“Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
I felt everything, from my lower back pain flaring up to tightness in my jaw where I clinch and carry my stress. With my eyes still closed, I rolled my shoulders and repositioned the pillow under my butt. Five minutes had passed, and I had no idea how I would ever make it to forty.
I opened my left eye to see if anyone around me was fidgeting as well and saw rows of people sitting in perfect, cross-legged lotus position with straight necks and relaxed jaws next to me.
Our teacher, mindfulness author David Richo, sat in front, a relaxed calm floating around him like morning mist. I sighed, shut my eye again, and tried to concentrate on not concentrating so I could make it through the rest of the group meditation.
Once I remembered that I’d forgotten to pick up my dry cleaning and that I still hadn’t called my best friend back, I relaxed a little more and tried to just “be.” I heard a rooster crowing in the wilderness above the Spirit Rock property, noticed it, and let it go. I re-recognized the back pain and let that go as well.
Next, I heard what sounded like a cross between a snorting pig and an old rusty shed door opening up. The crackling sound lasted a couple of seconds before it caused my body to jerk and jolt both of my eyes open.
I looked around confused. No one else moved, and I realized that the sound had come from my nasal passages. I had fallen asleep and snored on or around the twenty-seven-minute mark.
Mortified, I clasped my hand to my mouth, shut my eyes tight, and prayed to disappear. So much negative talk flooded my brain, I had to stop it right down at, “You suck at this. Who are you trying to be here, Michelle?”
I nervously picked up my notebook and reread what David had taught us that day. To be healthy, we must be kind and patient with ourselves.
I took a deep breath and remembered that my meditation skills were new, and that forty minutes simply might have been too much to expect at that particular time in my life. Despite my attempts at self-compassion, my cheeks still burned with red embarrassment.
I didn’t feel like trying again, so I sat quietly and continued to review my notes from Richo’s lecture while the rest of the group finished. I pined over the snore for the remainder of the afternoon and found it impossible to simply love myself for being human.
In Eat, Pray, Love, Liz Gilbert writes about spending entire days struggling to meditate at an Ashram in India. I remember, when the book came out, reading a FAQs page on her website where she addressed questions and encouraged beginners not to start out at the ashram. Hours of meditation are difficult even for experienced meditators. Forty minutes is still hard for me.
What I have found is that I am much more comfortable practicing small doses of meditation throughout a day, rather than forcing myself to plan extended stretches that make me so anxious, I end up avoiding the meditation all together. Even just two minutes can make a tremendous difference.
Meditation and yoga force us to sit with ourselves. That means we sit with anything we are avoiding, as well as anything that is hurting us mentally and/or spiritually. I have a tendency to avoid feeling discomfort.
So, sitting still is incredibly counter-intuitive for me and, I believe, many other people. By going easy on myself with how long I “should” sit, I am more likely to sit at all.
Through practicing short meditations, I have seen the positives in my life grow and the negatives decrease.
I’ve cultivated more self-compassion through meditation. The more I can get quiet and turn the Michelle who is a “human-doing” off, the gentler I am with myself. By giving myself the time to be still, even if it’s for two minutes, I am showing self-love and learning to become more comfortable in my skin. In that stillness, I am able to see where I am self-critical in a clearer way.
For instance, in meditation, I often criticize myself for not being able to quiet my mind enough. I also look at what I didn’t accomplish that day rather than what I did. Inside of the practice, I am given the space to see these things so I can bring compassion to my critical mind and practice loving kindness instead.
Acceptance of Discomfort
When I can sit with painful feelings, I usually realize fairly quickly that the wolf at the door wasn’t as big as I thought. Meditation reminds me that I am more than capable of handling the thing I am dealing with.
Some of the biggest discomfort I encounter is related to conflict with others. Even if the problem is small, like when I had to ask my guitar teacher to stop texting during our lesson last week, I still feel uncomfortable. My teacher kindly apologized, and once again I remembered that conflict is part of life. Meditation helps me to approach conflict with grace and to remind myself that the world isn’t going to end if someone reacts negatively when I speak up.
Pronounced pain, like disagreements with family members, takes more time for me to process. The strength that’s grown out of facing that pain through meditation, has helped me to approach uncomfortable emotions with less fear.
Compassion for Others
Sometimes when I meditate, I send out positive energy toward people I’m not super fond of. I bring compassion for them into my body and out into the universe, and I feel less pissed off as a result. I wish for them the best of everything, and this often helps me to let go of the thing I was mad about in the first place.
I don’t understand why this happens, but it does, and holding as little negative energy as possible eases tension and makes me gravitate toward the next meditation.
Ability to Pause
The more I meditate, the more I am able to pause in tough real-life situations where I might have reacted in the past.
Road rage comes to mind here. Most of us have gotten mad at someone else’s driving skills at some point. What I think about now in the pause is that I don’t know what the other driver is going through or who else is in the car. I usually have no context as to why they are driving the way they are. Where I used to honk, now I can wait and calmly move around them.
A yogi once told me, “Imagine that driver is a cow standing in the parking space you want. You would probably laugh and just find another space. When it’s a person, why do we suddenly rush to honk and yell?”
Meditation simply makes me calmer. It is far from perfect, but it has given me more of a capacity to marinate before I respond to sticky situations.
Meditating reminds me that I am a tiny part of an incredibly larger whole. My problems feel smaller when I can stop and remember that I am a grain of sand in a giant universe. The practice puts life, and my place in the world, into perspective.
It really doesn’t take much to experience these benefits. Two minutes of meditation can make a huge difference. Focus on your breath. When you think of or hear something, notice it, and then get back to your breathing. See how you feel, and then, if you’re able, work your way up.
You can sit quietly, or you can also listen to the myriad of guided meditations available through YouTube, iTunes, and many other platforms. Sometimes it helps in the beginning to listen to a nice soft voice telling you what to do.
There are also meditations that include cool music with those bowl sounds as well. Just make sure the sounds aren’t so relaxing that they put you to sleep and then you snore in front of 200 people. Let it go, Michelle.
I could be better and more consistent with meditating. I could also harness more self-compassion and less negative self-talk. I know that the more I meditate in short increments, the closer I will get to achieving these things.
About Michelle Kennedy
Michelle Kennedy is a writer, speaker, and adjunct communications professor in San Diego. Her first book, Don’t Pee in the Wetsuit: A Worldwide Romp Through Grief, Laughter and Forgiveness, is about grieving the loss of a parent on a rollicking trip around the world. A former journalist, Kennedy also acts, hosts, and coaches writers and on-camera talent. You can learn more about Michelle and her writing at: mkennedywriter.com.