Although I’ve been a meditator since 2003 or 2004, I really amped up the practice in autumn 2015 with 45-minute morning sessions.
(Now that I’m doing the binaural beats experiment, I’m up to 60 minutes per day.)
Without knowing all the benefits or even the scientific rationale for it, I instinctively knew it would be good for me.
It was my first year in a stressful job, moving from being a teacher of young children to directing a program.
I’d never managed so many people before. I was constantly worried and anxious. I was having trouble sleeping. I was having trouble finding balance.
So, I turned to meditation.
In a nutshell, it’s the practice of focusing on the breath, or on a mantra or something like that.
Somehow, I knew that by regularly meditating, I was going to really help myself combat the laundry list of anxiety, worry, insomnia, and balance.
I never had any idea of exactly how it would profoundly change my life. It would change my life to the point that I’m thinking about enrolling in a course to become a certified meditation teacher.
Meditation Helps Anxiety
One reason I thought meditation would help me is because of the idea of focusing on the breath.
I’ve always been a “worried” soul. My parents noticed it when I was young and would withhold family information from me to protect me from further worry.
But I always found things to worry about: I wanted to be an “A-student” and in high school, and I’d stay up until midnight crafting the perfect homework assignments, only to get up at 4am to continue studying. After doing so much work, I expected As and fretted when I got a B.
When I got into college, this mindset continued: hard-work and must, must do a good job.
To be somebody.
To go out into the world and get a good job (and no, pay didn’t matter as much – hence my educational vocation).
I just wanted to do something respectable and do something good.
I had a 30-minute commute to school.
One day before an exam, I felt a strange sensation of almost a shortness of breath and my palms grew sweaty as I drove the last few miles of my commute to the college.
Something told me to “take ten deep breaths.” I turned off the radio and started breathing. I counted to five when I breathed in and five when I breathed out.
Immediately I felt more calm.
I still felt anxious, but it wasn’t the “impending doom” moment that was happening just before.
In the months after that, I would return to the breath whenever I felt anxious.
This was in the early 2000s – and became the precursor to my meditation practice.
But what was it that lessoned my anxiety here?
It was the exact same mechanism that regular meditation practice accomplishes: the focus within.
You focus somewhere that’s completely under your control.
When you focus on the breath, you’re intentionally delivering more oxygen to the body to help all your systems function effectively, too.
When most people in western societies go about their day, they aren’t aware of their breathing and how the breaths they take are shallow.
This creates a slightly oxygen-deprived environment and a buildup of carbon dioxide – the gas that is the waste and by-product of cellular processes.
The more oxygen you have, the better, obviously. A more efficiently working brain means that a person is more capable of discerning a real threat from a perceived one.
Meditation Helps Me Focus Better
I’m the first to proclaim that my mind is a menagerie of flittering thoughts all competing for attention on every subject imaginable.
And years into my meditation practice, I’m still refocusing my mind and centering on my breath.
Just this morning, I was thinking about work, family, things I’ve said, dreams I had the night before in my sleep, chores I need to do, the country, the government, my own lifelong dreams and…and….
Even years into the practice, my mind has calmed down a lot, but it’s still a tapestry of colorful thoughts and patterns mishmashed into a scrappy quilt.
However, these days, it’s much easier to refocus on the breath and I find myself going for longer and longer periods just focusing on breathing and and out.
I become aware that my mind goes off on a tangent and instead of following the thought and getting absorbed in it, I gently tell myself, let it go and watch it roll away.
In my daily life, I find that this skill carries over to everything else I do.
As I type this post, I’m aware of my breathing. I have no other tabs open. No music playing. It’s just me, my laptop, my fingers typing, and my breath.
And I’m present.
I’m only thinking about my breathing and my writing. I’m hyper-focused on what I’m doing.
If I need to take a break, I take a break and just focus on that.
When I’m at work, I can hyper-focus on the tasks before me.
I’m no braggart, but I have had other people comment on how it seems like I can get 60 hours of work done in 40.
Between really taking a hard line on boundaries and completely focusing on my work when I am at work, I believe I do achieve a remarkable number of things in less time than folks who do not meditate.
It’s because you learn to let everything else go and just zoom in on breathing and the task at hand.
I have hopes, dreams, problems, and fears just like everyone else. But with meditation, the gift of concentration on other tasks goes to a whole new level.
Meditation Keeps Me Calm
I’ll never forget last year when I was working with a college student who was tutoring a Kindergarten student. We’ll call the Kindergartener “Little A” and the college student “Miss T.”
Little A goes to the bathroom and shortly after, comes running out, trailing puddles of water from his shoes. “The sink won’t turn off!” (We were all glad it wasn’t the toilet.)
Miss T let me know she immediately thought of me. “Cynthia, you’re always so calm. You always approach everything with a cool head and keep everyone else calm. I knew that’s what I had to do.”
She then went on, “I went into the boys’ bathroom and the sink faucet was spewing water everywhere. I admit I panicked for a second. That’s not supposed to happen! But I persisted and after a few seconds, managed to get the faucet to turn off. I grabbed some paper towels, dried everything and after a minute or two, walked out like it was no big deal. Like nothing happened.”
That’s when I knew she “got it.”
That was a triumphant moment for me, too. With every stressful moment or situation, I had gotten to the point where it became second nature to focus on my breathing.
No matter how I felt about a situation – good, bad, or ugly – turning inward and focusing on my breathing became my de facto reaction.
Others were noticing, but they only saw the outward product: an image of calm.
That’s not to say that I’m always calm or that a situation doesn’t demand immediate action or even freaking out a little bit.
But, I always return to calm within a few moments.
Good things happen. Bad things happen. But turning inward and focusing on the breath allows me to have a controlled and mindful reaction to life’s events.
The more I meditate, the more mindful I become.
Meditation Is Healing
There was a time there, earlier in my education career, when I was coming down with a cold every 3 weeks or so.
I was eating healthfully and exercising. I was washing my hands and chewing on Vitamin C tablets like they were the last bits of milk chocolate ever to go on sale.
Still, I was getting these terrible colds and the result was that I would lose my voice for days – making it exceedingly difficult to communicate and teach.
Since starting to meditate every single day, I have not had a single cold (knocking on wood) or physical ailment.
I am eternally grateful for that, but I directly attribute it to the idea that meditation has boosted my immune system.
(I do have one other little secret that I’ll share: I never touch my eyes, nose or mouth during the day unless I’ve washed my hands with soap and water immediately before. If I must touch my face, I use my sleeve or jacket or tissue.)
I have more energy. I feel revitalized after every meditation session.
Though I have no idea if it’s really true, I’ve heard how meditators age very gracefully and have less wrinkles and skin problems as they age.
Whatever the case may be, I’m truly convinced that meditation is an immune-boosting act.
Meditation Helps With My Moods
I’m not typically a “moody” person. But, at times when I didn’t regularly meditate, I noticed that I was more short with people.
I was less understanding. Less compassionate.
Even less empathetic.
Meditation helps with all that.
I spend more time in a “happy” state. I know that’s where most people want to be.
Sure: I have daily stresses, commutes, meetings, and responsibilities like many people.
I do not have kids (a spiritual choice about which I may write an article later on) but I do understand the difficulties of balancing a family with your own desires to have free time, dealing with budgeting or the complexities of navigating a full calendar.
When bad stuff happens, I take it personally. It’s the way I’m wired – I’ve always been that way.
I remember two different incidents in 2006 and 2008.
In 2006, a teacher yelled at me in front of students. She accused me of not respecting her time or her space. She accused me of being a “know it all” and said as much while other students looked on.
It was a complete misunderstanding. My intentions had never been that. I was mortified that she could ever have thought that about me.
Though I never showed a lot of emotion at work and believe in being “professional” at all times, I lost it.
I used the rest of my planning period to go to the bathroom and sob. I didn’t know what I was going to do about this situation, but it cut me to the quick.
That night I skipped dinner and all the grading I had to do. I plopped into bed and cried myself to sleep.
For days afterward, I was in a somber mood. It was so pronounced that I wore black and didn’t even realize it.
There was another incident in 2008. The power went out at our house for nine days – right when winter break started.
I was so distraught because it meant that all the holiday cookies I wanted to bake weren’t going to happen.
It meant that we had to fetch our water from the spring up the mountain and adopt a pioneering life for an indefinite amount of time.
It was a cold, wet and miserable nine days. I brooded about it so much that it triggered a bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder. I even had to take medication for it.
Now, stuff still happens. I still get upset about things. But, I no longer brood. I no longer fret.
An incident will happen – as they always do. I get upset.
Now, I allow myself now to feel the full brunt of the emotion. I let it wash over me like when I’m taking a hot shower. But then I imagine the event continuing to wash off of me, ultimately going down the drain.
This process might take an hour or a day, but I am able to let incidents go more easily.
If the same two incidents had happened to me presently – in 2017 – I’d probably still stew on them for a bit, but then I’d let the emotions go. I wouldn’t attach to them (or be attached to the outcome) nearly as much.
Perhaps I’d cry it out. Perhaps I’d walk it out. Perhaps I’d write it out.
I’d certainly meditate it out.
I’m much more aware of what I’m feeling and I’m able to better detach the actual event from feeling like it’s my identity.
Then I move on.
Meditation Helps Me to Be Happier, Overall
Remember in the binaural beats post where I talked about the different brainwave states?
Well, when we’re in our waking state, we humans are in a “beta” brainwave state.
The more time we spend in a beta state, the more likely we are to succumb to stress or other negative health consequences.
When we meditate, we move into either an alpha state, or as we get deeper, a theta state – typically.
Alpha and theta states are inherently more relaxed states, they’re creative, and imbibe spirituality. Children spend a good deal of time in the theta state.
Adults often describe children as happy and resilient. This theta state is partly why.
Maybe that’s why you hear about kids seeing ghosts. (Haha.)
But then think about all the above: less anxiety, more empathy, better moods and healing. At optimal levels, those all contribute to a person’s overall sense of happiness.
Furthermore, I like to send compassion and thoughts of love to all those with whom I interact. I get an elated feeling as a result.
That’s not a scientific statement but it’s true for me and science does back up my claims here.
Mind and body are intimately connected and the scientific community is “catching up” with what Buddhist monks have been saying for centuries.
Meditation, of course, doesn’t have to be religious at all.
I will say, though, that with my binaural beats experiment, listening to the Deep Meditation track in the mornings and the Relieve Anxiety track in the evenings, I’m taking note as I go. I’m about three weeks in and I’m noticing changes.
I can’t wait to write up the post on this in early March, but for now, let’s just say that my anxiety levels are quite low (despite some serious personal family challenges, work challenges, and national challenges going on right now).
I’m feeling increased mindfulness, increased synchronicity, more energy, an increased sense of well-being, and even more willingness to say the things that I mean if it needs to be said.
Things are happening.
It’s profoundly life-changing. It has given me an entirely different perspective on life and day-to-day matters.
If you’re not yet a meditator, I encourage you to try. You likely won’t notice profound changes immediately but one day you’ll wake up and think, “Oh my!”