A couple of years ago I found myself in a very stressful situation. My husband and I had been dealing with the lengthy illness and recent death of a parent (while I was finishing grad school), the cancer diagnosis of another parent, and the sudden loss of someone very special to us. We were also in the process of moving our home, lives and jobs to a new state to be closer to family. There was so much to do, and so very much to worry about.
I’ve always been prone to anxiety. Even as a kid, I worried. So when I experienced a full-blown adult life crisis, it’s not surprising that I didn’t cope well. It’s incredibly exhausting to be on the verge of a panic attack 24/7. I was barely sleeping or eating. My face took on a permanent look of weariness. I developed two (benign) tumors on my thyroid. Something had to change.
I’d already been working out. Luckily, I figured out in my mid-20s that exercise is an essential component of my good mental health. My tiny hamster brain needs to get exhausted enough that it can rest for a few moments. But exercise just didn’t seem to be enough to counter the tension I carried with me during that extended period of traumatic stress.
There was a little yoga studio, one with a funny name, located not far from where we lived. The studio’s website mentioned their meditation sessions ($5), which took place every Friday evening at 6:00. After one particularly horrible week, I finally bit the bullet and went. The class was in a run-down office building, with a laundromat and a Chinese restaurant on the downstairs level. I climbed to the second floor, noting the stained carpet under my feet, and found the room number I’d typed into my phone’s notes. I opened the door and walked in.
In the small foyer, a man and a woman were having a conversation. They obviously knew each other well, based on the familiar way they spoke to each other. When the woman noticed me, she quickly came over and introduced herself with a big hug. Linda was her name, and she made me feel instantly at ease. Linda showed me around, told me to take off my shoes, and led me to a circle of chairs in a large room with a stack of yoga mats off to the side.
Over the next few minutes a motley assortment of people started trickling in. We were all so different – old, young, black, white, tired, eager, sad, well-dressed, in work uniforms. Some kept their eyes closed, others talked quietly.
When it was time for class to start, Linda turned on soothing background music and began leading us into a meditation. She walked us through getting ourselves comfortable by imagining each body part relaxing. From head to toe, we pictured our bodies becoming loose and limber. Then Linda informed us that there was going to be silence for the next hour. I almost panicked. An hour may as well have been a year to me, with my overly busy brain. She said we should try and keep our thoughts on our breathing as much as possible and that if we got distracted, just to keep pulling things back to the breathing.
During that first class, my mind raced a lot and it was a struggle not to fidget. Somehow that hour passed and the welcome sound of a bell chiming alerted us to “wake up”. As if. But next, Linda guided us through a few simple stretches and as she did so, she instructed us to send positive and healing energy to everyone who needs it. Any person or any animal in suffering, anyone at all across the globe who was in need of help – we were to mentally direct our comforting thoughts to them as we gently stretched.
At the end of class we went around the circle and took turns announcing our names to the group. After each person said their name, the rest of the class bowed and thanked them one by one. I’d never felt such a deep connection with a group of seemingly “different” strangers than I had in that quiet 90-minute class. I left feeling blissfully tired and energized at the same time.
So I went back the next week, and the next. Each time, I spent less of the meditation hour fretting and more of it focused on trying to heal the ills of the world with my very thoughts. Feelings of true love radiated from me as I mentally comforted real and imagined people and animals around the world who were in pain. If my focused thoughts could diminish their anguish for even one brief moment, it was worth it. I was making a difference.
Over the course of several weeks, something funny happened. I started feeling a deep sense of well-being, as well as a peace and genuine gratitude, that I’d never in my life experienced. I was calmer and less irritable in my daily life. My friends and family even noticed. My thyroid growths “went away” – I won’t claim that meditation cured them, but the reduction in stress probably did lots of amazing things to my body that I wasn’t even aware of. That period was one of the most content of my life, even though there was so much turmoil surrounding me.
We moved away and I haven’t yet found a group meditation that has affected me as deeply as Linda’s weekly Friday classes. It’s possible to meditate on your own, and there are plenty of apps and other resources to help you, but it was the group connection that made all the difference to me.
I encourage anyone who’s been curious to give meditation a try. Find a class, a book, an app… whatever it takes you to get started on your way to a more peaceful, positive life. Give it some time and see where meditation can take you.