The first time I tried meditation, I thought it was a waste of time. I was an intern, and as usual, I had a long list of work to complete. I wanted to get my discharge summaries dictated, but instead, I was being forced to count my breaths. I suppose I did waste my time, since I spent the entire session stressing myself out over how much I had to do and how I would never be able to complete it all. Of course, I did everything I needed to do, but my agitated internal dialogue was not a motivating factor; it was a distraction.
Years later, I finally discovered the benefits of meditation. At first I was doubtful when I read that meditation could help with mood disorders, addiction, pain relief, insomnia, and weight loss, in addition to increasing productivity and joy. In fact, Headspace is currently working on FDA approval to designate guided meditation as an official medical treatment. I started using the Headspace app this year, just ten minutes per day. Similar to physical exercise, this mental exercise is not enjoyable at the time, but its benefits last all day. I have noticed increased kindness and patience for myself and for others. I intentionally pause to enjoy moments like bedtime snuggles with my boys who won’t be little for long.
Most of our suffering occurs when we are thinking about the past or the future. We may be experiencing shame about something we said or did. We may be experiencing anger over something someone else said or did. We may be anxious about a future meeting or conversation or overwhelmed with tomorrow’s to-do list. We may feel fearful over the possibility of a car accident, a cancer diagnosis, or a terrorist attack. Our thoughts can become habitual, neural pathways carved into our brains. We may find ourselves thinking the same string of thoughts, which results in anger with a spouse, impatience with our children or frustration with our job. Even when we are experiencing physical discomfort, the majority of our suffering is created by our thoughts. Thoughts about how our pain is debilitating or unfair result in worsening pain, especially if there is anxiety over how long the pain will last or whether it’s a sign of a serious medical condition.
If we can let go of all those thoughts about the past and the future, we are left with a fairly neutral present moment. In the present, we experience only our senses. With our eyes closed, we can hear the sounds around us, smell any scents, and feel the weight of our body, the temperature of the room, and the air entering and leaving our lungs. This is a skill that takes a long time to develop, but it’s extremely useful. You can use it at any time to interrupt your current thoughts and allow the accompanying negative emotions to drift away. You can change the way you feel and react to the people and events in everyday life. You can change the way you respond to urges to snack, smoke or check your phone. You can learn to control your pain rather than letting it control you. You can learn how to let go of your thoughts in order to fall asleep more easily. Over time, you can literally rewire your brain to create new thought patterns and habits.