March Mindfulness is Mashable’s series that examines the intersection of meditation practice and technology. Because even in the time of coronavirus, March doesn’t have to be madness.
I went to my first guided meditation class two years ago, at a studio in New York City called Inscape. I was there covering a smartwatch launch; the meditation part of the event wasn’t mandatory. I could have opted out, but none of the other reporters did. Peer pressure is a powerful force.
So we went into Inscape’s dome, its LED lights scattered throughout the ceiling and walls, and sat cross-legged on cushions. The room dimmed and a recorded voice instructed us to “close your eyes and feel your breath.” The speakers were quite loud, thankfully; no one could hear me when I let out what I hoped was a discreet laugh.
Everyone else had their eyes closed too, so they couldn’t see that I kept mine open. I couldn’t bring myself to close mine, at least not at first. I couldn’t bring myself to trust that everyone else was doing it.
The fact is, I suffer from a couple of conditions meditation is supposed to help with: anxiety and occasional bouts of depression. But I felt my coping strategies could work. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 outbreak that I changed my mind.
How I used to cope
I can trace the start of my anxiety back to the second grade when my brother was running late to pick me up; I walked home and found myself locked out of the house, with no neighbors home. My parents’ solution was to give me my own house key so it could never happen again. Still, to this day, I have a fear of being stranded. Call it a mild case of athazagoraphobia.
The depression can be traced back to high school, when I suddenly became a target for taunting in my friend group (which I’ve since realized is called … bullying). I’d come home from school, close my bedroom door, and sleep for 12 hours. My parents’ solution: Talk through my feelings, and exercise.
I’ve since relied on exercise any time I’m feeling down, most recently with a loaner Peloton. But I’ve never been very good at the “talking through my feelings” part. I suppress them and move on. But my mom can tell. Whenever I’m struggling emotionally, she senses it in my voice. I act like an asshole as she attempts to pull it out of me, which could be another clue there’s something wrong.
These seemingly intractable problems are why I’ve always rejected meditation. I was convinced the practice was for people who already had it easy in life. I believed in the stereotype that it was about emptying your head of thoughts. If you’re really struggling, I thought, no way is it possible to just sit there and clear your mind.
I’ve since learned what meditation is really about: recognizing the fact that those thoughts exist, and accepting the fact of them without letting them swallow you whole.
My journey to discovering that, however, was hardly a glamorous one.
At the beginning of March 2020, I found myself back inside the Inscape dome. This time, I was on a mission: reporting this story, doing my best to prove that meditation is a sham. To do that, I had to immerse myself in it.
My personal situation wasn’t the best. Last November I went through a really tough breakup, and by December I’d started to experience panic attacks in the middle of the day. The holidays made everything worse. My mind would start racing and I’d find myself crying in the bathroom stall at work. Again, I was a total jerk; my mood swings were off the charts. At one point I overheard my roommates talking behind my back; one said I was “literally angry at everything.”
But I relied heavily on the aforementioned coping mechanisms — lots of exercise, lots of emotional suppression — and figured I was doing all I could to ease my mind. By the time March Mindfulness rolled around, I felt way better. See, I thought, I can do this without meditation.
But as I sat there in that Inscape class, trying to focus on my breathing, I found myself holding back tears — and not the laughing kind. Every time I made an attempt to just stay in the present moment, my brain would do the opposite: listing everything that had gone wrong over the last few months.
For the first time, I was stuck in a room forced to confront my thoughts instead of suppressing them. The perfectionist in me was angered by my inability to just focus. That night, and the night after, I had terrible nightmares.
Still I ploughed on. I tried different meditation classes at Inscape, trying to find my comfort zone. There were guided sessions, unguided sessions, meditations where you sat upright, meditations where you lay down. I did one a day for a week straight, and was finally starting to become a little more comfortable each day — though it never got easy.
And then came the coronavirus.
As the outbreak began in New York, the entire Mashable staff was asked to work from home. My cramped Manhattan apartment isn’t the most work-friendly environment, so I packed up and headed to my parents’ home in New Jersey. That meant returning to my childhood bedroom, location of all that school-age trauma.
Suddenly, I had zero motivation to meditate. In Manhattan, I’d developed a daily routine that included meditation, and now the Manhattan routine was gone. In Jersey there was no end in sight to the shelter-in-place life, no sense of when our world would go back to normal, and I was scarred from the emotional rollercoasters of my last few sessions. So I took a break from practicing.
And then something weird happened. I found myself craving meditation.
Closet of sanctuary
As the pandemic became worse, so did my anxiety. I’d scroll through headlines full of deaths, layoffs, and horrific predictions. My father was furloughed from his job managing a car dealership —amazingly, people were coming in to buy cars until the end — and my family began to deal with the financial fallout from the pandemic.
One night, driving home from the grocery store, my stress boiled over. I had just found out my close friend’s dad was in the ICU after being diagnosed with COVID-19, and I was panicking about contracting the disease myself. My chest would tighten and I would question whether it was shortness of breath — a COVID-19 symptom.
So, I pulled over and closed my eyes. I started to take deep breaths, focusing only on exhaling and inhaling. After about ten breaths, I felt a little better.
I can’t attribute this change in behavior entirely to the Inscape classes. The day before, my editor sent a copy of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by the ABC anchor Dan Harris, a follow-up to his book (and meditation app) 10% Happier.
Like me, Harris has a “racing, Type-A” mind. Like me, he took his mood swings out on others. He explained meditation in a way my scattered brain could comprehend. It only took a few chapters for me to reframe my outlook on meditation, by realizing it’s just a form of breathing and focusing.
Then losing your focus, recognizing that, and trying again regardless.
From that moment on, I started using meditation as a tool rather than a practice. I created a little sanctuary in my childhood bedroom’s walk-in closet. It’s only a pillow and a blanket, but it allows me to feel safe and separated from the suddenly terrifying outside world.
Now, when I’m feeling anxious in the middle of the day, I’ll go into my sanctuary, open one of the many meditation apps on my phone (I prefer Inscape’s iOS app, since I’m used to their sessions by now) and breathe for five to ten minutes.
I still struggle, a lot. I’ll sit in that closet and think about my to-do list, check the time, open and close my eyes at random moments. Sometimes I get impatient and check how much longer I have until the session is over.
Do I come out of each session feeling like a new person? Definitely not. But I see its effects sneaking into my daily life, often at random moments. One time I was ready to raise my voice during a (somewhat) heated argument with my mom over something I can’t even remember, but which seemed really important at the time. Then my brain just automatically told me to take a deep breath.
Which I did. And I didn’t react. And I felt a lot better.
I’ll know its fully working when my parents and brother also notice a shift in my need to react — let us say passionately — to certain situations. Which will likely be never, but it’s nice to imagine.
While I no longer think meditation is a sham, I do think it’s important to emphasize that meditation is really freaking difficult. It sucks, and I’m always going to struggle with the practice.
However, I’m starting to succumb to the idea that it’s necessary, especially for my Type A personality. Especially during this time of crisis. Rather than going for a run to help forget what I’m feeling, I’m forcing myself to just sit and recognize that I’m feeling this way to begin with. And that it’s totally fine.
I wouldn’t say I’m in a relationship with meditation just yet. If we enter one, I sense it will be a love-hate relationship. But we are dating. And as you should do when dating after a bad breakup, I’m taking things slowly, letting meditation prove its worth day by day.