For years I wanted to practice meditation, but I continually failed. It felt out of my reach, like the cookie jar my mother placed on the top shelf when I was a child. I wanted the scientific benefits of mindfulness as much as I wanted those double chocolate chunk cookies, but I didn’t understand how to attain them. I couldn’t sit still for long periods of time, I had a hard time staying focused and I certainty wasn’t going to shave my head like a monk. I was about to renounce the practice all together when I heard a simple metaphor that changed my path.
Meditation is like sitting on the side of a two-way highway. You are calm and relaxed as you watch traffic flow freely. In this metaphor, every car that totters past represents a thought. For example, when you have a thought about family, food, love, etc., you imagine it’s a car moving along your highway.
Sometimes your highway is a beautiful place, Mulsanne Bentleys of love fly past, SLK Mercedes of hope glide by and it’s a pleasure to sit back and observe your luxury traffic. Other times Ford Pintos of stress trickle in from poor designed onramps and Pontiac Azteks sit in your fast lane, blissfully unaware that your love Bentley is trying to pass. So we run onto the onramp and try to stop the Pinto from merging, forgetting that our intention was to sit and observe. When we do this the rear-mounted fuel tank on our favorite Pinto catches flames and disrupts the flow of traffic for hours. However, eventually order is restored and we are back on the sidelines watching the cars plug along.
Now this metaphor can make meditation seem pretty easy, but I assure you it’s completely natural for it to be difficult. The temptation to change the flow of traffic can be overbearing, which is why this simple metaphor is so useful. When I used to meditate, I felt powerless. I hated that I “let” negative thoughts come up and had no idea how to remain unattached to them. This metaphor has taught me that it is ok to experience negative thoughts because highways are inevitably going to have all kinds of cars. Our power lies in learning how to observe the cars, rather then trying to change them. When we can learn to watch the cars, we can unlock the scientific benefits of meditation and mindfulness.
Before I get into the studied benefits of meditation, I want to talk about the biggest reward it has given me: the gift of presence. For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced stress. I used to wake up with raging headaches at the age of five because I compulsively and unknowingly ground my teeth in my sleep. In fact, it was so bad that I was embarrassed to go to sleepovers because I was often told I was “louder than a garbage disposal.”
My mind always seemed to be somewhere other than the present moment. When my mom placed my favorite chocolate chip waffles before me on my birthday, I was thinking about how I had forgotten an important paper at school. When I had my first kiss, I was thinking about how I was going to hide it from my friends because I was embarrassed that I was the first one to kiss a boy. I was consistently trying to change my traffic and because of this, I started to miss out on a lot of life.
When I began meditating, I found that the present moment could be very rewarding. Even the most simple tasks, like my morning shower, have completely changed. I used to roll out of bed, walk down the hall with my eyes half open and climb into my shower to wake myself up. Now I take my time down the hall, heel, arch, toe, heel, arch, toe and I’m amazed by how lightly I can tread on the earth. When I turn on the faucet, the sensation is almost overwhelming. As the warm water engulfs my body, I am aware of what the temperature feels like on my skin, I hear the birds chirping outside, I see my strong hands and I am lost and found in the present moment, all at the same time. What was once a simple bathtub shower has become a ship, transporting me to a different world where there are no external distractions, there is only me, here, enjoying every moment of it.
If the gift of presence isn’t a large enough reason to mediate, the clinically-proven benefits certainly are. Meditators have lower blood pressure than non-meditators and also experience higher levels of circulation. Meditation can help reduce chronic pain by 50% or more and has also been used to treat anxiety, depression, diabetes and hypertension. Brain scans also show that meditation can help individuals more readily use their left prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for enthusiasm, relaxation and happiness. Meditators react more calmly to emotionally arousing stimuli, have improved work habits and are more likely to have higher functioning in regions of the brain associated with memory and decision making.
So, when was the last time you did absolutely nothing? No email, eating, reading not even thinking about the future or past. When was the last time you let your mind become a highway? If it’s been awhile or possibly never, that’s perfectly ok. You can decided to set aside ten minutes today to watch the lanes of traffic. Yes, you’ll probably forget the exercise multiple times and try to control the flow, but that’s ok too. No matter the state of your freeway, the benefits of meditation and the present moment will find you.
Photo: Petras Gagilas via Flickr