A few months ago, I was standing in a supermarket checkout line. The cashier in our lane was moving at a glacial pace. She meticulously scanned each item, while chatting incessantly with customers and co-workers. The customer she was ringing up had dozens of items. This was going to take a while. I could feel my stress and frustration escalating.
Meanwhile, I noticed that the person just ahead of me had a mere two items. I leaned in and said: “Looks like we chose the wrong cashier. You should go to the express lane– it will be much faster.” The woman smiled at me and replied: “that’s all right. I meditated this morning, so I’m good. Normally a situation like this would totally annoy me, but not any longer. Now I am calm and relaxed– plus, I get to talk to a nice person like you.”
Wait, what? Was this person for real? She was perfectly content to stand in line an extra 15 minutes when she didn’t have to? And she attributed her Zen-like aura to having meditated earlier that day? I was intrigued.
I had heard a lot about meditation over the years and had even tried it a few times. I once attended a meditation class, had bought several meditation CDs (back when we had CDs!), and had also downloaded popular apps like Headspace and Calm. But when I closed my eyes and tried to focus on deep breathing, it just didn’t work for me. My mind kept wandering and I began to stress that I couldn’t master a simple exercise like meditation. After I few attempts, I rationalized not doing it anymore because I didn’t have time to meditate. That’s right– I couldn’t find 10 minutes a day for myself.
Back to that day at the supermarket. After seeing the benefits of meditation first-hand, I resolved to try again. The next morning, I opened up the Calm app (which had lay dormant for close to a year) on my phone. I was immediately greeted with the soothing, peaceful sounds of falling rain. I opened a chapter called Daily Calm and listened.
To be honest, I did not have a huge epiphany on that first day. Throughout the guided meditation, I found my mind wandering, as I thought about all the important tasks I needed to complete that day, emails I needed to send, people I needed to reach. I did manage a few moments in which I was able to focus solely on breathing and being present. But it was difficult. And uncomfortable. Yet, I was determined to keep going.
About a week into this “experiment,” something shifted. I woke up and discovered I was actually looking forward to my morning meditation. But first I had to walk the dog. During the entire the dog walk, I couldn’t wait to get home and start meditating. This excitement was new– and welcome. Since then, I have practiced mindful meditation for 101 days straight. Most days, I meditate for just 10-15 minutes early in the morning. During that time, I am “all in,” focused on deep breathing, clearing my mind and being here. It is a liberating and exhilarating experience. This is now part of my daily routine and I cannot live without it.
My adult children are tired of hearing about my meditation practice and how it has changed my life. They, like so many others who have not experienced mindfulness, think I am involved in some weird, spiritual, crunchy granola waste of time. I promise you, it is not that. This is something very real and meaningful that is making a profound difference to me.
Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations without judgment.” Mindfulness, which includes the practice of meditation, forces you to slow down and pay attention to the here and now, which is challenging in today’s frenetic world.
We refer to meditation as a “practice” because, like most things in life, the more you do it, the more adept you become. And, it can take some time to feel comfortable. As adults, there are so many things we have literally been ‘practicing’ for years– whether it be our careers, sports and hobbies, or even relationships. Yet despite all the years of practice, we still have not fully mastered these things. I love that my meditation practice is a continual work-in-progress. Each day I meditate I learn a little more.
In just over three months, I have noticed subtle changes in the way I view the world and in how I react to situations. I am definitely calmer and more patient, and I tend not to stress as much over the little things that typically set me off.
“We have little power to choose what happens, but we have complete power over how we respond.”–– Arianna Huffington
My daily guided meditations force me to listen carefully to the inspirational messages imparted within, covering a gamut of topics including: confidence, understanding, obstacles, perfectionism, FOMO, everyday judgments, relationships, nesting, cravings, dreaming and more. They help me to reflect on important aspects of my life in new and different ways.
There is definitive medical research showing a positive correlation between meditation and brain function. MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ center, the amygdala, shrinks. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – thickens. The ‘functional connectivity’ between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain weakens, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration strengthen. According to a study at the University of Pittsburgh, the scale of these changes correlates positively to hours of meditation practice.
Research has also shown that mindfulness helps reduce anxiety and depression. Mindfulness teaches us to respond to stress with awareness of what is happening in the present moment, rather than to simply act instinctively, without understanding the emotions or motives that may be driving a decision.
It is comforting to know that my meditation practice is helping to improve my brain function and to reduce stress and anxiety. But even more importantly, I love the way it has shifted my view of daily life… I am now living more in the present, learning to be more flexible, letting go of perfectionism and relinquishing control over things I know I cannot control. Mindfulness makes me feel more like my true self… and I like that real self a lot more. I am less judgmental, less angry and more tolerant these days.
The other necessary aspect of meditation is that it is an act of self-preservation. As we age, it becomes more and more important to take care of ourselves, both physically and mentally. I try to work out daily but if I miss a day, I become grumpy and irritable– just ask my husband! Now I find that missing a morning meditation has the same result– I just don’t feel quite right. For example, if I am traveling early, and cannot meditate, I force myself to do a bedtime meditation, just to help re-align my psyche. (And, what could be bad about Matthew McConaughey reading me a sleep story?)
As adults, it is challenging and sometimes onerous to learn new skills and even more difficult to master these skills. At first, a mindfulness practice may feel strange and uncomfortable. You may get frustrated or impatient, as I did. But stick with it anyway… it definitely gets better. For me, meditation has already proven to be well worth the investment of time and effort. I feel more open to whatever life throws my way.
While I would love the opportunity to reconnect with the stranger from the supermarket and thank her for changing my life, since that is an unlikely option, the best I can do is pay it forward to others. I have many friends and family whom I know would benefit immensely from meditation, so I am sharing this gift with all of you. However, like me, each of you will experience your own personal mindfulness journey and determine how meditation may fit into your life.