It’s not really an exaggeration to say that we’re all living through a nightmare. This is one of the most trying times that almost any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. The stress of living through a global pandemic, quarantining ourselves for basic safety, the economic collapse and social upheaval that so many countries are enduring… these are quite literally the times that try men and women’s souls.
And frankly, none of us are ok. Even if you’re in a fairly good place — you’re not in danger of being evicted or losing your house, your job is secure, you’re financially stable — the existential fear and stress of life right now is affecting all of us, often in ways we aren’t aware of.
We all have limited mental and emotional bandwidth under the best of circumstances, and the very real stress and fears caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is taking up most of it. Our thoughts and emotions are so much louder right now and so much closer to the surface that it can feel like we’re hanging on by a thread. We all feel trapped, isolated and helpless. It’s like a nightmare that we can’t wake up from, no matter how much we try.
I’m no exception. The pandemic threw gasoline on fires in my own life, ignited the walls I’d built up to keep emotional issues at bay and burned to cinders the remaining shreds of my ability to cope. My anxiety and depression — things I frequently struggled to keep under control — shot through the roof. Similarly, my sleep schedule, something I already struggled with, became a distant memory. I would get less than an hour of sleep at a time, only to be woken up at random intervals as my brain would start to scream: “There is a THING and it is BAD and you need to DO SOMETHING about it because it is BAD but you CAN’T because IT IS BAD and you don’t know WHAT to do…”
Since I was exhausted and more sleep-deprived than normal, my focus was gone. Concentration was a thing of the past. I was the emotional equivalent of The Goliath or some other roller-coaster: alternately miserable, angry or depressed without warning. Something was going to snap, if I didn’t do something about it first.
So I did.
I decided to pull the trigger on all the self-work I’d been putting off. First, I got in contact with a therapist and got tested for ADHD — something I’d always suspected I suffered from. Next, I began working on a program about recognizing and breaking patterns. And I decided to try meditation. To help ensure I stuck with it, I gave myself a challenge: I would meditate every day for 30 days. With discipline, patience and dedication, I would see if I could learn to simply quiet my brain. I would see if I could wrestle control back from the chaos of my own thoughts. Maybe I would discover some new level of awareness I never had before.
Now here I am, a little over 30 days later.
Here’s what I learned.
Mind Over (Gray) Matter
The first step was deceptively simple: I was going to have to figure out how I was going to learn to meditate. There are, quite literally, dozens of forms of meditation. Some involve mantras, others involve ritualistic movements or focused breathing. There are forms of meditation that focus on gaining insight into your own psyche, others that focus more on inhabiting the body. At their core, however, all of them center on the same concept: controlling, directing and focusing your mind.
I’d tried meditating before, but it was always sporadic, not consistent. Science backed up how valuable it could be, but I could never make it work for me. I always felt like I was doing something wrong; I could never get my brain to just be quiet. In fact, most of the time, my brain was a browser with 30 tabs open, with at least five tabs that had frozen and two that were playing music.
(It was only later that I would learn that oh, hey, that’s actually a common ADHD symptom. Go figure.)
This time, I decided that I needed help. Instead of trying to just learn it on my own, I was going to rely on a guide. Having someone with a curriculum, who could walk me through what to do and what to expect was going to be crucial. Thankfully, I was spoiled for choice; there are a plethora of meditation apps, podcasts and YouTube channels out there. I ended up choosing the Calm app… mostly out of convenience; I found a code that gave me a year’s subscription for a fairly hefty discount. It also had the advantage of a dedicated lesson plan: a 30 day “How To Meditate” course.
Having a series of guided meditations, especially ones that were designed to teach me how to meditate was exactly what I needed. Part of what threw off my attempts to learn meditation on my own was, simply, not understanding what I was trying to do. I thought meditation would be akin to the first time I ever did a sensory deprivation tank, where I would feel myself sinking deeper and deeper into my own mind. I had been convinced that the goal was to just shut down my brain and not think at all; this would just make those intrusive thoughts all the more aggravating and pull me right out of the process.
As it turned out: I was doing it all wrong. The goal of meditation wasn’t to force myself to not think — the way I would try to force my thoughts away during those 4 AM anxiety wake-up calls. Instead, the goal was much simpler. I wanted to pick something to focus my attention on — a home base if you will. My home base could be anything; my breathing, a physical sensation, a particular sound, even trying to hold an image in my mind. However, I wasn’t supposed to try to avoid letting my mind wander. Instead, I was supposed to simply let those thoughts, sensations or feelings just… happen.
If I discovered that my mind was wandering or thoughts were intruding, I would simply notice it. The same held true for any distractions. I would take the sound of Mr. Senior Kitty yelling for treats, construction down the street, people doing yard work, observe it and accept it. It wasn’t a big deal. As soon as I noticed it, I was to return my attention to my focus.
The goal was to build my sense of equanimity; that feeling of “hey, it’s all cool. It’s all ok.” Instead of trying to force them away, I would simply let the thoughts, feelings or distractions drift by, like a balloon.
As it turned out, this was harder than expected. At least, at first.
He’s The Brains, I’m The Muscle
One of the first things I learned about meditation this time around was, oddly, the key that unlocked the entire process for me. Meditation, much like willpower, was about treating your focus like a muscle.
When you go to the gym for the first time, you aren’t going to be throwing plates and lifting like The Rock.
You build strength and endurance over time, through repetition and practice. The fact that you’re using lighter weights isn’t a sign that you’re weak, it’s a sign that you’re just starting out. The more you work those muscles, the more they grow in strength over time. You can see the improvement as you go.
Meditation works on the same principle; you aren’t going to be absolutely perfect right at the start. You build the “muscles” that come from meditation one day at a time. Instead of being upset or stressed that you aren’t meditating “correctly” or getting it “right” because hey, you still have thoughts, you treat your practice as building a muscle.
I mean, it can be hard to give something your full and undivided focus for long periods at a time. Hell, that’s one of the reasons I went in for an ADHD screening in the first place. But the point of meditation isn’t to focus like a laser on your mantra or your breathing or what-have-you. It’s stillness. You aren’t trying to turn every neuron in your brain towards one single thought. All you’re trying to do is to relax your mind. You’re taking all of those screaming thoughts and anxieties and saying “shhhhh”.
Focusing your attention on your breath or that nonsense phrase is just about quieting the thoughts by stepping away from them. And when you notice that your mind is wandering, that you’re having thoughts or feelings, you simply notice it and bring your attention back to your focus.
Each time you notice that you’re having those thoughts? That’s strengthening the muscles of awareness. You’re letting yourself be aware that you’re having thoughts without getting occupied by them. When you bring your attention back to your focus, then you’re working your concentration like a muscle. The act of coming back to your focus is, to strain a metaphor, like doing pull-ups or deadlifts; you’re exercising your concentration and strengthening it, so that you’re able to use it more effectively. Letting those thoughts just happen, without needing to believe them or interact with them or try to force them away? That strengthens your sense of equanimity, the feeling that hey, it’s all ok.
Even choosing to meditate, committing to a period of doing nothing, strengthens your ability to just relax. The same applies to not bracing against your feelings or emotions; you are simply letting yourself be. It’s effort without effort.
And just like when we lift weights, the benefits of exercising those mental and emotional muscles continue after you’ve finished meditating. After all, you’re continuing to use those muscles, even when you’re no longer at the gym. So it is with meditation; the equanimity, the focus and awareness that you’ve been strengthening keep working after you’ve meditated. Because you’ve been strengthening your focus, you’re able to apply it where and when it’s actually needed, instead of having to force it. The awareness and mindfulness continues through the day, helping you snap out of thoughts or feelings that threaten to overwhelm you.
Of course, all of this tends to make it sound like learning to meditate was easy and effortless.
Well… about that.
Some Days It Don’t Come Easy, and Some Days It Don’t Come Hard
One of the most important things I learned about meditating is that it isn’t just one thing. Just as with exercise, some days were easy and effortless. Some days… weren’t. In fact, there were a number of days where I couldn’t keep my focus to save my damn life. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of running; some days I could run a 5k without stopping. A couple days later, I could follow the exact same route at the exact same speed and be sucking wind before I reached the first kilometer.
So it was with meditating. I would have a lesson where everything made absolutely perfect sense. Other times, I would listen to the instructor and think “ok, what in pluperfect fuckery does that mean?” I mean… what the hell does it mean to “go into a sensation?” How do I start going “deeper” into being aware that my fingertips were cold, or that I had a knot in my lower back that no amount of foam rolling was releasing? Trust me, if I were any more aware of this shit, I’d be turning off the app and applying some Tiger Balm so I could think clearly for half a minute.
One day, I was so in tune with my focus that I lost track of time; when the instructor’s voice came back, it was so jarring that it felt like a myoclonic jerk. Other times, my brain was a non-stop distraction factory, with a virtual parade of thoughts, daydreams and random mental cruft.
But, as it turns out, even the bad days were part of the process. They were, in their way, a learning process. Those were days that helped me practice being ok with my thoughts and emotions; accepting that I was having thoughts was a way of strengthening my equanimity. Being aware that I was having them helped strengthen my attention. Learning to not brace against those thoughts or feelings helped me learn to relax.
Just as importantly, it was teaching me a lot about myself. One of the exercises in awareness was to get curious about the kinds of thoughts and feelings I would have. Where did my mind go when I was meditating? I didn’t find much use for a lesson in being cool with not having answers because that wasn’t where my head would go during meditation. Instead, I either would drift off into random daydreams, meta-thinking, or planning what I would do next. Like, say, how I would write this up on Twitter afterwards.
Being aware of the kinds of thoughts I was having, told me more about myself. That, in turn, made it easier to pop out of them, return to my focus and give myself permission to just let ’em go for now. And just like that: the thoughts would fade. The things that were so important that they demanded my attention right then would drift off, like those balloons. If I needed to, I could always return to them. But more often than not… I didn’t need to.
Which, in and of itself, was a pretty important lesson.
Eye of The Hurricane/ Listen To Yourself Churn
Back when I wrote “Better Dating Through Mind Control“, one of the things I mentioned about meditation was that about learning how to put a leash on your brain. While I’m sure that there’re meditation practices that do precisely that, I found this was… less than helpful in my own life. Trying to control my raging thoughts and anxieties was, for me, profoundly unproductive. This was, after all, what I was doing already, and it wasn’t working. When I’d wake up at 4 AM, with an obsessive worry — I’ve run out of ideas forever, here’s what I did that surely made this person hate me for all eternity, here’re all the responsibilities I’ve been neglecting and did I mention that I needed to come up with CONTENT right the hell now? — I’d try to out-yell it.
Strangely enough, that didn’t work. Neither did trying to force my brain to other thoughts, including just straight replaying movies or scenes from TV in my head. Eventually, I’d give up, grab a book and just read until sleep didn’t return so much as sucker-punch me into oblivion. Or I’d realize that it was now 7 AM and I had to get up; whichever came first.
As it turns out, trying to force my brain into silence was less than helpful. What meditating taught me this time around was that rather than trying to leash my thoughts, what I needed to do was to simply let them pass through me. To observe them and realize that I was getting lost in them. By observing that I was having them, I got distance. By getting distance, I could realize that just because I was thinking it or feeling it, that didn’t mean I needed to accept it. I certainly didn’t need to believe it was true, or act on it. And by separating myself from those expectations and staying in the space of “I’m having a thought, but I’m bigger than my thoughts”, those thoughts or feelings would almost always pass.
That, in and of itself, was an amazing revelation; I had been spending all this time and emotional energy fighting thoughts that were ultimately passing fancies. Resisting those thoughts was like trying to walk with every muscle in my body tensed at once. If I let them pass through without engaging with them, I was finding the quiet part of the storm. Instead of having to ride out the maelstrom I could sidestep it entirely.
That same awareness — how much time and energy I spent fighting a thought — applied to other areas of my life too. Meditation, as it turns out, is surprisingly good for encouraging self-compassion. Being aware of negative self-talk, of being crueler and harder on yourself than you would be on friends, even just being aware that you’re having a hard time gives you the same opportunity to step outside of it. You become aware of those feelings, and rather than fight against them… you accept them. You don’t approve of them, you just note that you’re having them. As you do so, you can focus on active compassion.
As weird as it sounds, stepping outside your thoughts for a moment and wishing yourself well, sending yourself strength and simply treating yourself with tenderness actually helps. The sense of someone wishing you well, even if it’s yourself, actually does make you feel better. Not only does it let the mental and emotional muscles unkink, but it can give you that sense of calm and ease that lets things fade. And in doing so, you help your other relationships. After all, the negativity you’re directing at yourself never stays with yourself. It inevitably leaks out, and almost always ends up getting directed at other people too.
Your own anger or frustration at yourself leads to lashing out at others or simply treating them carelessly… and that just makes you feel worse. Stepping out of those thoughts lets you treat yourself with the same care that you would give to your friends.
Acceptance of those feelings doesn’t mean you’re approving of them. It doesn’t mean that you are ignoring them. It just means that you’re aware that you’re feeling them. But by acknowledging that you’re feeling them, you give yourself distance. With that distance comes clarity. With that clarity, comes peace.
This Is Your Brain On Meditation
So. Here we are, after more than 30 days of meditation. What did I get out of all of this?
To start with: a lot of self-awareness. Learning to be aware of my thoughts — the shape of them, the direction, the things my brain would latch onto — gave me insight into just where my head was at. That awareness meant I could step back and ask: “so, what exactly is my brain trying to tell me?” And just as importantly: “Is this actually useful to me in some way?” A lot of times, the answer was “no”.
That meta-thinking or pre-planning? That wasn’t making my day easier; it was just my brain’s attempt at alleviating anxiety. Plan this out NOW and you won’t freak out later when you need to work and you’re drawing a blank. Those anxieties at 4 AM? Those were momentary worries that would fade on their own if I let them, instead of treating them like a problem that needed to be solved. But by trying to reason them away or shout them down, I just drew my attention to them even further, making them that much more present, that much more significant. Now, instead of trying to force them away, I shift my focus. I notice the feelings, I accept them and then turn my focus to a sound, like my white noise app. The feelings fade away and I usually drift back to sleep before I’ve even realized it.
I’ve also noticed that I’m a lot calmer and more at ease than I’ve been in months. It’s not that the pandemic weighs any less on my mind or that I’m no longer an extrovert stuck at home, all day, every day… it’s just that I’m able to just accept things a little more easily. I ain’t Buddha by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve cleared out a little space in my emotional bandwidth. I can find the calm, quiet places and get some peace.
At the same time, I’m better able to apply my focus when and where I want to. I started taking medication for my ADHD about 2/3rds of the way through the meditation challenge and that is life-changing in and of itself. But one thing that’s notable is that while the medication helps my brain function like it’s supposed to, I still have to make a point of choosing what I want to focus on and when. Exercising my attention and focus muscles through meditation has made it easier to give my full attention to something and hit that flow state when I need to.
But more than anything else, things are just… quieter. If ADHD medication is like putting glasses on your brain, as my friend Dr. Liz says, then meditation is like putting noise cancelling headphones on it. I can still “hear” those thoughts or feelings, or even outside disruptions, but they’re distant, quiet. I can put them aside and just commit to ten to twenty minutes of nothing. No agenda. No urgency. Just some time to let everything relax, unkink and unclench and just be. That moment of stillness helps get me centered. When I’ve finished, I’m ready to tackle my day.
That moment of stillness is probably the most critical benefit I take away from it all. It’s like when you’re stuck at one part of a video game. You replay that boss fight or that level over and over again and just get more frustrated until you’re ready to test the physical integrity of your controller by doing the Dry Wall Chop.
But when you take a day off, then come back… suddenly, you’re able to beat that level with ease. Meditation, for me, helps give me that time to release and relax all those muscles, pop out of those anxieties and thoughts and move freely again.
Meditation is, ultimately, a practice of being ok. I’m imperfect; that’s ok. The pandemic and the election… these are all causing stress. That’s ok, too. As the wise man once said: there’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Finding that acceptance, that sense of “things are, that’s all” gives you the calm and ease you need, so you’re no longer fighting against yourself.
It seems so simple. And to an extent, it is. But sometimes a little moment of “shhhhh” is what you need to find the peace you’ve been missing.