Meditating Through the Storm

The topic of meditation came up at a family dinner at my in-laws’ place last week. My father-in-law asked me and my brother-in-law what the point is, what we gain from it, and straight away I blurted out some Buddhist theory – about seeing the nature of reality as it really is, the arising and passing of everything, the suffering, egolessness. Bla bla bla.

But I’ve been thinking about it since then, as I tend to do, and I’d like to revise my answer: Perhaps the greatest gift for me from my practice has been learning how to be mindful through stormy times.

I learned this early on in my practice, when I was suffering from regular panic attacks. Sometimes meditation helped calm my frazzled mind, and other times it seemed to trigger anxiety – tightness in my chest, panicked feelings, sweaty palms, etc. Somehow I pushed through – and I’m so glad I did – and eventually I found myself able to sit through an entire panic attack, to really watch it. Meditating through this thick, surreal sense of doom helped me to pull it apart and see it for what it was – what everything is when it comes down to it – a series of feelings. A ping-pong between the mind and the body. A set of physical sensations, emotions and thought patterns that, when they occur together, make up the experience of anxiety, of a panic attack.

Don’t get me wrong yeh, these were fucking horrible experiences. But from them I learned that everything comes and goes – even when it feels like you might die any minute. Like the world is going to end. I learned that if I can look anxiety straight in the eye, identify its different parts and how they ebb and flow, it’s a little bit easier to handle. It won’t go away entirely, but its grip over me is that little bit looser.

There’s a misconception about meditation, I think; that it’s meant to be calm and relaxing, with no thoughts or unpleasant sensations. For me, often the opposite is true. The majority of my practice involves sitting on my ass, eyes closed, watching my mind jumping around and thinking all sorts of crazy shit. Observing uncomfortable emotions bouncing off these thoughts. Aches and pains coming and going. Tingles. Tangents. Tension.

The point is not what’s going on. The point is watching it. Disentangling the sense of “me-ness” from the present experience and taking a minute or 20 minutes or an hour to just watch it all.

But the real point – the superpower – is bringing this understanding into everyday life.

Last night on a call with a potential client I received an answer that wasn’t what I was looking for. At first disappointment arose, and then something darker, a feeling like we’d been played. Noticing it right as it was happening helped me to choose how I worded my next sentence – this is a strategic client and letting these feelings seep through probably wouldn’t have been the most professional move. I’m sure that if I hadn’t been mindful at that moment, my knee-jerk reaction to that feeling of being “had” would have gotten the better of me.

Similarly, I pulled something in my lower back earlier this week, and have been in a bit of pain the last few days. When I’m on autopilot, it feels like everything hurts, like all I want to do is flop on the couch. But when I’m aware, I can isolate the pain, notice how it comes and goes, and more importantly – find the right way to hold myself so I’m in as little pain as possible. And a gentle yoga practice – another fantastic example of meditation in motion – has been helping to stretch my back out without aggravating it too much.

To me, these are the real fruits of the practice. Mindfulness that arises spontaneously, during stuff that sucks, and lights the way.

Bottom line – surprise surprise – I like meditation.

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