Over the years, a lot of people have suggested I try meditating. Like, a lot of people. People who know me well and people who barely know me at all have suggested that a meditation practice would be “good” for me. My responses were usually the same:
“I’ve tried it – I can’t quiet my mind.”
“I meditate when I’m running – it’s an active meditation.”
“I can’t just not think.”
“I don’t want to.”
It kept coming up, and I kept dismissing it, until a day almost two years ago when a conversation with a friend changed my mind.
I’ve known Sanjeev for 20 years. Some of my favourite memories with him include stopping at a gas station so Sanjeev could chat with the guy in a green Lamborghini, and Sanjeev showing up at my house close to midnight one day with a bag of pills in his hand. The pills were Hydroxycut – a workout supplement we had both been coveting for some time that was illegal in Canada. But Sanjeev found some at a tiny health food store where no one was checking the inventory, and shared the pills with me.
20 years later, I’m a writer living in Costa Rica, and Sanjeev is a cardiologist living in San Diego. But we still manage to catch each other in Toronto once in a while, that’s just what happened on this day two winters ago.
In that conversation, I asked Sanjeev for his professional medical opinion:
“What would you say is the number one thing people can do preventatively to benefit their long-term health?”
I’ll admit, I expected him to say exercise. Because I know him. I know he’s a gym rat like I am. (Remember the Hydroxycut?) I know that he’s a scientist. I know what the science says about exercise and long-term health benefits. So you can imagine my surprise when he said,
“If you had asked me that question two years ago, I would have said exercise. But now I’d say meditation. …followed closely by exercise.”
I was surprised, and intrigued, as he told me about the benefits of meditation. Not just from some study he read, but from seeing how a regular meditation practiced changed the lives of his patients, and himself. He told me about the benefits of meditation on both physical and mental health (stress reduction, the lowering of cortisol, increased feelings of contentment) and that his personal meditation practice had made him a better husband, son and doctor.
Sanjeev didn’t suggest that I try meditating myself. He was only answering the question I asked. He didn’t know that I was also going through a time when the voices in my head were getting very loud, my anxiety was running at a record high, and the black smoke of depression was starting to nip at my heels. Running was only helping so much, and I was open to trying more. So I decided to try meditating.
I did quite a bit of reading on meditation, and came to a few conclusions:
- There are lots of ways to do it
- There is no right way to do it
- There aren’t a lot of wrong ways to do it
- Just get started, and find what works for you
So that’s what I did. I decided that my practice would be for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening. That I would just sit quietly, and try to focus on one thing, whether it was my breathing, an image, a mantra or a few words that meant something to me.
It has now been almost two years of an on-and-off meditation practice. There have been times when I kept my practice up for long stretches of time, and other times when I let it slip. And I can say with absolute certainty that starting this practice, and coming back to it, is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.
I had a friend ask me about my meditation practice recently – about quieting my mind, how I do it, how I stop myself from falling into judgement when my mind strays, and what benefit I’ve gotten out of doing it regularly. And here’s what I told her:
It’s called a meditation practice because that’s exactly what it is – a practice. Something you practice every day. It’s not a meditation destination. The benefit isn’t derived when you get somewhere – like, if you can meditate for 10 minutes straight without thinking about anything else except your own breath, you win. The practice of noticing your thoughts, catching them when they stray from where you want them to stay, and bringing them back again, is where the benefit is derived. Practicing controlling your own thoughts, rather than letting them control you. That’s the magic. It’s in the practice. Not in doing it right or doing it for long. Just doing it.
I have noticed a huge difference in how I relate to the people around me when I maintain a regular meditation practice. I’m calmer, more patient and more understanding. I’m less easily triggered and more empathetic. And I just feel more…content.
All those years, all those people were right.
**If you’re interested in reading a bit about the science behind meditation, you can start with this, this and this.**