It's a Matter of Practice

For the past five years, I've sat down just about every day to practice meditation and only recently have I realized exactly what it is I am practicing. 

The revelation came a few months ago when I was about to undergo some outpatient surgery. Deep in the vast cavernous space of the surgery prep area, a nurse with a well-practiced monotone directed me to remove all my clothes, place them in the plastic bag and change into the hospital gown, opening in the back. There was a clue that I was in the subordinate position. Still I followed her orders, hopped up on the gurney, pulled the thin sheet over me and waited to see what the next person would do to me. The next person was a nurse anesthetist with a cool surfer dude personality and even though he put me at ease a little bit, it was really starting to sink in that someone would be cutting something off of me soon. By the time the anesthesiologist came around to approve the silly sauce about to be injected into my veins, I was at full tilt worry and anxiety. She introduced herself and then remarked to me how unusually calm I appeared. What was my secret, she wanted to know. 

That’s when I realized something about my meditation practice. I do sit down daily to practice something, but calling it meditation makes it seem a little loftier than it actually is. Most of the real estate in my brain has been staked out by anxiety and fear, grief and despair, doubt and uncertainty and misgivings. It's not that I'm calm while I'm sitting in stillness, I'm just practicing remaining calm as my emotions toss me around.

So when the nurse pulled the curtain shut behind her and separated us into the very clear categories of patient and healthcare professionals, I felt my anxiety level shoot up and I observed my thoughts race to terrifying conclusions. This was stress and this was appropriate for anyone about to have surgery. I was not feeling calm. In fact, I was extremely anxious. But there was something different about me than the other people hooked up to IVs in the pre-op center whom this doctor was about to anesthetize. I was comfortable with my anxiety. I was comfortable with my anxiety because for the past five years I have practiced remaining calm as emotions roil through my body.

Substitute in any anxiety-producing situation of your own for my stint in the land of outpatient surgery. It might be a client asking you the one question you dread; it might be your co-worker throwing you under the bus. Lots to choose from here. Being on intimate terms with your own anxiety might just shift the way you handle stressful situations.

You can say I meditate, but I say I observe the anxiety while I cultivate the calm. This takes a lot of practice.

A Perfect Practice

Roxanne says: Perfection is the enemy of progress. She's a doc and so she tells her patients this in order to encourage them. She says if you can exercise for ten a minutes a day, do that. 

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The message is the same in the practice of meditation. There is no goal here, no right way to do it, no prizes, no winner. Sit in stillness as best you can and possibilities appear. What is possible is far from perfect and what is perfect is far from possible. 


Measure for Measure

The latest study on the benefits of meditation was released this week in JAMA and covered by all the usual suspects (Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Forbes). The study concludes there is no evidence that mindfulness meditation is an effective tool to control substance use, sleep or weight.

imagesStill, we all come to meditation seeking something: more focus, relief from pain, less anxiety. And we want to know if it works. Yo! It's way more subtle than that. If you stick around long enough, you start to see that what you sought was mostly valuable because it brought you to the practice and what you find has little to do with what you sought.
Meditation is experiential. I have a moment of clarity. I notice a cry for help disguised as a fib. I remain calm as the airline agent insists I told her to discard my boarding pass. I think of an old friend and the next thing I know, I see her walking down the street. Oh, that's happened to you too? But I'm not thinking it's a coincidence.
As per the Serenity Prayer, there are two categories of situations in life: the things you can change and the things you can't. Meditation brings you closer to acceptance of this basic reality. How much closer? Can the benefits of love be scientifically measured? These type of metrics are best left to poets and philosophers.

Transition Bridge

The most difficult part is not that I must sit in stillness. I can relax, breathe, repeat the mantra, and avoid the torture of my thoughts for twenty minutes. But when my eyes pop open, twenty minutes on the dot after I've sat down (my mantra might as well be punctual) I cannot spend that all important two minutes gazing at the ground and taking the time to re-enter.I've already begun the next thing on my to-do list. In my wold, it's all metaphor all the time. I once helped my son Adam with a high school essay. The verdict from his teacher: Where are your transitions? Yeah. I know. I jump from sentence to sentence, idea to idea, stage of life to stage of life and none of it's graceful.

I'd like to build a bridge between my meditative life and my active life. To travel the bridge between who I am and who I'd like to be.

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Meditation is a tool that allows us to see connectivity, to trust what your logical self tells you is not there. The future connected to the past, connected by the tenuous and the tentative. Breaths of transition. The bridge of breaths.

The Itch

Every morning I wake up with more bites than the day before. "It's too early for mosquitoes," Joe says.

Too early, too late. The bites swell and multiply. My skin is not being reasonable.

"Juju bites," I say to Joe.

Pay attention to me, says the one between my toes. No, me! says the one on my forearm. I can't concentrate on anything.

I know it's Juju because I never felt the sting. You can't see the Juju when it gets you. Like gnats before dusk.

The bumps welt up angry. There is no salve to quell the itch. It reminds me and reminds me - once you've got the bad Juju, it makes it worse to ignore it, or scratch it.

Acknowledge. Be patient. Stop looking for the antidote and meditate through that itch.

Is there any way I can help?

After Barry died, there was nothing that torqued me off more than the kind of question that made me work harder than the person who wanted to help me. Some people were demanding. Tell me what you need. I want to help! This was no help. I'd wrack my brain. Do my laundry? Clean up the dog poop in my back yard? Sure, I was more hostile than your average widow, but I vowed I'd never ask the question of someone drowning in a tsunami of grief and so far I've kept my promise. I was surprised when Murray's widow, Sheryl, took me up on an offer to teach her to meditate. We were having lunch in the aptly named town of Chagrin Falls and afterwards took a walk. She'd been suffering from a headache all day and popped a couple of Advils. Nothing seemed to help.

In the village of Chagrin Falls, Ohio

We walked past the little shops and along the trail that winds between the River and the playground. We sat at a quiet picnic table and Sheryl said she'd like to take me up on my offer to show her how to meditate. It's something she'd tried before. The few minutes in shavasana at the end of a yoga class were excruciating for her, but nevertheless, she was willing to give it a try.

I promised we wouldn't go over 5 minutes of silence. I showed her the diaphragmatic breathing and talked us through a head to toe total body relaxation. I explained the concept (just like my teacher, Lee, did for me) of how to be kind to yourself, to encourage yourself as you would a small child. That's okay. You're going to get it. Try again. I explained that a mantra was a tool to coax your thoughts from your head to your heart, to help bring the light from your third eye to the cavern we imagined in our chest.

We sat in our quiet surrounded by the whisper and the rush of the Chagrin River. I was careful not to go over 5 minutes. Sheryl's headache was gone.