Preface: This has been the most challenging blog post I have written in a while. I am sharing some things about my past that I have not shared with many people. I am not sharing these things as catharsis. It is more out of a hope that anyone who can relate to my experiences will be helped by my story.
I remember, as a child, hearing about meditation and being very curious about altering my state of consciousness. I sat alone in my room staring at a wall for a few minutes hoping something mystical would happen. I soon got bored and went back to playing Atari....probably Pitfall or Adventure.
I quickly dismissed meditation as something along the lines of magic crystals or tarot cards. It didn't seem worth the time. That view persisted for many, many years. Meditation simply had no appeal for me. Why would I want to sit and do nothing when there was so much to do?
The birth of my first child generated a love beyond my ability to comprehend. That profound experience opened my mind back up to many possibilities. It also, paradoxically, created a great amount of stress because I began taking a deep look within myself trying to figure out who I was and what I believed in. I felt like I needed to know these things if I was going to be worthy of the role of father. My life was no longer my own. I had to ensure that I was going to be the kind of father this wonderful being deserved.
Along with the stress of being a teacher and a new father, I was going through this existential crisis. What did I believe in? What was my purpose? What values was I going to pass along to my child? I could no longer turn away from these questions to play video games. They had to be explored because the answers were going to impact the being I loved most in this world.
I won't go into my personal spiritual journey, but I admit that it is hard to separate my spiritual journey from the psychological journey I began at that time. That psychological journey was incredibly difficult. I experienced periods of great anxiety that led to periods of depression. I experienced valleys of overwhelming fear and uncertainty as I tried to find a footing or place to anchor myself. That journey included a lot of reading and listening. I devoured books and podcasts on philosophy, religion, self-improvement, etc. I was searching for solutions....solutions that would satisfy my sense of reason while also providing me comfort from my fears....fear of death, fear of not knowing, etc. Many times the solutions that made me feel at ease conflicted with my sense of reason. Likewise, the concepts that seemed most reasonable often made me more anxious.
This exploration led me to meditation time and time again, and as the scientific community began affirming the MANY benefits of the practice, I began dabbling.
I recall one of my first attempts to meditate. It was during a time of great stress. I found that being alone with my stressful thoughts, with nothing to distract me, would magnify these thoughts and generate negative emotions. Despite that, I decided to press on. I thought about the times when I would restart a workout routine and how PAINFUL the first few weeks were as my muscles, heart and lungs became reacquainted with regular exercise. I didn't feel like it would be fair to evaluate meditation as a tool to manage stress unless I committed to practicing consistently over a long period of time.
As I practiced, I slowly began to understand how my mind worked. My mind would generate negative thoughts. I would typically critique myself about something that happened in the past or worry about something happening in the future. I would follow this thought, ruminate, and create my own stress. This would set off physiological responses that would leave me frazzled and wiped out. For the first time, I could see the stress-generating system from beginning to end. With this new vision, I learned strategies to short-circuit the system. The first of these strategies was to stop trying to suppress thought. This was counter-intuitive because I thought if I could just stop the thought, I could stop the stress, but I realized that the mind is AWESOME....I MEAN REALLY GOOD at GENERATING THOUGHTS, and the more creative one is the more terrifying these thoughts can be. Somehow, when I tried to suppress thoughts, my mind became even better at generating thoughts. So that was the first step. I had to stop trying to suppress thought. The next step was just as important as the first. I had to recognize thoughts as a thoughts and separate them from reality. I came to understand that while I could not suppress my thoughts, I could control my response to thoughts. I did not have to believe them. I had developed a habit of lending too much credibility to all of my thoughts and then following the thought down a rabbit hole into cyclical negativity, worry, and fear. I not only followed the thought, but I built upon it. I constructed scary, painful realities out of these thoughts until my mind accepted them as reality. My mind would then set off the alarm system and over time, multiple alarms left me exhausted, sad, and focused on the negative.
Try to remember a time when you were a child and you convinced yourself that there was a monster under your bed or a boogeyman in your closet. Your mind generated this fantasy, and if you believed in it enough, you could scare the crap out of yourself. Then you would cry for your mom. The problem is that the lies we tell ourselves now are not so obviously fiction and screaming "MOM!" is less effective than it was when I was six. The lies we tell ourselves seem plausible. "I am not a good person." "I am going to mess this up." "People think I'm incompetent." "I will never achieve my goals." The mind generates the thought. You buy it. You perseverate on the thought, and it branches off into other recurrent negative themes or stories that you have been constructing about the subject. Sometimes these are stories you have told yourself since childhood.. The thought gains momentum and solidity like a snowball rolling down a hill. You react to it as though it is real and you find yourself anxious or depressed.
Meditation has helped me deconstruct this process, and that has helped me deconstruct my stress. I am not pretending to be a zen master. I am still learning a lot about my mind, and there are times when my new tools fail me, but at least I have some effective tools to use. Sometimes I don't recognize this system at work until it has reached the massive snowball stage, but MANY, MANY times I have been able to cut the process off at its beginning stages. As a result, many thoughts that would have previously entangled me in a web of negativity have been gently swept away, allowing me to maintain a sense of peace and joy.
I am very passionate about sharing meditation because I see so much stress in the world. I see teachers, students, administrators, parents and many others who are being crushed under the weight of their stress. I see shootings that seem to be occurring almost daily in schools, malls and theaters. I see a broken government filled with politicians unable to see past their party or ideological identities to move our country forward. I see religious, racial, and cultural intolerance. I see violence and hatred based upon fear and ignorance.
This is not a world worthy of my children or yours. They deserve better. They deserve a world that is consumed with compassion more than competition. They deserve schools that value their hearts over their data. They deserve adults who value peace and equanimity over money and power.
I know that meditation could help in all of these areas, and it could be implemented NOW because it is free and requires no talents or prerequisites. Its benefits are universal and neither require or restrict any set of religious beliefs. Exercise and proper nutrition are proven to make our bodies healthier. Meditation is proven to provide us with greater mental health. Why wouldn't we use it?
My three children provide constant motivation for this work, work that I recognize must start with myself. For me, meditation has gone beyond a simple tool to relieve stress. It is helping me develop compassion, peace and a deep sense of connection to others. For me, the dive inside myself has been the most important journey I've ever taken. This website, my presentations, and my efforts in this area are all designed to facilitate that journey for others. If we can all summon the courage, we will find that the treasures we have been seeking externally can all be found within us.
NOTE: It would mean a lot to me to hear your reactions to this piece. Please feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.