FROM SKEPTIC TO ADVOCATE: MY PATH TO DAILY MEDITATION
I remember the first time my therapist suggested I start practicing mindfulness with little counting exercises and/or daily meditation. Poor sweet Dr. F was on the receiving end of an imperceptive eye roll, insincere smile and dismissive nod. In my defense, I was in my mid-twenties and barely 5 years off the plane from Boston where "that hippie shit" just didn't fly. Raised in an Irish Catholic household in a conservative Republican town in Connecticut, I wasn’t exactly primed to receive alternative approaches to stress management or behavioral change very well. As is the tradition in such circles, emotions are not to be indulged, feelings are not to be had, therapy is not to be invested in, meditation is for the birds.
When I walked into Dr F's office for the first time, I was on the fence about going to therapy at all; I was about 26 or 27 and I had yet to meet a therapist that helped ONE BIT with the depression or body image issues I battled all through my youth. But as stress at work, home and in life in general increased, I recognized it was becoming awfully tempting to return to old coping mechanisms (disordered eating, excessive exercise, and being obsessive about work or anything that allowed me to avoid feeling). I was very skeptical about therapy but I was also VERY tired of taking things out on my own body. I desperately wanted to change, evolve, move past the unhealthy coping mechanisms but I just didn’t know how.
Dr F was the first therapist that made me actually want to come back after the first few sessions. I am a solution oriented person - I see a problem, I want to fix it, I want to move on. Dr F's brand of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was perfect for me. He offered science-based explanations of my crazy, sometimes with helpful little charts that were the products of reputable studies. He gave actionable recommendations on how to change the patterns of behavior I had created. Together these things validated his analysis and suggestions in my eyes. He made me feel better about the idea of therapy in general. I trusted him. And then he broke out the singing bowl.
Thankfully we had built a strong rapport and a good deal of trust before this point, otherwise I would have thanked him for his time and left as soon as his Tibetan bells were done vibrating. Instead I stayed and we ended that session with a body scan, an exercise that anchors my meditation practice today, almost 10 years later.
Over the next 7 or so years, lots of travel, an unpredictable work schedule and my tendency to prioritize everything else over my own health and wellbeing made me inconsistent at best with my mindfulness techniques and with therapy. Dr. F had planted a seed, but I only occasionally watered it. I made the same mistake many people do: I didn't dedicate enough time and attention to mental and physical health until I had no choice but to do so.
I recognize now that I avoided taking meditation (and therapy) seriously for a long time because I had little interest in being truly aware of what I was actually feeling. In my twenties, if I had stopped long enough to listen to my heart, mind and body, I would have noticed that I was awfully homesick, anxious about my relationship, stressed about work, ignoring health red flags and deeply sad about what was happening to my family back east. That is a boatload of uncomfortable stuff that I didn't have any desire to "sit with" or "honor," as meditation encourages. It also felt smarter and safer to distance myself from any feelings that felt even slightly reminiscent of my own teenage depression, or the sadness, anger and unhappiness that swallowed my mother whole for days at a time when I was a child. I didn't want to feel like that lost little girl, or her mother. Not even for a moment. So I just kept going 90 mph, just fast enough to stay ahead of the past and pain I had no interest in entertaining.
Fast forward to a few years ago when I started experiencing uncharacteristic bursts of emotion that scared the living daylights out of me. I had a feeling they were hormonal, but with PCOS and no periods, it was hard to tell. I was experiencing frequent anxiety, random bouts of depression for the first time in years and a resurgence of disordered eating behaviors. There were also occasional surges of what can only be characterized as rage. I had lost my temper so few times in my life I could count them on my hand, but all of a sudden I'm the kind of person who throws a book at her husband? Do you know how scary rage feels to someone who has pretty effortlessly moderated, controlled or ignored her emotions since puberty, (beyond the occasional secret crying bout at work)? Scary enough to make you slow down, haul ass back to therapy and commit to working through things instead of around them.
I learned the hard way that regardless of how creative and resourceful you might be, you can't run and hide from your own emotions forever. If we fail to acknowledge, process and let go of the good, bad and ugly as it comes, our bodies and minds eventually reach a breaking point. It's simply too much for us to hold on to.
Around the time I returned to therapy and committed to regular sessions, I started seeking out resources (books, podcasts, articles, anything) on holistic or behavioral approaches to making sure I didn't throw any books at anyone anytime soon. Every single one of them, including my therapist, pointed me back towards mindfulness and meditation. I figured it was time to give it a real shot, and time to accept that the "hippie shit" might just be the tool that helped me navigate the feelings I didn't want to face in my past, present and hopefully future. Little did I know how utterly transformative it would be for me...
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 IN THIS SERIES
(To include a rundown on exactly how meditation has helped me and recommended resources)