essays on suffering and awakening

Why I meditate

For much of my 63 plus years, I was ruled by an unruly mind, which in turn seemed governed by a disorderly and unreliable world. In fact, until 5 years ago, I often deemed myself a victim of my life’s changing circumstances, making me, what I now call, a “situational neurotic.” 

If things were “good,” I was happy; if things were not so good (or worse), I could get quite depressed and anxious. 

I was seen by almost everyone else as “high functioning.” I had a great career as a non-fiction TV producer, I was married to a terrific woman and I hailed from a big and interesting family. I had lots of friends and a lifetime of great stories to share. But that persona was a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of the real me. 

Inside, I was, too often, a hot mess. Driven by an anxious careerism, I was terrified to be “between jobs.” I constantly worried about my professional reputation and what others people thought of me. I was, like so many of us, tempted by pleasure, allergic to discomfort, distracted by shiny objects and made anxious by perceived threats. I was so lost in my head that I had no idea I was lost in my head. 

If neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson is right, and “what fires together” really does “wire together,” my lifelong cultivation of mindlessness had shrunk my comfort zone to a place so small that good times were short and bad times lingered. Positive thoughts slid away like Teflon and negative ones stuck like Velcro. I imagined that temporary conditions were permanent and permanent conditions were real. Overreacting had become my default mode, while hyper- reactivity was my go-to defense against a perceived crisis. Looking back, it seems I was always putting out birthday candles with a fire hose. It was exhausting. 

In a heartbeat, triggered by a minor domestic dispute, an important email not returned, evidence of a personal mistake (no matter how minor), or even a snarky text without a smiley face (god forbid), I would start to worry, project and even catastrophize. In response to these cascading thoughts, I would contract, freeze, fight or flee, all the while over thinking (and overcompensating) in an attempt to try to “fix” the problem. 

Desperate to get off this merry-go-round I was, nevertheless, in 2012, once again caught by a new career crisis. It was my good fortune in my time of need to be gently guided by a wise counselor towards Jon Kabat-Zinn’s remarkable first book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, and thus a mindfulness practice. 

As I meditated, read, learned and then meditated some more, startling insights arose, resulting in a measure of real peace. Finally, it seemed, I was gaining some control over my unruly mind. By committing to a daily practice, and turning down the noise, it began to feel like I’d finally been handed the owner’s manual to the supercomputer inside my head!

The instructions seemed easy enough: sit, breathe and pay attention to the present moment, and yet (as any mediator will tell you), it was shockingly difficult at first. It was like learning to read braille; you literally had to feel it to understand it. But as the concepts of mindfulness began to merge with my experience of meditation, my practice began to profoundly change how I thought...about my thoughts. 

By allowing the normal traffic of ideas, opinions, plans and worries to simply come and go; by having a genuine intention to drop my “story” and be present; by using the anchor of breath (and other concentration techniques) to come back to the now; I learned how to induce my mental processes, to slow down to a point where I could actually hang out in the gaps between my thoughts—and there it was, even if just for a moment—a wakeful peace for my unruly mind. 
Is it easy? Of course not. Is it possible? Absolutely. In fact, the more I practiced, the more I could see the impermanence, non-importance, and even fecklessness of so many of my thoughts. As I began to see that, almost magically, I started to suffer less and shine more. It seems that by learning to meditate, one can learn to re-think what it means to think (!) and then changes one’s responses to the tumult of life. 

For me, meditation is a daily discipline but it is not a destination. It’s called a practice because that’s what it is—practicing being mindful to be mindful; practicing being peaceful to be peaceful. 

Nicholas Stein