I started meditating about twenty-five years ago. I began because I was struggling with anxiety, doubt, and insecurity, and my coping strategies were often more destructive than the emotions I was trying to avoid. So, as a last ditch effort to salvage a life, I tried sitting with the discomfort rather than running away.
Here is what I found when I sat quietly paying attention to my breath each morning:
My mind wandered. It was all over the place — bouncing from past to future. I would get caught in long stories about stuff. I did not spend much time paying attention to my breath at all.
I tried to control it. Suddenly I was lengthening and deepening my breathing. I believed that there was a right way to breathe and I had to find it. I was trying to keep thoughts from showing up. I was trying to feel wise and enlightened.
I felt a lot of stuff. Some of what I felt was uncomfortable. Sometimes I was restless, bored, angry, afraid, sad, anxious, tense, frustrated, and so on. I kept waiting for all of this to go away permanently — it never has.
I wondered whether I was doing it right. I spent a lot of time questioning myself, the practice, my teachers… As a recovering perfectionist, I wanted to get it just right. After all, this was my opportunity to finally prove to myself and the world that I was enough.
Mind wandering, controlling, feeling discomfort, wondering whether we are doing it right. This is kind of like living a life. There is nothing magical or mysterious about practicing mindfulness. It is not a cure-all or another way to escape the human condition. Despite what is sold on the cover of magazines or in fancy spas — there is no escape.
Mindfulness practice builds the skill of being more present to how things are and realizing when you are not. It is a way to work with the inevitable hills and valleys of life a bit more gracefully. That’s all. It does not make life show up the way you want it to.
The only thing that changed in my life twenty-five years ago was that I started practicing bringing awareness and acceptance to the process of living. And this made a huge difference. It’s not as though meditating has made my life nonstop bliss. It has not kept me from being angry, sad, stressed, resentful, or frustrated. It does not keep me from wanting to control situations or other people’s actions. It has not kept me from wondering if I am doing it right.
What it has done is allowed me to see all of this a lot sooner. It has allowed me to find acceptance and a sense of humor for my humanity. It keeps me from spending as much time on the treadmill of “feeling better.” It allows me to more easily engage in meaningful behavior and refrain from unhelpful behavior — whether I feel like it or not.
Mindfulness practice has given me a capacity to feel what I am feeling without turning it into a problem to be solved. It has given me space to be uncomfortable without reactively looking for someone or something to blame. This practice has given me the willingness to bring compassion to myself and others. Most importantly, it has given me the opportunity to know in my heart that life can be simultaneously hard and miraculous.