It’s funny how the less busy I am, the more I need meditation. When I have my normal teaching schedule, I have a clear set of tasks. Grading papers, because of the focus required, seems almost like meditative training. When your mind begins to wander, you must always return to the paper, like a meditation guru returns to the breath.
However, when my days are not filled with eight hours of must-dos, I am unmoored and pulled in the many directions of want-to-dos. I want to work on my garden. I want to write more. I want to plan a summer schedule. I want to clean my office and bedroom. I want to cook some healthy dishes. So I turned to meditation today in order to increase my productivity and avoid decision paralysis — what should I be doing now? When starting to read Tim Ferriss’ Tools of the Titans, he stated 80 percent of his 200 featured “titans” had a type of meditative or mindfulness practice. As I titan-wannabe, I gravitated to this actionable item. I can do this.
When I hit play on my Google top search result of five-minute meditations, I was struck with the irony of doing a mindfulness meditation now in order to do more later. I was focusing on the present in order to better perform in the future. Part of mindfulness is letting go of the rehashing and rehearsing cycle we all fall into. It was hard to use meditation to prepare for the day without bringing in a rehearsal of what I could write or do. The meditation I chose asked me to focus on my feet, stomach, and breath. It did not ask me to draft a to-do list. And that is a good thing. I need to appreciate what I am doing now instead of thinking about what else I should/could be doing. If I do this, no moment will be lost.
Finding a meditation that suits your personality is certainly key. The other night I tested out one of Deepak Chopra’s guided meditations on Youtube. My reasoning was, if he is good enough for Oprah, he is good enough for me. I tried one geared for stressful moments. He opened with asking the listener to smile everywhere, even in “your genitalia.” This made the adolescent inside me really smile, which was stress-relieving. However, after that moment, I spent the rest of the meditation smirking and not being one with the universe.
The same part of me that is inclined to smirk is the same part that found it difficult to participate in the chanting portion of the guided meditation. Deepak began by asking listeners to repeat the words “abundance, existence, and joy.” The English professor in me rebelled against the abstractness. What does those words even mean?! Then, perhaps to show me I am not nearly as smart as I think am, he asked me to say the words in Sanskrit. Even though I was alone in the room, I was embarrassed by my mangled enunciations.
Tonight I tried a guided meditation for stress posted on Health.com: http://www.health.com/health/video/0,,20912167,00.html. Instead of being asked to smile everywhere and chant “existence and joy” in Sanskrit, the meditation asked me to clench different muscle groups as I inhaled and relax them as I exhaled. After going from feet to face, I felt better. Yes, there still was chanting involved. But instead of chanting abstract nouns or muttering mangled Sanskrit, I was asked to mentally say “one” when I exhaled. The purpose of this was to bring the attention to the breath. Once that was established, the “one” was dropped.
This second meditation worked so much better for me. In a way, it is depressing that I find muscle clenching and relaxing more satisfying than Sanskrit chants. Maybe one day I will be mature and cultured enough for Deepak, but I am not holding my breath (exhale). Sorry Oprah!
Meditation, for me, has been what Gretchen Rubin classifies as a red herring habit, one of those things you always say you are going to do, but have no intention of doing. The art of sitting still has always alluded me. I remember the torture of every Sunday having to sit quietly on a hard pine pew through lengthy Catholic masses. My mind and body were not designed for passive pursuits. It’s even difficult for me to sit through an entire movie at the theater.
However, it is 30-day challenge time in my classes, an assignment designed to tie research to practical application in my college composition classes. It has been, for the last three semesters, a highlight for me. I feel like I am making an impact beyond a student’s ability to punctuate and organize paragraphs. After researching his topic, one student wrote in a reflection, “In writing this paper, I’ve come full circle. The emotions I felt at the beginning to where they are now as I wrap up, are complete opposites. I started this paper in a major slump, going to bed every night being sad and waking up every morning not looking forward to the day. As I finish, I’ve taken all the information I’ve researched and placed it in my life so now I look at each day as a blessing- and each day is open to an endless amount of possibilities if you have the right mind set to see it that way.” I printed this out and put it on my wall to remind myself of the big picture when I am buried in the perfunctory rituals of grading.
Inspired by my students, I began meditating today. I chose a short guided meditation by Sam Harris as my starting point. Through the Tim Ferriss Show podcast, I was introduced to his philosophical work and felt an intellectual connection with many of his ideas. I trusted him to start me off right on this journey.
As I sat in lotus leaf position on the floor of my office, I felt I was somehow cheating by listening to a voice. It gave me something else to focus on besides my breathing, which made the experience more endurable. The most helpful advice in the guided meditation was, when a stray thought enters your mind, to visualize the thought and remove it from your mind. It did this increasingly as the meditation went on. The most distracting thought was, when will this end? Nine minutes never felt so long. I actually popped up ten seconds before it ended because I could not stand it any longer.
Despite my agitation at the end, I feel more relaxed. I think much of the relaxation comes from the changes to my breathing. Most of my time in meditation was spent focusing on the inhaling and exhaling of my breath. This made me breath in and out more slowly and deeply. I am curious to see what other benefits I will gain over the course of the next 30 days.
Growing up, I was not encouraged or even expected to do many chores, aside from cleaning my room. I have vague recollections of cleaning the undersides of tables as a small child, but generally the expectation was for me to stay out of the way. Whenever I started to do something, my mother would inevitably take over. I understand why now that I have my own children, as watching them tackle a household task or even a craft is painful. It’s all I can do not to push them aside. Also, it is terribly inefficient, as I will end up having to rewash streaky windows and re-sweep the crumbs that did not make it into the dust pan. Inevitably materials will be lost, as papers are ripped, stickers misplaced, and glue globbed on in puddles. I try to see their end products more holistically instead of thinking, I could have done this much better by myself. The experience is what matters. So what if a cake only has sprinkles on one side?
Luckily my children are stubborn and will not quite trying to do things on their own, even in the face of my exasperation. My four year old must continue put the toothpaste on herself, even though half of it ends up on the sink. I’m proud that they are not deterred by failure. This is my reminder.
It is also a reminder to appreciate the peace that comes with completing a task on your own, even if it is cleaning the kitchen. I had a perfect cleaning day today, as I discovered that cleaning is the best task to complete while listening to podcasts. While listening to the Tim Ferris Show and On Being, I kept a notebook handy to jot down notes. I lit candles without having to worry about someone continually blowing them out. I squirted my stainless steel cleaner without having to share the bottle and contain my cringes as five dollars worth of product is devoted to a quarter-sized surface area. Who knew cleaning could be so relaxing? Some days it is part of my in-house Montessori program and other days it is meditation.