The skeptic’s guide to meditation
It’s November, as of this writing. Seasonal depression sets in for a lot of us around now. I’m riding the wave, and I hope you are, too!
Last November, my city started, a little too late, to lock down again as another spike of COVID-19 ravaged the metro. Citizens were advised to skip Thanksgiving this year, but did we? Of course not. We’re Americans! We live for selfish decisions!
The SADs were reaching their peak for me as the end of the month drew near. Socializing did not feel like the move, and I knew it’d be safer to stay home anyway. But I had just relocated to Portland to be closer to my family for the first time in 15 years, and the “threat” of being alone for the holidays—nay, the rest of 2020—frightened me more than risk of death or infection. So I spent Thanksgiving with my family for the first time since childhood.
It didn’t go well. Hours into the evening, a treasure trove of unresolved trauma came stampeding out. A screaming match ensued. I arrived home, alone and in tears, at 2 in the morning, red-hot with shame. All the progress I’d made in therapy over the last couple of years suddenly felt like wasted money. I moved here to be closer to them. I love them. Why is this happening to me?
Asking yourself what you did to deserve a bad situation, even if you had a hand in causing it, twists the Shame Knife™️ deeper instead of yanking it out. But we’ve all done it, and sometimes keep doing it.
For the anxious, depressed, trauma-impacted person, the unconscious decision to blame ourselves for anything and everything that happens to us is an engrained behavior, learned through years and years of weathering storms we could neither escape nor control.
Getting into an explosive argument with someone you love is already painful enough without twisting the knife into a thought pattern like: Nothing’s changed since childhood. My own family still hurts me without even trying. I’m an overly sensitive, traumatized snowflake. It’s always been like this. Nothing’s ever going to change. Sound familiar?
Through the rest of 2020, I was a mess—but then again, who wasn’t? Nothing mattered anymore. I ghosted my family, and most of my work and social schedule cleared itself in favor of dissociating alone for hours a day. I found myself in a truly dangerous place.
Is this where I turned to meditation, reclaimed my will to live, and finally started thriving? Nope! When you’re one mean text away from a 51–50, sitting on the floor with nothing but your thoughts as company is probably the last thing you need. This is where my therapist stepped in with some tools she deemed light enough for me to hold: mood-regulating supplements to take, journaling prompts to write. Open letters. Music. Art. “Permission” to go no-contact for as long as I needed. Things that would take my mind off the pain and stop the knife from twisting any further.
Eventually, her caring about me was enough to convince me to care about myself again. It wasn’t until I was solvent enough to take a walk in the snow without crying that the concept of meditation seemed remotely useful.
For people like me, the mind can be ungodly loud. Louder than the rest of the world. After my last birthday I decided to give meditation a try, in hopes of quieting the critic in my head that constantly reminded me of all the disasters brewing in my inner and outer worlds. After a few false starts, I eventually committed to a 20 to 30-minute practice each day for a solid three months and counting.
Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I can tell you with confidence that the world is still a cesspool; I haven’t been magically cured of anxiety or PTSD; and sometimes I still feel bad feelings like guilt or shame.
But. Want to know what it has done for me?
1. Helped me to move on from negative thoughts and feelings faster.
When living on autopilot, your inner critic has free rein over your attention. Learning to sit down and make peace with my mind has helped me make peace with myself. Having a PoSiTiVe MiNdSet may not be enough to save the world, but it’s plenty to save your spirit. Living with trauma can mean relentless negativity coursing through your mind constantly like a broken record, day in and day out, twisting the knife over every single misstep, real or imagined.
The biggest change meditation has brought to my life is in the way I sit with my discomfort. Instead of letting it rule you by replaying traumatic or embarrassing moments in you head, a meditation practice asks you to put a name to everything that goes on in your brain, then let it go to make space for the next observation.
By acknowledging the shame and letting it go, you’re defusing a little bit of its power over you each time.
Sit down for five minutes with your eyes closed, pay attention to the sounds around you, the rhythm of your natural breath, the sensations in your body, and the darkness behind your eyes. Take it all in. Like plucking falling leaves out of the sky, make a note of what you’ve experienced—the sound of a crow cawing, the hum of a refrigerator—then release it and let it drift away. When you notice a feeling, think “feeling” and let it fade out of your conscious awareness. When you feel a thought or memory creeping in, label it “thought” and let it float away. It’s frustrating at first to simply release feelings you’ve become wedded to, but just like with anything, it starts to feel natural with continued practice.
Naming the feeling and letting it go is a practice of acknowledging every part of yourself, even the part that feels shame as though it were an addiction. Instead of over-identifying with the pain you feel, you treat it with the same focused but fleeting attention you would give a stiff breeze, or a child’s laughter. By acknowledging the pain—and letting it go—you’re defusing a little bit of its power over you each time, disentangling yourself from its grasp. You’re not magically killing the beast, or destroying the Shame Knife. You’re literally setting it aside, instead of picking it up and playing with it.
2. Allowed me to more fully appreciate the people, things, and experiences in my life
To get the most out of a meditation practice, you need to have the right mindset: a willingness to experience the moment you’re in. Sounds easy, but after your first attempt sitting still, head empty, for twenty solid minutes, you’ll realize it’s a fucking trip. “Being in the now” is HARD when you’re used to being in a rush to get dressed, get to work, write a paper, answer emails, walk your dog, text a friend…I had so many false starts while learning to embrace a meditative mindset, mostly because my ten minutes of mindfulness were so often interrupted by making to-do lists in my head!
If you’re tired of being a slave to your to-do list (or the focus-killing buzz of your phone), let some meditation experts give you a leg-up. I’ve been taking guided meditation courses from the Waking Up app, but there are plenty of free sessions available on YouTube as well as podcasts like Balanced Black Girl. Most practitioners worth their salt will offer a beginner’s course to help get you in the mood for shutting up and sitting still for once.
Once I found myself successfully in the zone, it didn’t matter if I was having a great day or a miserable one; I could sit in my 20-minute practice and just sort of bask in the moment — a unique moment, feeling, experience I’ll only have once in my life, and never again. It’s like paying homage for another day on this earth, something not a single one of us is promised. That little bit each day is a pick-me-up no matter what happened. Instead of “tomorrow will be better,” it’s “today is happening all around me, right now.” And afterward you let it all go and start again.
3. Brought my mind and body back into sync
Not only can meditation bring your feelings and day-to-day experiences into perspective, it can also help you pay closer attention to your body.
You might be thinking, “Okay, but I already know I have a body.” Do you know what happens to your body when trauma responses set in? What about joy? Stress? Shame? Life on autopilot demands that we ignore our bodies’ responses to emotional stimulus — push through, don’t let them see you cry or sweat! We could be heartbroken, congested, sleep-deprived, and hangry all at once, but neurotypical western society teaches us to answer “How are you?” with “Fine! And you?” by any means necessary to move the conversation along. That’s garbage. (My autistic ass will never understand why niceties like these exist! Why ask me a question you don’t want an answer to?!)
Let your small moment of daily meditation be the opportunity to check in with your body and answer “How are you?” honestly for a change. How is your practice making you feel? Are you distracted? Frustrated? Frustrated because you’re distracted? Are you doing that cross-legged posed all the “real” meditators do and it’s making your thighs sting a little? Do you feel some type of way about that? (Same.) Do you feel vaguely like you need to cry? How is your breathing—deep and flowing? Ragged? Do different rhythms of breath stir up different feelings?
Stepping back to check your feelings and physical sensations has made me laugh a few times in-practice (which is totally okay, by the way). Notice the way you talk to yourself about yourself, how your body reacts to outside and inside stimuli. Note it and, as always, let it go. Unconsciously, you’ll start to adjust your inner dialogue to be kinder to yourself, more attentive to your inner world, and more emotionally resilient. You’ll be able to understand how your emotions affect your body, and vise versa. When you know what your body is telling you, it’s that much easier to give it what it needs.
For whatever reason, many of us have been cut off from the concept of spiritual growth, but I believe we need this now more than ever. As a person who used to see meditation as a “woowoo thing,” something other people did, I guess that makes me a card-carrying member of the WooWoo Club now. And I hope with all my weird heart that you join the club, too!