“Petal”, Agnes Martin (1964)
You know how when you’re into something you suddenly see it everywhere? Maybe it was there all along and you were (and this is particularly apt) unaware of it? Or maybe it’s just that you stumbled onto something trendy at just the right time that you accidentally trend-set yourself? Or something like that anyway.
Mindfulness meditation. It’s a thing. And it’s everywhere.
Meditation is not new, of course. It’s an ancient practice. And the whole “mindfulness meditation as a science-based health-assisting practice” goes back a few decades. But here I am, sitting in a weekly MBSR class trying to learn it for myself. And when I open my eyes from one of our sitting meditations, I now see it around me so much.
For a while in the early 2000s, I had a daily meditation practice. I didn’t call it that, because that is way too close to using crystal deodorant and “sprouting my own” for me. I didn’t even really think of it as a “daily” “meditation” “practice” in any sense of those three words. Instead, most evenings, just as I was going to bed, I’d sit on the edge of my bed (or sometimes lied down, but mostly sat) and focus on breathing and trying to relax. I’d start at my head and just work down, trying to consciously relax each part of my body as I went. It took maybe 15-20 minutes and it basically just helped me sleep better. I guess I thought of it vaguely as “cleansing” in some way. I didn’t think of it as reducing stress or have any thoughts about it at all during the rest of the day. It just let me breathe out my tension.
And then, for some reason that I don’t even recall because it probably wasn’t a reason so much as just a change in my routine, I stopped. I knew about formal meditation, of course. I mean: I live in California so it’s impossible not to know about things like meditation and hemp and VC pitching and Burning Man, even if they aren’t things you ever want to actually engage in yourself. But I’ve done a few evenings at the local Buddhist meditation center doing a more formal meditation sitting and listening to their dharma talk. I’m not at all religious or even spiritual, but I enjoyed these and I felt a bit lighter afterwards. So I was predisposed to think there was something in this sitting and breathing for an hour or so stuff after all.
A few months ago, shit got rather real in my life. I’m a naturally anxious person at the best of times. On a 1-10 scale I’m probably operating around a 7 or 8 just being alive. But some other stuff, none of which I’m going to get into on the internet, started piling up and I was not coping well. In the grand tradition of “I just don’t believe in…” that exists in my family I also did that thing where you just try to ignore something is going on and hope it goes away? That didn’t work. Neither did the other option I felt I had which was just to “steer into the skid” and work ever harder. When things are truly out of your control and your photo is in the dictionary next to the definition for “control freak” something’s got to break. Turns out, when I get over-anxious I get hostile. I get angry and lash out and it’s never at the people who truly deserve it. Something really had to give after I would react to someone saying the wrong thing with hysterical crying and losing all the feeling in my hands.
So I signed up for a 10-week class for MBSR for women. Once a week, about half a dozen of us meet and are lead by two instructors through a combination of mediation exercises and some general group discussion. Two months, and one full day in silent meditation later, I can say: it’s helping. I guess? It’s hard to know exactly but I feel better in general so why not ascribe it to this?
I’ve had a hard time with the sitting meditation, which I didn’t expect. Based on my previous experiences I thought I’d pick it back up easily but I really struggle with doing it for any length of time every day. But what I’ve picked up and really started to love and crave is a walking mediation practice. For about 30-45 minutes each night I just… pace pretty much describes it, but leisurely-like, back and forth in my living room/office. The cats think I’m completely insane and probably if anyone else saw me they’d think so too. But it’s actually the opposite of insanity – it’s giving me my sanity back.
I know I’m not the first to the mindfulness party. But like converts anywhere, I feel I need to share what I’ve learned (and am still learning) about a simple-to-learn but not-so-easy-to-really-do practice that might work for others. When I work with coaching clients I’m very clear that I have no training in, nor intentions to deliver, any kind of personal or psychological advice or counseling. I’m focused on their actions and processes around their work, not really their feelings about it but it’s also clear that sometimes there are truly psychological barriers holding us back from achieving what we truly want and have all the best intentions to achieve. For some people those require personal counseling, but for me at this time I seemed to require a whole new way of approaching what the world was delivering to me.
Next week is our last class and I’ll miss that formal reminder/setting. I do well when there’s homework and a structure of reporting to someone else. There are options though, SFMOMA is doing a Slow Art Day tour. Can I look at art for 10 minutes straight? Yeah! Easy! I stared at the Agnes Martin piece here for nearly an hour once.