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This Is What Happened When I Started Meditating (Again)

Shannon Harvey

I loaded up my app and listened to the experienced words of the meditation teacher who invited me to take a comfortable position and begin. She asked me to focus on my breath. In. Out. In. Out. And instructed that when I got distracted, to gently call my attention back to my breath. 

It was Day 14 of “My Year of Living Mindfully.” The idea came about when I admitted that after the birth of my second baby, I’d completely dropped my daily meditation habit. After the return of my stress-induced nail biting habit, my insomnia, and some troubling early warning signs that my autoimmune disease would flare, I knew I needed to get back on track. I've committed to meditating daily for one year and I’ve enlisted the help of an expert team of research scientists who will be tracking everything from my immune function, to my stress hormones, to my brain changes and cellular ageing.

Despite the teacher’s encouragement, I didn’t even get as far as the first Out before my mind was off and racing….What about that email? What about this week’s blog post? What about that kid who hit my kid yesterday. What a little brute. Oh shit. I’m meant to be meditating. Back to the breath. In. O… Geez, I’m terrible at this. I’m two weeks in, I should be better by now. Argh! Back to the breath….

Herein lies the first of the two things I’ve remembered about meditation. 

1. Meditation is really really hard
A common misconception about meditation is that it’s all about peace, love, lightness and organic bananas. Not true. It’s really hard to hold focus on just one thing, such as the breath, without judgement or distraction. Most beginners can’t get past the first breath without getting lost in another thought. It’s also, for me at least, wholly unpleasant. The voice in my head is really mean. Self-criticism is my thing and noticing this inner critic is awful. I’d much rather distract myself by working, or socialising, or watching television, or checking my phone, or anything else really. The hard work for me is to gently and kindly acknowledge that I’m distracted and then come back to my breath. 

This leads me to my second point.

2. Finding time to meditate is even harder
Given that meditation isn’t easy and is often unpleasant, and given that there are so many other things I need (or want) to do with my time, there is often little desire to prioritise it on my daily To Do list. I’m a full-time working mother with two young kids. From the moment I rise (or rather, the moment my kids rise), my days are jam packed with meals to cook, clothes to wash, a house to tidy, emails to write, meetings to attend, and errands to run – let alone finding the time to exercise, or get enough sleep, or spend quality time with my husband, or any of the other things health experts say I should do. 

So when meditation is hard and there are better things to do… why do it?

At this point, I’d usually list off a few science facts about how meditation has been shown to improve sleep and well-being, to boost focus and creative problem solving, and to even enhance your immune system, but I think by now most readers will have heard it all before. So instead of regaling you with science, I’m going to tell you about a moment. A moment that happened on Day 7.

I was on a plane returning home from giving a presentation interstate. With no access to the web or phone calls or anyone interesting to talk to, I loaded my app (I’m using 10% Happier) and followed the instructions. After about 20 minutes of the usual focus–distraction–self criticism tug-of-war, a sense of total contentment came over me. It started in my head and then flowed right through my body. 

I became completely present and free of my critical internal monologue. I could hear the white noise of the plane. I could sense the presence of the people sitting either side of me. I could feel my breath on my nostrils. In. Out. In. Out. Before this, each time I had practiced, “the moment” had been elusive, always slipping away in a fog of diversion and subsequent internal chastisement. But there, suspended in transit 39,000 feet above the earth, I was free of adjudication. There was nothing to do, nowhere to be, no problem to solve, or task to tick off. It all just, was. Finally, I had arrived. And it was awesome. 

The mediation teacher Sharon Salzberg, who’s course I’m currently doing within the 10% Happier app explains that the practice of being distracted, noticing the distraction and then beginning again without judgment is the practice. She says if we have to begin again a thousand times, that’s the whole point. 

“I think of what we do in the meditation as really the training ground for how we live. So many instances in any ordinary day, we’re called upon to begin again. We’ve made a mistake or something has not happened the way we anticipated it happening and we have to start over. We can spend endless periods of time lamenting the fact that we blew it or that things didn’t go so well, whereas actually the most effective, efficient way to get something done, or make progress, or succeed is to know how to begin again. And so, when we practice, we’re with the breath, our mind wanders, we bring it back and we are doing something tremendous right there.”
– Sharon Salzberg, 10% Happier App, "Less Distracted" 

So, despite the obstacles, I’m keen to keep meditating daily. I want to see if, with more practice, I can become better at “beginning again” without self-criticism. And while I’m not saying that meditation is for everyone, there are good signs that it is for me. Over the weekend on Day 10 of the project, I effortlessly experienced a similar sensation to what I’d felt on the plane. I was watching my children playing with a soccer ball in our backyard. Sun shining. Birds chirping. Happy kids. Total awareness. Totally delightful. 

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