Our house has a spare bedroom. When we first moved in, it was my office. When Paula’s apartment burned down, it became her daughter’s bedroom. By the time her daughter moved out, I had relocated my office to the basement, so the spare room became a space in limbo- a collection spot for suitcases, filing boxes, Littlest Pet Shops and mate-less shoes. The door stayed closed, and the clutter out of view.
For my Chanukah gift, Paula gave me a sanctuary. She cleared the spare room of its junk and furnished it with a yoga mat, a candle sitting on a small apothecary’s chest, and a bamboo plant. My favorite of her paintings hangs above the candle. That’s it.
I couldn’t imagine a better gift. I’ve wanted to reincorporate meditation in my life for some time, and now I had the perfect space for it: quiet, uncluttered, a place to focus my mind. I was overjoyed. But then, the epiphany: I had also been stripped of my last good excuse, left alone to wrestle with my attention deficit and my Aries personality.
Uh… the cat ate my meditation suit?
Meditation does not come naturally to me. There isn’t a mellow bone in my body. My mind races forward in planning mode, and backward in replay mode, but rarely rests in the present without determined effort. I worry, I stress, I panic, I project. I overreact, and I rationalize it. Nothing says I love you like hysteria, I say.
Many years ago, when I decided to engage an executive coach, I was tasked for the first time with meditation as a formal exercise. He recognized the toll that stress and distraction were taking on my effectiveness as a leader. I had expected to be taking personality tests and reading books like Built to Last – but instead, he handed me Full-Catastrophe Living and put me on a 2-week media fast. No NPR, no CNN, no OMG. The next step was to begin a regular practice of meditation and yoga. I loved yoga, but I would make almost any excuse to avoid meditating. It just seemed so hard, and I couldn’t even count it as exercise.
In 2010, I reengaged with meditation through a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The UMass Center for Mindfulness describes MBSR as a complementary health and wellness treatment:
Mindfulness is a way of learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life, a way of taking charge of your life, a way of doing something for yourself that no one else can do for you — consciously and systematically working with your own stress, pain, illness, and the challenges and demands of everyday life.
It was a particularly stressful time in my life, and I needed to get a handle on the effect stress was having on me and on my kids. For 12 weeks, I meditated, did body scans, practiced yoga, and met weekly with a group of people committed to doing the same. I kept it up on the premise that if you’re going to pay for a class, you might as well do the homework. It was hard work. But one ordinary day, I was in the kitchen, in the midst of the morning crush to get the kids out of the house before my first meeting. Leah was refusing to put on her shoes. As she ran up the stairs with a pair of underwear on her head, I felt the flush of outrage- the clock ticking toward my 8AM call, and this 4-year-old refusing to accept my absolute sovereignty. I felt it in the tightness of my jaw and the surge of heat under my skin. Noticed it. Observed it.
And breathed. And calmed down.
This incredible act of self-control went unnoticed by the rest of the world. But for me, it was a life-changing moment. For more than four decades, I had dismissed my propensity for shock and awe as immutable. I had tried to compensate for it by working extra hard and being extra charming at other times. In a moment, everything changed. Meditation had rewired me to put space between stimulus and response.
I still don’t have a mellow bone in my body. My DNA remains a tightly-coiled double helix. But my sense of resignation has been replaced by resolve. The practice requires effort. But the effort is worth it.
At 6:00 this morning, I fed the cats, retreated to my spare room, lit a candle, sat down, and breathed. It was only for 20 minutes. But that is better than nothing.
I intend to do it again tomorrow.