Confessions of a Reluctant Meditator
Nov 30, 2015 11:09AM
by Hetty Irmer, LCSW-CAs a person with a naturally active—and sometimes overactive—mind, I much prefer “doing” to “being”, any day of the week. I first started dabbling in meditation in my 20s. I remember sitting and trying desperately to quiet my mind and feel calm and serene. But instead of enjoying the vast expanse of an empty mind, I couldn’t stop writing a grocery list in my head.
It seemed to me that developing a daily meditation practice came effortlessly to some people. That is what I aspired to, but I kept faltering, and then feeling not good enough. I got to the point that the prospect of meditation would make me anxious, which kept me away from meditation for quite a while.
But then about 10 years ago, I learned about mindfulness meditation and went to some classes and even a few retreats. This type of meditation wasn’t about emptying my mind, and it didn’t mean that I was doing it wrong if I had a lot going on inside of my head. I discovered that in mindfulness meditation, I could use my own chatty brain as the cue to return to the present moment, rather than fighting with myself. Instead of striving for an ideal that just wasn’t my style, I began to give myself permission to do my best, one day at a time, and to simply begin again when I “fell off the wagon” and got lost in my thoughts during meditation—or too preoccupied with life to take the time to slow down and meditate at all.
And as a psychotherapist, I work with many people who struggle with busy minds—or worse, with very critical and negative self-talk. Their lives are negatively impacted by the intensity of their internal thought clutter and emotional overwhelm. For some, meditation quickly becomes a routine that they come to rely on, and they learn to trust that the thoughts, emotions and sensations that they notice while “sitting” are transient and will soon pass.
But for others, like my client Sophie (name changed to protect confidentiality), the benefits of meditation seem to be elusive. Sophie is a smart, professional woman in her thirties with a partner and two young children and a very active and anxious mind. When I suggested meditation to her as a way to gain some space from her sometimes intense thoughts and feelings, she said, “I’ve tried that before, and I can’t do it. I can’t quiet my mind.” Meditation was not for her, or so she thought.
Mindfulness meditation, simply put, is “awareness training”. The practice itself is like sitting on a hillside, watching a train go by. You let it pass by without getting on the “train of thought”. Initially, you might be surprised by the number of train cars (i.e., thoughts, feelings and perceptions) that pass through your awareness. Although it is inevitable that you will get “lost in thought,” over time you become more adept at letting the train pass by. You practice not judging the thoughts that occur but instead simply accepting them. Mindfulness creates space in life to give love, attention and time to yourself and others with greater awareness, acceptance and compassion.
After doing many guided meditations with me, Sophie began to notice what her body and mind were up to at any particular moment, just by shifting her attention from outside of herself to her “inside space”. She learned to trust that she could become aware of her shifting experience. We talked about the gift she is giving herself, by paying attention to herself without judgment. I define love as “paying attention”, and mindfulness meditation becomes an act of self-love whenever we choose to take a break from our busy lives and do it. Sophie has reported an improvement in her mood and less reactivity with her kids when they push her buttons. Her mind is still very active whenever she sits down to meditate, but she is receiving the benefits and feeling more confident.
My own practice of returning to meditation after a few days—or sometimes weeks—away is a “meta” practice of mindfulness. In the formal practice of mindfulness meditation, we are instructed to return to the breath when we notice that our thoughts, feelings or sensations have distracted us from the present moment. Likewise, I return to my meditation practice when I become aware that my habitual patterns of activity have distracted me from it. I go back to “day one” often, but now I do it without self-judgment. I simply keep coming back to it, and to myself, over and over again. I’m worth it. So is Sophie. And so are you.
Hetty Irmer, LCSW-C, is a therapist with more than twenty years of experience, helping women feel strong and brave in their lives. She also works with couples and offers groups as the owner of Four Corners Counseling, in Silver Spring. For more information, visit HettyIrmer.com.