In my house, washing dishes means catching up on podcasts. And the Universe conspired (on my behalf, of course) to put that enormous pile of dirty dishes in the sink on the same day I noticed the Born Primal episode with The Paleo Drummer at the top of my podcast list. I turned the children out into the backyard, hit play and commenced scrubbing. I was pleased to hear the discussion turning towards meditation, and by the time my fingers had pruned up, a 30-day challenge was mentioned.
Hmmmm, I thought to myself. I'm on day 1 of my 30-day clean paleo challenge. And it has been so long since I've meditated. Oh all *right* Universe, I'll do it. I admit I felt reluctant to get back into meditation, but when it had thrown in my face so blatantly, I supposed it wouldn't be wise to ignore it.
I expected that it would take time until I could easily reach that warm, blissful plane of simultaneous emptiness and connectedness. And I also expected that my mostly-in-remission panic disorder would surface again. In my past work with meditation (and self-hypnosis and trance states), just as my mind and body would relax and open up, I would have a sudden tidal wave of anxiety and I would enter a full panic attack. Zero to sixty - out of nowhere, seemingly. After multiple times, I stopped meditating at all. When you already have 3 or 4 panic attacks a day, you don't go looking around for more.
But that was a year ago, and Paleo had been my chariot out of the miserable underworld of anxiety, paranoia and panic. I felt okay with trying meditation, knowing any unwanted feelings would not be nearly as intense as they had been.
So I sat down, closed my eyes and my mouth, and tried to tune in. After going through my initial process (more on that in a moment), I was surprised to reach a relatively aware state. Thoughts still came into my mind, but I could dismiss them. I heard the noises around me, but I didn't dwell on them. I had risen above my body, my emotions and my thoughts, and I was in my awareness, that state of just 'being'. My entire body had a heavy, electric sensation that was just as real as the clicking of the unbalanced fan above my head. 'First day, and not so rusty after all,' I complimented myself, then remembered that needed to be dismissed as well.
Then my chest constricts uncomfortably, my breath is high and quickening, waves of heat rush through my body - the familiar sensations of a panic attack. They are mild in comparison to the past, but still unpleasant. Instinctively my body struggles to break free, and I nearly jump up, until a sudden insight comes to me: these are physical feelings, and I am not my physical feelings. The emotions of panic and fear have their roots in my body, the cascading hormones that cause everything from that prickly sensation on my scalp to the pain in my tight chest. And as I realize that there will be an end to them, I have a strange visitor in my head.
A flamboyant gentleman in a 70s-era purple leisure suit, with a hint of sparkle, bursts onto the scene. His matching feathered top hat is cocked jauntily to the side, his white cane waving in my general direction. "Pay attention to me!" he shouts in a surprisingly high-pitched voice. He is stomping, as if he is having a tantrum, the silver embellishments of his white boots flashing.
For whatever reason, my anxiety manifested itself as this man. I couldn't venture to guess why; it was especially disturbing as I am a scientific person and an introvert. But it was apparent that he *was* the anxiety, and in every way he knew how (including his clothes!), he was screaming for attention. And so I did just that - I paid attention to him. I observed my body in the midst of a panic attack. As I paid attention to the way my heart was beating wildly behind my sternum, it began to slow down. I turned my focus to the muscles of my chest and neck, and their painful clenching eased. The man turned in a circle, shrinking and fading from my mind. It was over - my body and hormones were relaxing, and I felt safe. (My reaction to panic attacks wasn't always this way - Paleo has calmed them down dramatically and puts them within my control.)
I never had an experience like that one again during my 30-day meditation challenge. I guess I didn't need to. It took a year of Paleo to 'cure' my panic and anxiety disorder, but less than a month of mindfulness meditation to understand it. (I still cannot explain it - but I understand it.)
Regular meditation practice has had benefits beyond a tool for understanding my panic and anxiety disorder. I have been sleeping better, and *not* waking in the wee hours of the morning, bolting up in the bed, wondering if the door is locked (The dog was fed? The stove is off? The children are breathing?) I have found myself less likely to 'check out' on the phone, book or podcast and more likely to 'check in' with my knees dirty in the garden, playing with the kids, or singing and dancing in the kitchen. I feel lighter, and more joyful, and more capable of coping with the daily challenges of parenting three young home-educated daughters. I find myself more likely to pause and decide my response to a situation (and not react to it).
I'd like to offer one example of a situation where my meditation practice has changed how I deal with challenges. On one particular day, one of my children was disrespectful. It was disrespectful on an eight year old level, and I started to react (not respond) in a manner that was hardly more mature than an eight year old. Then my spouse steps in and says, "Let's not let her anger affect us. Let's be 'the happy parents' for a change."
Often, I might turn on him and bluster about righteous justice and then make a smart remark about his Zen-like attitude and finally 'are-you-calling-me-unhappy'? But on this day, I felt myself open to his words. And I smiled. Yes, I said, let's do be the happy parents. So we went about dealing with our disrespectful child but didn't allow her emotions to affect us. Since then, I've made daily efforts to not allow the feelings, actions and energy of those around me negatively affect my response.
I usually meditate first thing in the morning OR just before bed. And sometimes, I take a few minute break during the day, if I'm feeling stressed, distracted, agitated or anxious. I like that my children are now seeing me take 10 minutes to meditate (they peek in my door!) instead of struggling with anger and frustration. (Of course I still struggle with these things, and outbursts happen but with less frequency.)
Typically, my meditation goes like this:
-Go upstairs to my bedroom, mid-afternoon or just before bed.
-Kick dirty clothes and stuffed animals out of the way.
-Fold up that old quilt I found in the bass drum of the kit we scavenged from the neighbors.
-Sit in a half-lotus position with my bum on the quilt, so my knees are slightly lower than the rest of my body. (It helps prevent tingling feet.)
-Start the timer on my phone for 5, 10 or 15 minutes.
-Put fingertips together in my lap, or hands on my knees with my palms facing up.
-Pay attention to my breathing. Feel the air rush in and through my body and be forced out again, my diaphragm moving. As I mentioned earlier, I'm a biology geek, so I imagine the details of the physiology and biochemistry that are occurring here. It works for me.
-Focus on breathing in my belly and lower chest. (The years of anxiety taught my body to breath high in the upper chest, and it takes practice to unlearn that.)
-Listen to sounds around me - the fan, the birds outside, the children talking. Just be aware of them, without thinking about them.
-Imagine my consciousness as a orb over my head, and feel it as it moves over me. Move my consciousness up my spine and into my head, until my awareness is looking out of my forehead (the 'third eye'). For me, this creates actual physical sensations.
-Just sit here, being aware. As thoughts arise, dismiss them. If I'm having trouble with this, I will 'name' them (e.g., this is thinking, this is worry, this is restlessness, this is resistance) and send them along. It helps me to imagine a river so that they can float away, or a box where they can go if they warrant some actual time. ('I'll think about you later, but not now.')
-When my timer goes off, I breathe deeply. I try to slowly transition myself out of the meditative state. Sometimes I press my palms to the floor, to help myself feel more grounded. Meditation can be quite a spiritual experience for me, and I need this sometimes.
-Now I go on about my day, or go to sleep, feeling relaxed and refreshed, or at least better than I did before!
Even though I have had 'peak experiences' with meditation, I don't have transcendent moments every time, or even often. Most of the time, my brain is chattering madly: softball fields from high school, the scientific names of birds, the brand of guitar strings I like, how old my cat is, the yard needs mowing, where I put those shells from the beach.......and so on. I have decided that when I work to still my mind, all those random bits of information (some from decades ago!) come streaming to the surface, all shouting at once. They all realize that finally, finally, someone up there is paying attention without distraction.
My fervent hope for my meditation practice is that this 'paying attention' will become my default for the rest of life. If I seek distraction and 'check out' as things get stressful, I also am habituated to do it even if things are pleasant. So I'll continue to "sit down, shut up, and pay attention", reap the rewards of better sleep and less crabbiness, and when a man in a purple leisure suit comes to visit, I may have the courage to hear what he has to say and quickly send him on his way.
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