Ah, meditation; such a loaded word for some of us. I called it the ‘foo-foo’ stuff my therapist feeds me, that my primary tried to get me to think about and even my Rabbi. I didn’t understand how you could not think and think at the same time. How to slow down my crazy mind, my temper, and my motormouth life.
Now I can mediate in the dentist’s chair on a really good day. I have given myself permission to change how I react through practice and a deep desire to be a better person. When I float in a pool and think of breathing, I grant myself permission to just exist for a few moments. It has helped me to understand that yes, I can meditate, and it is possible for everyone. It starts with really wanting to change how you think, with the ability to see a behavior in yourself that is negative and to make real changes away from those reactionary responses.
So how did I do it? How did I shut my mind down? I didn’t; I just learned how to control what I think. It’s not about “shutting down.” Rather, it’s about controlling thoughts, actions, and words. It is actually being more present in the moment. I can share the best thing that my therapist taught me, which was my lead into meditation, which really helps me feel better not just mentally but physically. It is the single most important aspect of my self-care. It is box breathing.
Think of a box with four sides. Imagine counting to five around each side. On the first side, inhale and count 1,2,3,4,5. Now on the next side, hold your breath and count, 1,2,3,4,5. Now exhale like you are blowing out a candle, and count 1,2,3,4,5. Now hold the exhale, and count 1,2,3,4,5. That is box-breathing. The counting keeps your mind from wandering into difficult places when all you are trying for is a moment of peace. It’s not shutting down; it’s conscious control.
I started out just trying to box breathe and count for maybe a couple of minutes. I had to actually think about pushing thoughts out of my head and just get back to deep breathing. 1,2,3,4,5 and hold 2,3,4,5, and breathe. You get the gist.
A distracting thought might come into mind, such as “I can’t believe I forgot to buy trash bags again,” and “Shoot! I needed paper plates,” the many things that we tell ourselves we need to put energy into and we don’t, at least not at this very moment. All human beings are the same in that we are our own worst critics and the biggest mouths in our lives.
We allow intrusive thoughts to steal our peace. When I first started, it was hard to just “be” and not think. I would get two minutes in and feel like I wasted a half-hour. That’s just part of it, feeling that it is “wasted time” when it’s not. In fact, I suggest that creating those moments brings peace and sanity. It does get easier if you make a habit of the practice. We can extend our lives by taking better care of what stressors we allow in our lives. Holding our own mental wellbeing is as we do our physical wellbeing.
Now I can meditate in the pool, my favorite spot to do so. I use a float under my head on the edge of the pool. The low end is perfect. I use the edge of the pool wall to hold my head in place. I hold the sides of the pool on either side of my head with my hands and start to just breathe and relax.
As I start to box breathe and count, I let my legs float, and my arms start to barely hold on. I allow my body to become limp. I actually think about my body as if I had a flashlight. Paying attention as it slowly shines on each area of my body, as it works its way down to my toes. I drop my shoulders, let go of the tension in my back and simply float. Breathing 1,2,3,4,5 and holding, relaxing my muscles and allowing the water to hold my body and not the other way around, imagining the warm water gently holding me, supporting me in the water.
It took a while to get it down, but now I can float and meditate for ten minutes, and that started out as only a minute or two. It does get easier and that helps it become more accessible on dry land around people. In those moments when the world seems to “peoply,” it’s become more natural to go there. To have confidence in slowing down. To quietly box breathe while those around me are none the wiser.
What I still struggle with is getting the “slowdown” to hit before anxiety runs a marathon out of my mouth. I think of it as muscle memory. The more I exercise my mind with meditation, the more accessible that skill becomes. When I work that into my pool exercises, it actually helps me move a bit more without increasing pain. I believe that so long as I stay in motion, I can keep my body out of the bed and engaged in life.
Remember when you learned to perhaps ride a bike, ice skate, or maybe drive a car? Everything you want to do, turn left or slow down, comes with thoughts on how. When we are learning, we are clumsy about it. We think about how much pressure we use with our feet. After some time, it’s something you do without thinking. Your body has become used to the skill and it has become easier.
Now I can get into that meditative place faster and with less thought. I think the change that I am working on the most is achieving greater control over what I do and say. A better ability to get past the anxiety-driven fight, flight, fear reactions, and gaining through that practice, more occurrences of peaceful reaction.
I am more at peace today than a year ago, and exponentially more than ten years ago. There is no “endgame,” but only the goal of living long, happy, and in the presence of laughter.