Stillness

how-and-why

Remember how I said taking responsibility and loving yourself are the two most important parts of transformation? I’m convinced that I couldn’t have started taking responsibility without having loved myself first. I’m also convinced that before all this, I had hated myself since about the age of 11 or 12.

You hear and read a lot about the importance of self-love. But I did not see how it was attainable. It sounded made-up. That’s how far gone I was. I’m here to tell you, as the living proof, that it is entirely possible to love yourself. Not in an arrogant, conceited way, but in a profoundly compassionate and supportive way, a way that will enable you to live from your deepest self and values and dreams. Does that sound appealing? Read on, dear friend.

A dull ache

Last August, right before I started making moves to improve myself, I had hit a wall. A serious wall. It wasn’t exactly depression, like at other times in my life. It was more like a sense that I needed to make a big change if I was going to continue to be a productive and functioning adult in the world without having a breakdown. I was stuck. You see, in the spring semester of 2016, I took double the number of courses recommended for grad students here. On top of that, I was teaching and working two part-time jobs and trying to put together my exam list and committee. I was so busy–I never had time to pause or breathe or reflect. I was just doing doing doing. Get it done. Get all the things done. Check it off.

When I presented my exam list to my committee, a couple of the faculty really tore into me. It made me feel so unprepared, so unfit. The impostor syndrome alarm bells were so loud, I couldn’t hear anything else. I was also performing at a barely adequate level in all my classes because I was stretched so thin. It was a deeply unsatisfying semester. I remember when it was over, I took all the papers I’d written and received feedback on and my half-edited exam list, shoved them in a file folder, and didn’t look at them all summer. Did I think about them? Ab-so-lutely. Like nails on a chalkboard, the negative feedback and the unfinished work plagued me every day. But I trudged on, numbing, ignoring, pretending I was fine.

Come August, the new semester was about to start. I knew I would be postponing the exams I had scheduled for the following spring (which would be now) until the next fall (which is in 9 months). And I let myself do that. And it felt so good. I remember relishing that feeling. It didn’t feel like defeat. It felt like love. I remember the voice in my head didn’t judge me. It said thank you. That feeling was new to me.

I had only one final class to take this past semester, so time opened up to me like a blossom, it seemed, after the previous semester of being scheduled beyond capacity. This occasion for pause has proven to be the greatest gift of my life so far.

In August, realizing the time I would have but not yet at a place where I wanted to spend it productively, I got on Pinterest. I know, I know. I was filling the empty time with more social media browsing. But I was kind of intrigued by those little pins. I made boards for Food, Fitness, Organization, and Fashion, my top four interests at the time. But then these other pins started showing up on my home page. “How to Make a Self-Care Plan.” Stuff like that. And I asked, “What is self-care?”

Yes, my friends. It was that bad.

I dove headfirst into the blogging world of self-care, minimalism, and personal development, having no idea what awaited me there. But it seemed right. I made a board called Self-Improvement. At first, I was pinning productivity tips. But then something shifted. I remember the first two things that changed were that 1) I should make time for pleasure and rest to de-stress and 2) I should be meditating. For the first, I decided I would take a bubble bath or an Epsom salt bath every week to unwind. Easy. For the second, the more I read about meditation, the more intrigued I was. It seemed counter-intuitive to me that rest and stillness would actually make me happier and more functional.

This is why it’s difficult for me to explain the pull of it. Because for my entire life before this, I would have scoffed at meditation and called it New Age mumbo jumbo. But it was like the universe was putting it in front of me at the right time and I was just receptive to it. My body responded on some deep level or frequency that I had no mind control over. I hadn’t yet read any personal development books, I hadn’t found The Lively Show podcast, and I hadn’t done anything with my diet or exercise. These aspects would come in one by one about a month later.

I credit all of it, everything, all the things that have changed in my life since August, to meditation.

If you are not meditating, you must start. I hesitate to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do. We all know what’s best for us. But meditation will change your life. This I can guarantee. Especially if, like I was, you are in a place where you feel somewhat dissatisfied, you feel a constant tugging throughout your day, a sense that something is off, but you can’t quite label it. If when you feel stressed out or anxious or depressed, you eat or spend hours on social media or Netflix or just lie in your bed staring at the wall or you drink or get high or shop or procrastinate or do anything to numb or escape from that feeling that something is off.

Where can I find meditations?

I was pretty sure successful meditation would be the complete silencing of thoughts and that I was supposed to reach some sort of transcendent enlightened state. In a way, yes, that has happened since I started. But that’s not what meditation is about. The thoughts will come. You just learn to see them for what they are.

I began by finding what was then a free podcast called “Sip and Om.” Mary Meckley, who has the most soothing voice ever, is an expert at guided meditations. She has you relax your whole body and learn to pay attention to your breath and quiet your thoughts. She taught me to meditate. Her free podcast is now a shorter version, without most of the guidance, but you can get the long guided ones with a subscription. I liked hers in the beginning because she has weekly themes and each day focuses on a different technique related to that theme. One day you learn an affirmation, another you learn a breathing technique, another you learn a mudra, and another you focus on one of your chakras, etc. Yes, all of this was new to me, but I learned. I learned so much.

You can also look at my resources page, where I have listed what I think are three popular meditation apps. Of course, there are a ton of resources online as well. I recommend starting with Headspace. Andy Puddicombe is great, and you spend the first 30 days of the app learning what meditation is and isn’t. It’s a little less guided than Sip and Om, but you still come to understand how it works. Insight Timer is free and has thousands of guided meditations on different topics, as well as a simple timer for when you know what you’re doing and simply want to sit in silence for a given time period. Now, I use the timer in the morning and listen to a guided one before I go to sleep.

What is it? How do I do it?

Begin by sitting up straight in a chair, on a cushion, on the edge of your bed, or just on the floor. Your feet can be flat on the floor if you’re in a chair or on the bed, and you can cross your legs if you’re on the floor. For the first month or so, I laid in bed, which you can do, too. Mary says that wherever you are on your journey is exactly where you should be. You can lay your palms face down on your legs if you want to feel more grounded or let them face upward if you want to be receptive to energy. You soften your gaze and start to notice what’s around you–the smells, the sounds, what the floor or chair feels like supporting you. You can take all this in without judgment, without labeling any of it as good or bad, right or wrong. Just start to inhabit the present moment, the space around you. Usually, I take 3 deep but unforced, slow breaths, inhaling for a few seconds, holding, and then exhaling for a few seconds. On the last exhale, I let my eyes close softly. Keep your gaze slightly uplifted.

At first, I usually focus on my breath. What does it feel like to breathe in? Am I breathing in calm and out stress? I follow the breath through the body, starting at the nose and moving to the belly. I imagine the breath filling my body with life-giving energy. When the breath is regular, I do a body scan. You can start at the crown of your head or your toes, and simply scan down or up, noticing every part of your body and how it feels, without judgment. You can also consciously relax each part as you go, softening your brow and your jaw, letting your tongue fall away from the roof of your mouth, relaxing your shoulders and arms, letting your belly hang out instead of sucking it in, relaxing thighs and calves and toes. This can take a few minutes. Let it. Relish it. Be in your body.

If thoughts start to creep in that are not your breath or your body, I’ve heard a few helpful options for noticing them. Some describe thoughts as clouds floating by in the sky. Andy describes them as cars whizzing past on the highway. But that’s all they are. When you realize you’ve left your breath or body and are back on the automatic thought train, simply notice that, imagine the thought as a cloud drifting away or a car driving away without you in it, and let it go. Come back to your breath. I had a yoga teacher once who told us again and again, “Label that thought ‘thinking’ and come back to your breath.” Just label it and gently come back. No need to beat yourself up; thoughts will happen but you learn to release them. And then you learn to release them in your everyday life as well.

There are a few things you can do to be in the present moment and avoid the automatic thought train. You can repeat a daily affirmation. I write a different one in my journal every morning, depending on what I feel I need. “I release fear and anxiety and welcome compassion and support.” “I listen lovingly to my heart.” “I accept my body.” “I am strong and capable.” Simple and direct, with a clear verb and message. If you Google affirmations, you will find seemingly infinite resources.

You can also count your breaths. Andy recommends counting to 10 and starting over, counting to 10 and starting over. 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale, 4 on the exhale, etc. I have found this to be incredibly helpful.

My favorite thing to do is to imagine a bright, white light that emanates from my center filling me up. My center is my heart, but everyone has a different center. Yours might be closer to your gut or it might be the crown of your head. You’ll intuitively know, if you pause to think about it. So I imagine this light radiating out from my heart center and it slowly fills my torso, my arms, my legs, eventually bursting out of my crown and my fingers and my toes until it fills the whole room. Some guided meditations tell you to imagine this white light serving a specific function: strengthening your immune system, lending you wisdom, pushing out negative energy. And there is research that shows it works.

I only mediate for about ten minutes. Some do it for much longer. You might see if you can start with two minutes. When the ten minutes are up, I first notice the smells and sounds in the room again. I gently wiggle my fingers and toes. I slowly open my eyes and let my gaze rest softly on what’s in front of me.  There’s no rush here. Enjoy the feeling you have. Feel yourself in your body with your slowed heart rate and feeling of tingling electricity. Then go on with your day.

You can do mini-versions of this any time throughout your day. Now, if at some point in the day, I find myself feeling out of control or stressed or anxious, I hop off the automatic thought train, become aware of my breath, follow it for a minute or two, and feel my body relax. I always feel better.

What’s going to happen?

If you start meditating, practicing stillness, every day, your life is going to open up to you. I sort of stumbled along in this, learning different techniques for about 6 weeks. Unconsciously at first, I started making healthier choices in all aspects of my life. I was eating better. I was finding time to journal. I started to feel deep gratitude and contentment. But mostly, I found myself. I found my intuition, my truest, deepest self. By shutting off the incessant chatter, the hate-filled monologue that had been running in my mind for more than a decade, I found myself in the quiet stillness.

You see, it was like being fully present in my breath and body was the only true reality. And in that present moment, I was okay. I was strong. I was capable. I understood that the scripts I’d adapted for managing myself simply weren’t true. All my suffering was located either in the past in the form of regret or resentment or guilt, or in the future in the form of worry or anxiety or fear. In the present moment, none of it is real. And so I realized a basic truth: it can’t control you.

If you’re looking for happiness, fulfillment, power, or freedom, these things already exist within you. I am the living proof here to tell you that they are simply waiting for you to pause and notice them. Your intuition, a gentle, nurturing voice that knows what’s right for you right now, is waiting for you to return to her. She waits patiently, wanting to smile back at you and wrap you in her warm, loving embrace. She won’t be mad or berate you that it took you this long to return to her. She will simply say, “Ah, there you are. Welcome home.” And with that wisdom, with that inner light and guidance, you can do anything.

In the stillness, you will find your authentic self, your truth. You will know that you are capable of anything and your intuition will guide you through each step you must take to get there. In the stillness, you will find endless love. Your intuition isn’t going to say, “Get up, you lazy bum. We have emails to answer!” She’s going to whisper, “Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to pause and be here.” She is fulfillment from within. She is an eternal well of happiness. She is comfort in your own skin. She will free you from your suffering.

You will learn to listen to your body and you will learn that your body wants to support you. In listening, you will find that you want to nourish and gently strengthen this sacred vessel. If you believe that this is our one life, you will become profoundly aware of what that means for the way you treat your body. Your body is calling out to you, and you can hear it in the stillness.

You will become aware of yourself and of the world in ways you never imagined possible. You will become your own lighthouse.

I’m not T.S. Eliot’s biggest fan, but a quote from one of his poems is highly relevant to the experience I had after becoming a regular meditator:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

For some, myself included, this knowledge brought some difficult truths. I’ve written a little bit about them in previous entries. But you can face them with the courage you will gain from stillness. You can begin to transform.

What do you think? Have you tried meditation? Do you meditate regularly? What does it do for you? Will you try it? What’s stopping you?

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