I have a confession to make.
*takes a deep breath*
Mindfulness and I have not always had the best relationship.
This feels like a terribly shameful thing to admit, given that mindfulness is the cornerstone of both my professional coaching work and my general approach to life. Yet the truth is, as important as mindfulness to me, it hasn’t always come easily. (Even now, sometimes it still doesn’t.)
It's really not all that surprising, given our relationship’s rocky start. My first experience with mindfulness was in 1996 (or maybe 1997?) when I was a freshman in college. I saw a flyer for a free mindfulness meditation session at the Student Union, and despite knowing very little about either mindfulness or meditation, I decided to check it out.
I entered the room, where I found over a dozen other people sitting on pillows in darkness, eyes closed, facing the wall. The instructor handed me a lumpy, lilac, bean-shaped pillow and told me to take a seat.
I found a patch of floor and surreptitiously glanced at my neighbors to see what they were doing. Since they were sitting cross-legged with eyes closed, I followed suit and waited for the instructor to provide direction on what to do next.
That direction never came.
For an hour, I sat on that uncomfortable pillow feeling bored, anxious, frustrated, and resentful. I’d heard meditation was supposed to be this amazing transcendent experience that would leave me feeling connected to something bigger than myself. All I felt was pain in my lower back from sitting on that damn pillow, and a sinking feeling that I had done something wrong because I hadn’t transformed.
For the next few years, whenever I heard someone talk about mindfulness or meditation, I’d roll my eyes and reply with something dismissive at best, derisive at worst. Yet inside, I felt inferior, and that something was wrong with me because I just didn’t get it. Add mindfulness and meditation to the list of things I wasn’t cool enough to understand or good enough to do.
Then in 2000 (or maybe 2001?), I attended the Family Therapy Networker (now Psychotherapy Networker) conference in Washington, D.C. I had just applied to a graduate program in social work and was eager to immerse myself in the world of therapy – this conference seemed like a great place to start.
I attended with my mentor, a gifted counselor who worked with at-risk youth in an alternative school setting, and attended several workshops based on her recommendation.
“You should check out Tara Brach,” she said. “I think you’d like her.”
Which is how I found myself in a hotel ballroom with over a hundred other people, learning about and practicing mindfulness meditation.
I sat in the back of the room, and I’m willing to bet my expression was one of barely concealed cynicism that masked my inner ambivalence. I already knew mindfulness and meditation weren’t for me, yet maybe… maybe this would be different.
I don’t remember exactly what Tara Brach said, although I’m sure she covered Radical Acceptance, a concept about which she has since written an entire book. What I do remember is sitting on a chair in a well-lit room, eyes closed, tears streaming down my smiling cheeks.
There I was, experiencing the transformation I sought during my first venture into meditation. But this was not some beam-of-light-from-the-heavens transformation I had (unrealistically) expected from my first experience. This was an internal shift, a slight movement away from skepticism and inferiority, towards acceptance and love. Whereas my first exposure to mindfulness meditation left me feeling inadequate and angry, this experience left me feeling hopeful and profoundly moved.
I’d like to say that from that day on, I embraced mindfulness and meditation with gusto. That it transformed my life and that my world was forever changed.
That is exactly what did not happen. Instead, I returned to my crappy job, waited impatiently to start graduate school, and eventually threw myself into the rigorous life of a newly married graduate student, replete with anxiety attacks and a minor depressive episode.
It would still be a few years before I returned to mindfulness, and even then it would be with some false starts. Although mindfulness and meditation are now central to my work and my life, it’s not without difficulty. The concept of “mindfulness practice” resonates strongly with me, because I still feel like I’m perpetually practicing, building my skill one meditation, one moment, one breath at a time.
So if you have a confused, complicated, or conditional relationship with mindfulness and meditation… welcome. You’re in good company, and I’m glad you’re here.
And if you are unfamiliar with mindfulness or meditation – and if you don’t know the difference between the two – then you’re in exactly the right place. I’ll be spending the next few weeks diving into this on the blog, exploring the what, the why, and the how behind mindfulness.
What are your thoughts about mindfulness and meditation? What works (or doesn't work) for you? What questions do you have? Leave me a note below – I'd love to hear from you.