Meditation is saving my sanity this year

In the worst of times, we all need a little breathing room

By Mary Elizabeth Williams - Kevin Carlin
Published November 28, 2016 11:58PM (EST)
 (<a href=''>Luna Vandoorne</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Luna Vandoorne via Shutterstock)

Nobody's ever accused me of being the calm in the storm. The adjective "mellow" has never once been lobbed in my direction. I am instead every overscheduled working mother cliché you've ever seen, the kind of woman who can frequently be spotted clutching a caffeinated beverage and yelling "DAMMIT" at a just-missed subway train. And that's precisely why I can say with authority that we all really need to be meditating a lot right now.

I came to meditation via yoga and I'm pretty sure I came to yoga via a deep-seated loathing of spin class. Though I am spiritual, I'm also very loud and very Jersey and don't do well with sitting still. But shortly after I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time six years ago, I realized that I needed to really step up my mental health game, big time, to deal with the persistent anxiety of a grueling situation and an uncertain future.

What I experienced then was a feeling quite like what many of us have been experiencing recently in the wake of the election. That's why I know that becoming overrun by stress is not productive. And the more you insist that you're not the type for meditation, the more you'll likely benefit from it.

As the fresh disasters of this apparently ceaseless garbage fire of a year have piled up, I confess I have not been great about keeping my daily practice of taking just 10 — even just 5! — minutes for quiet and centering. Who has time to disconnect for a few breaths when you know that when you open your eyes again, another insane thing will have happened?

But in August when a family member wound up in the hospital in a life-or-death situation, I found myself suggesting to a cousin that she download a meditation course app and try it for just a few minutes. She texted me a hour later to say it had turned around her entire day and helped her attend to the barrage of challenges she was suddenly facing. That's when I figured I'd better start taking my own advice.

There are few things that people love to brag about failing at more than meditation. When you tell people you meditate, you're likely to get a condescending "That's great . . .   for you. My mind just works too fast. I can't. I can't shut it off." OK, thanks for the humble brag! But with effort and a little information, I have come to realize that meditation is not something that needs to be approached competitively. Nor is the practice a surrender to active thought.

Our culture praises multitasking and purposeless busywork. No wonder then that imperfect stillness can seem so frightening. Let me therefore assure you that when I meditate in the morning, I am not nailing it — especially lately. My thoughts flutter to what I need to get done. My chest sometimes feels tight with the burdens of very real stress. Then I return to breaths, and the space between them, and I get humble and I try again.

And that's where the mindfulness is. That's where the actual benefits come in. It's not about floating on a lotus blossom or whatever. It's about having the recognition of where I am, physically and emotionally, and moving through it better. It's about learning to let go.

The benefits of meditation are numerous and well established: Regular practice fights depression and anxiety, and can even rewire your brain. No, it's not easy, but it's not hard either once you embrace your own relationship with distraction and accept it as part of the process. As a 2010 NPR feature reported, just a few deep, calming breaths have  "immediate effects" on the heart rate and blood pressure, and can "dampen the production of harmful stress hormones." I don't know about you, but I could use all the stress dampening I can get right now, and I can certainly invest a few minutes of my day in fortifying my well-being.

My own practice is cobbled together from different sources. Lots of people swear by Headspace, but I like Meditation Studio  and Insight Timer.  I sometimes use guided meditations, sometimes white noise from an app like Beyond and sometimes I simply focus on a mantra. Like any other healthy habit, it doesn't have to be beast mode. On crowded days, part-time healthy eating is better than round-the-clock junk food, five minutes of exercise is more beneficial than no minutes of exercise, five minutes of meditation is better than no minutes of meditation.

Just try it. Try it today. Then try it again tomorrow. Keep trying. Make it routine. Don't talk yourself out of it. Become friends with doing things messily. Don't be intimidated by the quiet inside yourself. It's waiting for you to find it.

There are no gold stars for achieving the most zen. Are lots of other people's meditation practices more awesome than mine? I'm sure they are. So what? There are also definitely no gold stars for being the most type A, overworked, underslept version of yourself. Even with all my flaws at meditation, I still enjoy the genuine benefits of a consistent, self-forgiving practice: lowered stress levels, less reactive responses to outside pressures and an overall less panicky demeanor in very panicky times. And I'd rather be mediocre at being mindful than excel at being a nervous wreck.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Kevin Carlin

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