I once knew a lawyer named Rick. He was definitely some kind of dick. I’m kidding, I just liked the limerick opening. His real name was Richard, but I always knew him solely as Rick. He’s from the same little part of Alabama that my family calls home. We had a slew of common friends and we ran through the courthouse all the time doing our best to stay one step ahead of the judges and jailers. It was a friendship from afar that had no real basis outside us seeing each other regularly. But I respected him greatly for his ability to be honest about his situation; being run down and tired, loving his job and perhaps most importantly, how he felt physically. He hiked and biked and just plain took care of himself in ways I hadn’t seen many others do before.
And then one day he mentioned that he was beginning a search for god or for enlightenment or for some greater meaning in the universe. It was somewhat shocking to see a guy who seemingly had it all together start to look for something more than what was currently available at his fingertips. I followed his journey from afar via social media and tried never to bring it up because I was afraid he was going to find veganism or jui jitsu and then god only knows how long that conversation would last. And god forbid he found them both at the same time.
What he found first was religion. And he reveled in it. Testing out all the different features of each new version he found. He seemed happy but never completely or quietly still. Floating while waiting for a firm foundation that might never come. And I’m a Baptist by upbringing. I know that feeling all too well. But his journey seemed to be wholly based on the feeling that there had to be more waiting for us than just the momentary satisfaction of money or sex. I don’t know if he ever found what he was looking for, honestly. I know he had a child and I know he got a divorce. I wonder sometimes if there isn’t an undercurrent of longing that we all have to confront head on in order to finally make peace with who we are and what we expect to become. I know I’ve wrestled with those angels myself over the years. Frankly, I wouldn’t be writing these words if I thought for one second that I was destined to live a life of quiet desperation as a small town lawyer. But I think about Rick sometimes trying to find his way and it helps me know that despite what we all look like on the surface, it’s entirely possible we’re swimming like mad under the surface just to stay afloat. Which I guess brings me mercifully to my point.
I’ve been wanting to try guided meditation for a few months because it seemed like a lovely way to quiet my mind for a moment and help me find a better balance. My phone rings all day long and I get upwards of 400 emails per day. There are very few quiet moments for me and the thought of having 30 minutes to myself sounded amazing. I also have three kids, several businesses and a wife who enjoys seeing me on occasion. It’s a hectic life, so finding time for myself is difficult. But I’m starting to work on that because it seems to pay benefits all across my spectrum. My clients have learned to wait. My kids have learned to be patient with me. My wife has learned nothing because she doesn’t care one way or the other. If I’m self caring, at least I’m not pestering her. Whenever she’s annoyed with me, she reminds me that she holds the key to my marital satisfaction and that if I push it, I’ll have to self care myself to sleep. Jokes on her though. It only takes me 90 seconds at this point in my life and I can go right back to annoying her and her threats no longer hold water.
My immediate thought upon making my first appointment for meditation was that it was essentially just going to sit very still in a quiet room and try not to fall asleep. And I wasn’t entirely off base about the experience as a whole. I distinctly remember watching several videos on youtube about what I could expect and what I should hope to take away from the experience. If a 30 minute period of calm silence can’t put you in a better place emotionally and physically, then you’ve got other problems this experience isn’t designed to address.
I should also point out again that I have a moderate to severe case of attention deficit disorder; i.e. I don’t listen very well and don’t care about much enough to focus for very long. I have meds but rarely take them because they make me feel like I’ve been gifted a serious bout of ennui. The truth of the matter is that I simply don’t like who I am when I’m on the drugs. It’s not that my performance doesn’t improve; it absolutely does. It just that the ROI on taking Ritalin for me is a balancing act I don’t entertain lightly. My wife can tell if I’ve taken my meds within the first 30 seconds of any conversation. I’m just not myself any longer. It generally takes 6 hours for the meds to wear off and the only way down is beer or time. I don’t have a lot of time, so…. I’m constantly on the lookout for anything that might help me focus more and self medicate less.
That’s when the idea of transcendental meditation took hold. I know this isn’t technically hippie granola bullshit but it’s definitely hippie. And it’s definitely granola. You’ve seen the clothes most of these people wear. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Yoga is one thing – at least the pants are sporty. But I guess the point of meditation isn’t to become one with the bottom directly in front of your face that’s clothed in a sheer layer of spandex. That’s morning mass right? I’m kidding. Sort of. I do like the fog ball thing they swing though. You gotta be one badass priest to walk the aisle chanting in latin and swing a flaming mace. Jesus lives in you, Padre.
Anyway, meditation is offered in a variety of styles. Mantra meditation is exactly what it says it is. You repeat a mantra to remind yourself of who you are and what you’re worth. It’s affirming and repetitive. But hell, saying nice things about yourself isn’t something any of us do enough. I guess you might be the person that walks out the door in the morning thinking, damn, I look good. But I’m not and never have been. See the author’s photo on this book’s jacket and that will make a hell of a lot more sense.
Movement meditation is fairly uncommon based on my lackluster research. I initially thought isn’t this just yoga? I tend to think of this as Dad meditation. Taking a walk or working in a wood shop. It’s allowing your body to take over and do something that’s second nature and relaxing by design. It allows your mind to just wander and never have to focus on anything in the foreground. Playing guitar sets this in motion for me. I play a lot in open tunings and that allows for my mind to just float while I hit the same basic chording over and over to form a melody. It’s not particularly taxing at this point in my life to strum and a well tuned guitar in a room with a little reverb is a delight to my senses. Maybe not to anyone else in my house. Those little bastards run like their heads are on fire and their asses are catching. I’m quoting Charlie Daniels there. I hope you knew that. If you didn’t, get some culture, Carl.
Spiritual meditation is focused on deepening a relationship with God or maybe the universe depending on your beliefs. I’ve never tried it, but man it sounds a lot like praying. Which I’ve done a lot of over the years. Mostly from behind rather than up front. I’m not one to pray for certain things to happen. I find myself praying for things not to happen. And generally only after I’ve very stupidly set something in motion. More often than not, it starts with “oh god, you’re not gonna believe this, but…” He always believes. He’s known me my whole life. If I was formed in his image, he was having an off day. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so lucky my entire life. He had to put his thumb on the scales to make up for me being this ugly.
Think about this truthfully. I was born in a great place to great parents. I had the best opportunities for schooling and experiences. I’ve never dealt with acute hunger or had to worry much about where I was going to sleep. I think that’s a testament to how good my parents were to and for me growing up. And maybe it’s this springboard that has allowed me to go out into the world confident that I can handle a couple setbacks along the way and still live a pretty decent life. Maybe I should spend a little more time saying thanks while praying than asking for forgiveness. Maybe we all ought to do that a bit more.
I was in Cuba recently and had the opportunity to be there for the support of the cuban people. That’s really just a way to justify being in the country. What I saw was poverty the likes of which I hadn’t seen in a long time. It exists in the States for certain. But television cameras don’t go there often because most people like shiny, new or bloody. I guess we all have enough potentially depressing things going on in our lives to spend much time seeking out the poorest among us. Cuba was a revelation because poverty was everywhere. It was around every corner and down every street. I distinctly remember pulling a couple of rubber balls out of our supply backpack and putting one in my pocket and bouncing the other while we walked down the street. One 10 year old little boy ran up to say hello and on his way up I tossed him the ball. He started to throw it back thinking I meant to play. I wish I had made the time then. Instead, I did my best to motion to him that I wanted him to keep it. His friends came running from all over to gather around and look at the 99 cent trinket I had given him as an afterthought. They celebrated in the street like I had given them gold.
My friends and I explored an art exhibit that day down several streets in a place called Fusterlandia. It’s essentially street after street of mosaic tiles layered into the walls that surround each home. It’s magic in the moment and pictures cannot do it justice. But around every corner is the reminder that we’re smack dab in the middle of a country caught between two worlds. And a people caught in the same vise. On our way home, we ran into the same group of little boys. I pulled the remaining ball out of my pocket and launched it towards the smallest boy in the group. He got it but only barely. And then each kid ran up to shake our hands and grab something out of the backpack. We gave away crayons and balls up and down the street. We left that little scene feeling pretty good about ourselves and pretty bad about the situation. It wasn’t until a few minutes later when we were swimming in the pool that the same little group appeared behind the fence asking if we could possibly spare some cigarettes or have our collective wives flash them a titty that we understood kids are kids all over the world and that crayons and rubber balls are only going to hold their attention for so long. I didn’t blame them a bit. My wife is smoking hot. We took to calling her La Diabla Blanco because she’s six feet tall and has white blonde hair. One man even crossed himself and muttered something to god when we entered a restaurant. I assumed it was aimed at me because that’s pretty normal but he was looking directly at her the whole time. I rather enjoyed the smile that crept across her face. He didn’t know the truth of the matter. She really is a white devil. But she’s my white devil and as the saying goes, the devil you know.
I’m reminded every day just how lucky I am and how good I’ve got it. That little bit of mindfulness is easy to come by for me because I don’t deserve the life I already have. Mindfulness meditation, which is what I think we most often assume to be the standard bearer for meditation, comes from Buddhism. I haven’t tried this one but I’m apt to want to down the road. I think I do this already; I just don’t label it as such. This form of meditation is really about divorcing yourself from your thoughts. Which I’ve never been good at in any sense. I tend to fixate on any perceived slight or petty behavior. Waaaaaay more than is reasonable.
One time my wife was on the phone with a customer service agent at one of the major airlines. He made her cry. He was very stupid. Once my wife handed me the phone, I had to remind him that while I was mad that he had made her cry, I was really more angry that he had now made his problem mine. I was the one who was going to have to hear how rudely she had been treated. I was the one who was going to pay the price for his belligerent behavior. And ultimately, I was the one who was definitely not going to get laid that night.
And if he was going to visit that sort of pox on my house, then I was going to visit a pox on his house as well. I sat down shortly thereafter and drafted a lawsuit. It was ugly and petty and listed all of the reasons I would be taking said airline to Court. I drafted an artful cover letter to Company and listed all the reasons I had been forced into such a low position. I may have called someone an asshole. And I printed a subpoena for that customer service representative that had ruined my weekend. I packaged all of the niceties up in a certified letter and waited. Three days later, a letter of apology arrived on my doorstep with reimbursement vouchers and a check for an undisclosed sum which I then used to treat my wife to a lovely vacation and disappointing coitus. Try that again, American Airlines. You can disappoint my wife once but I’ve been disappointing her for years and nothing you can do will eclipse my snoring phase from mid-2012 through Q3-2013.
Oh, I forgot, in mindfulness meditation, you’re supposed to pay attention to thoughts as they race through your mind. It helps to observe whether the same ideas pop up over and over. That’s a pretty good clue you’ve got something going on that needs to be dealt with. I spend a lot of time avoiding things that are bubbling under the surface and then wake me in the middle of the night. I find if I attack those problems first, the sleep cycle tends to go back to some sense of normalcy. It helps me to breathe a little deeper and a little slower. And there’s lots of breathing awareness in this one. The Buddhist concepts are lovely and affirming as well. This is a lovely experience if you’re looking for a start.
But the one I wanted to focus on was transcendental meditation. I don’t really know how best to explain this to you so I’ll just use small words and assume you’re breathing through your month at this point. The idea here is to silently repeat a mantra to yourself for a period of 15-20 minutes a few times a day. Sounds relatively easy and innocuous. It is absolutely, 100%, not easy and innocuous. You will never long for your iphone any more than you will during minute 8 of a 20 minute session. I’m not trying to make the point that we’re all obviously addicted to smart phones and screens. That’s not even in dispute anymore after I watched my 75 year old father play candy crush.
The point I guess I’m trying to make is that we’ve become so accustomed to filling each quiet moment with technology and black mirrors that the thought of spending even a few moments in our own heads is terrifying. I have lived a year inside my head during an hour alone in a float tank. I actually was a bit nervous before climbing in. I was more than a little freaked out during the first 20 minutes when I lost all track of time and had already listed all the teams in the national league in my head and was forgetting two from the american league. (dammit, Minnesota Twins, get out of my blind spot). But transcendental meditation doesn’t seem to be aimed at a complete loss of sound or stimuli. It seems aimed at being quiet and letting all of those things swirl around you and cause you no pain or grief. If that’s the case, it sounds like a movie scene where the person sits still and the world goes on around them in double time. I quite like that as an idea.
The first time I considered researching meditation, I had to drill down on what I wanted to accomplish. Was I looking for peace, confidence or simply quiet? I chose peace because I already have unwavering confidence in my ability to fix just about anything. I didn’t choose quiet because there is literally no where in my life that I could go to accomplish quiet. Everywhere I go sound travels with me. Either a tapping of the foot or the humming of a tune. Or farting. Probably more farting than is healthy. But I recognize my own limitations and work within the world god has given me.
When I learned that there were many different forms of meditation, transcendental seemed the most mystical and at worst the most fun to bore people with at parties. It also reminded me of one of my favorite George Strait songs. If ol’ George can sing about it in 1987, then it’s damn sure good enough for your humble author in 2020. All that to say that I chose this style for all the wrong reasons which seemed right at the beginning.
Our meditation leader is Mallory. She’s lovely. I’ve taken yoga with her before. She’s extremely calm and has a voice that makes you feel like all is right in the world; at least for a little while. She explains that meditation can be whatever in the world you want it to be. I ask if I can make it nap. She doesn’t laugh. I’m in a tough room. Three other friends are with me and we’re all seated in a semi circle around here. The women are on the floor seated on what appear to be mayan blankets from World Market. My other friend is on a bean bag. I’m on the couch. It’s been a lovely morning already for me so I’m perfectly content to take this experience on in my most comfortable positions. Mallory asks us to do what we need to do to make ourselves comfortable. I take this quite literally and wrap myself in a bunch of blankets like I’m preparing to audition for a role in a Star Wars movie. And I am extremely happy. All IS right with the world.
Mallory began by showing us some power point slides she’s printed for us giving us the benefits of meditation but that’s not at all what we’re here for. She doesn’t have to sell us. We’re already ready already; were ready to get to meditating. She gently reminded us that the experience can be whatever we wanted it to be. I stifled the urge to ask again about napping until she mentioned a sleeping yoga practice. I definitely sat up for that one. Turns out that the sleeping yoga she mentioned has you trying your best to get into a sleeping state without actually going to sleep. That’s a solid no from me. I have many talents. Trying to get into a sleep state without falling asleep is never going to be one of them.
Regardless, she began to lead us through the experience by asking all in the room to feel the breath coming in and out of our noses. We were asked to notice the air at the point it first touched the tips of our noses. We were then asked to feel it hit the bridge of our nose and follow it all the way into the upper most reaches of our throats. I don’t know that I had ever slowed down enough in my entire life to feel the air hit the point of my nose; but when I did a certain bit of calm came over my body. It wasn’t a perfect calm by any stretch of the imagination. It was fitful but it had the effect of allowing my brain to quit thinking about all the other stuff floating around in there and really drill down on one physical sensation. After that, the methodology began to become clear. I was going to feel each area of my body in turn and focus on staying perfectly still while doing so. We drifted from the air filling our chest to the feeling of a long exhale. At one point, we each individually were counting to twelve as we took breath in and then twelve again as we breathed out. It was luxurious. There was no sound save our leader’s voice. No one said a word. No one was even looking around. I know because I was the only one looking around.
When we had followed the air through our bodies for what seemed like a very short time, Mallory asked us to feel the bottoms of our feet. I, being a literalist, started to reach for the bottom of my feet. With one eye slightly cracked, I noticed that no one else seemed to be reaching for their feet. I overcorrected by pretending that I had an immediate bout of what I guess was supposed to look like sciatica. I don’t think anyone noticed; no one said anything one way or the other. I was able to get back in the groove when we moved from the bottoms of our feet to the tops. Mallory urged us to feel the flow of our energy and concentrate on the feeling of being. I relaxed quite a bit when I realized I was just supposed to feel it; not touch it FEEL it. Want to hear something a little crazy – when I did focus on my feet, I really could feel them. I wanted to ask if I had beaten the timeline from skeptic to convert but it seemed like the wrong time what with everyone else being quiet and focusing. In any event, we moved from our feet to our ankles to our calves to our knees. It was a very slow and methodical process with each body part getting roughly a minute of focus before we skipped along. It wasn’t until we got to our knees that we took a break to really feel the muscles and skin. We’d just been taking each body part as they came instead of each different fiber that made up the greater whole. It was a little unsettling to realize I was flexing my calves unconsciously in order to really feel what they felt like inside my skin. She asked me to feel my bones and I stifled another laugh. No one else even cracked a smile. I’m apparently meditating with statues. Honestly, if phrasing isn’t a thing anymore someone should have told me.
Once we had settled into the practice for a solid 20 minutes, it became clear that I was enjoying this experience almost as much as acupuncture. I was exceedingly calm. I wouldn’t say I was in a trance per se, but I was definitely in that place that barely precedes sleep. At 9:45 on a Saturday morning after a cup of coffee. I was in uncharted waters. I was calm and the thoughts moved across my mind like little puffy clouds. The move we moved with out bodies the more comfortable I felt with the entire experience. It was as if I was being tucked in for a long nap. I was completely at peace with what was happening and what was to come.
We found ourselves a short time later contemplating our mouths and how we drew breath. We were asked to relax our tongues and let them fall the bottom of our mouths rather than keeping tension there by trying to force our tongues into the roof of our mouth. Do you have any idea what it’s like to have something you do unconsciously pointed out to you as a source of tension that you don’t normally practice releasing. It was revelatory. My jaw unclenched. I didn’t even know that I was clenching it. ANd as soon as I quit focusing on it, my jaw would immediately reclench. I found myself going back to that one bit over and over. As soon as I took my mind off the jaw, it would revert back to its’ tense state. And my dull headache would return almost instantly. I was completely blown away.
We finished after roughly 45 minutes. I felt like 10. I could have spent my entire morning in that room. We hadn’t bothered to even dim the lights. The only nod we made towards calm was to turn off the music that had been quietly playing in the background. It was then that I realized that not had I dealt with some pretty serious thoughts alongside my concentration, I had dealt with them in such a way that they didn’t immediately return as worry. Mallory offhandedly mentioned that the human brain thinks the same thoughts over and over 90% of the time. I don’t know if there’s a scientific study showing that to be the case, but I definately felt it while we were sitting there. The same client issues kept coming up. They were the ones I had avoided the week before and now had carried home with me so that I could worry about them before returning to the office on Monday to worry about them some more. I made several mental notes about which ones I probably needed to focus on when I got home and could fire off some emails detailing how I planned to resolve them down the road. Just the simple act of bringing each problem into focus and then setting a plan in place to solve the problems brought me monumental relief that I wouldn’t ordinarily feel.
Of course your mileage may vary on what your version of meditation looks like as a practice. Mine would probably be a short ten minute burst to see which issues were constantly on my mind and needed to be solved. Yours might take a little more thought if you work in a lower stress environment. But once I was able to see what was bothering me most, the path towards being unbothered became entirely clear. I was completely happy with the experience from that angle. There are some things though that should really be explained to you before you go into this exercise for the first time.
The first and easiest rule to follow is to not have your first cup of coffee directly before heading into a meditation. That’s a rookie mistake and one I made because I don’t drink a lot of coffee. I’m more of a diet coke guy up until recently. I didn’t want to quit, but I started a beginning of the year fasting and diet plan that didn’t allow for it. I am however allowed coffee in its purest state. In my experience with Diet Coke, I have at least 45 minutes between last sip and first sign of bowel urgency. NOT SO WITH COFFEE FRIENDS. You barely get any warning at all. One minute you’re concentrating on feeling the hairs on your legs as they brush against the blanket and the next you’re struggling to tamp down the rumbling in your stomach that every one in the room can certainly hear.
Even if everyone lacked a sense of echolocation, it would still be obvious who the problem child is in the room. It’s almost always me anyway so it’s not like there were any other reasonable suspects. But I figured if I kept my eyes closed then I couldn’t see them noticing me and I thereby was relieved of worrying about any potential embarrassment. My kids used to play hide and seek this way when they were very young. They cover their own eyes and if the world disappeared then they had hidden themselves well. The good news is that even when the experience was over, no one said a word.
I had been worried about nothing which is usually the case. And it’s a pretty normal problem for me to worry about nothing. I tend to ruminate on a situation that could turn into a problem but hasn’t yet begun to be a problem. That way I get to worry about it three times: once before anything happens, once while the thing happens and then I get to worry about what happened. I guess that’s the nature of my profession and my temperament. It’s not the best or healthiest way to go through life. And I’m working on it. Things like meditation really helped me to slow down long enough to categorize my thoughts and focus on the bad ones that presented themselves over and over.
I drifted off to sleep that night putting each separate thought into a neat little box. I took the time to watch the repeat offenders as they floated by like clouds and assigned them a time that I would revisit them. I wasn’t going to worry about that client immediately because there was nothing to be done until as least monday morning. And if I robbed myself of the time I needed to recharge, I probably wasn’t going to be able to solve that problem when Monday rolled around anyway. What good could it do to allow it to interrupt my sleep and time with my family. Very little if any right? But I’d never really thought of things that way. My job most days is to worry. To worry about everyone else’s money or relationships or businesses. And that’s a drag on my own psyche. Some folks are built better at compartmentalizing, but I’ve never had that skill. Most of that comes from my father I’m certain.
And maybe that’s the part I wanted to take away from this experience. Yeah it sounds crazy to sit on the floor and just breathe. And yes, it does seem somewhat out there to pay attention to your thoughts in a detached way rather than attacking the problem points. But that detachment allowed me to really see the ones that were giving me the most problems. If I wanted to give myself a shot at sleeping better and finding a little peace, I was going to have to make peace with the constant problem spots. In some cases, that means getting rid of the problem altogether; e.g. firing a problem client. In some cases, it meant setting boundaries; e.g. allowing myself time to really look at a problem and then finding a solution instead of running away from it over and over. In a majority of the cases, I’m finding that I had to confront the issue head on and then make my peace with what I could do about it and let the other go and move on.
What I can tell you is that being quiet and still can highlight some things along the way you might be passing over and over that you’re trying your dead level best to not notice. Like that scene in Jeepers Creepers where they see the monster off the side of the road throwing bodies into the basement? And then the monster chases them for the rest of the movie and eventually ends up taking that dude’s eyes? You know the part I’m talking about? So maybe it’s not exactly like that but you know what I mean, I hope. You should definitely watch it though. It’s terrifying.
I’m learning everyday along this road. This was an experience I waited a year to have; and I’m still not really sure what hesitation I felt before giving myself over to it. I don’t know that it was my favorite. But it was up there. What I do know is that this was the most useful in my work. I never would have imagined it. I wouldn’t have dreamt that sitting quietly and giving my attention to a problem would cause me to feel peace descend over me like a warm blanket. And I’m not sure that it works every time because meditation isn’t something I’ve made a practice out of full time; yet. But I will tell you that I will give myself over to it more going forward. Sometimes it’s only ten minutes at a time. But if ten minutes can produce a benefit, I’d be foolish to not take advantage. Which is what I tell me wife when the kids are all out the house.