, but I didn’t feel changed. Still, I started up again the next morning, and BAM! I was a monk.
Something was different this time. I felt my mind become malleable, like it was a piece of mushy putty that I could make round and small, and tuck away somewhere behind my eyes. The ten minutes dissolved, at the end of which my limbs felt foreign and my head felt light. Obviously, I was a natural.
Except Day 3 came and went without a moment of meditation—so not a very devoted natural.
Day 3’s training occurred at the end of Day 4, when exhaustion and a solitary glass of wine made that little ball of mush swirl and disintegrate and spill out through my ears. The dizziness and slightest hint of nausea made it impossible to get through more than the first five minutes. I caved and fell asleep.
But I stuck with it, noting the circumstances that seemed to lead to the greatest success and reward. By Day 7, I was so relaxed that I was fighting off sleep within minutes of starting my meditation, which got me thinking.
Maybe meditation isn’t the sort of thing you can cross off a to-do list at the end of a long day with the same ease that you pop your daily vitamin in your mouth. Maybe it’s something that requires some foresight, planning, and (dare I say it?) effort. I like the idea of ten minutes a day being sufficient practice to make meditation part of my daily routine, but there were some days at the end when I felt like I was finishing up just as soon as I got started, as soon as I was getting the hang of if.
The elements of mindfulness and self-awareness that come with meditation still really appeal to me, so I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet. But maybe the path to mastering my “monkey mind” will take longer than I originally thought.