Throughout my 10 years in recovery I have never successfully meditated. I struggle with a distracted and overcrowded mind. So do most people I know. Meditation likely would be helpful, but it’s always been easier said than done for me – not that I haven’t tried.
One night, years ago, I sat in a 12-step meditation meeting. The lights were dim in the basement room and I could smell someone’s hazelnut coffee. I settled into my chair in the back row. “Close your eyes. Focus on your breath,” the leader said. I followed her instructions, but my mind couldn’t stay with my breath. It continued to dwell on the frustrating situation at work that had inspired me to go to a meditation meeting in the first place.
Clear your mind, I thought, forget about work. “Relax and breathe,” I heard the leader say. I couldn’t get comfortable, so I half-opened one eye to see how the people in front of me were sitting. I copied the woman with an upturned palm on each leg. My brain continued to race. I shifted around in my chair. I felt inferior to everyone else in the room, all of whom, I assumed, had already found a state of bliss I would never achieve.
I tried to stop my mental wanderings through sheer force of will. I silently screamed at myself, “STOP THINKING! BE EXTERNALLY STILL AND INTERNALLY QUIET LIKE THE LADY SAID!” It was as effective as an umbrella blown inside-out in a storm. For the next 15 minutes, I continued, albeit quietly, to obsess over the work issue.
Another time, at the end of a hot yoga class, I laid in corpse pose, flat on my back and saturated in sweat on my soggy mat. The studio was old-school, with a thin pile carpeted floor. “Let go! Stay with your breath!” the instructor said into her headset. Instead, my mind drifted back to the girl I had seen spraying some kind of lemon-smelling freshener on the carpet of the room before class began. It must have been meant to address the sweat and body fluids the last class had left behind. Was that spray all they used to “clean” this carpet? Didn’t it need a lot more after each 90-minute session in a 105-degree room? I had heard about a guy who picked up a staph infection at his gym, likely through a cut he had on his leg. Did I nick myself shaving yesterday? Is my leg touching the carpet? Rosie O’Donnell almost died from a staph infection. Am I going to die? Who will come to my funeral? Again, it was not a successful session.
There were further attempts at meditation, but they all ended up the same way. Between the obsessive thoughts that held me captive when I tried to banish them, and the anger I felt with myself for failing, I usually found myself worse off than when I started.
I began to resent my fellow recovering addicts whenever they spoke of their meditation practices. Phrases like “life-changing,” “required for sobriety” and “the best part of the day,” were tossed out. There was a whiff of superiority in those comments that reminded me of people who are fanatical about a studio Spin class or can actually do a juice cleanse for five days. The one time I tried a juice cleanse, I didn’t make it to lunch the first day.
Then, in a seemingly random occurrence, three 12-step meetings I attended one week included the topic of meditation. Maybe I was getting a message. It reminded me of the rope in elementary school gym class that I could never climb. “Just keep trying!” I heard my gym teacher say. When I complained about being unable to meditate, someone suggested a guided meditation website that I could try. “It’s really good for people who say they can’t meditate,” she enthused. “The first sessions are only 10 minutes long!”
The next morning, I sat at the desk in my apartment, which right now happens to overlook an incredibly loud construction site. I figured the jackhammers would ruin it for me, even with headphones, but I gave it a go. How hard could 10 minutes be? I thought. Very hard, I learned.
But the instructor made it clear that I shouldn’t expect to transport myself into another state of being or peace. In fact, I shouldn’t expect anything from myself. I should just try for those 10 minutes to be present in the room and focus on my breath. When I felt my mind wandering, which was normal, I could gently bring it back to my breathing. “Gently” was the key word.
For me, there’s benefit in the simple exercise of being gentle and patient with myself. My natural instinct is to be a perfectionist. I expected to achieve a true Zen state the first time I parked myself on the chair. But not finding meditative bliss right away doesn’t mean I failed. I see that meditation is a practice, not a competition.
So, even though I’ll probably never be that person sitting in silence on a mountaintop with the wind blowing through my hair, I’ll keep practicing. Gently.