In 2017, my panic disorder and anxiety kicked up a notch from the relatively stable point I'd been at for years. And it was at this point that I returned to regular psychotherapy sessions. During one such session, my therapist presented the idea of a 'brain gym.' Of the need to 'train my brain' to rewire its unhelpful and no longer useful patterns.
I remember hearing this and sitting forward, intrigued by the concept. The need to train for what we want to improve resonated completely for me. I believe it. I know it to be true. I was in.
She suggested 90 days of daily meditation to kick things off. Apparently the number was important to making change more likely. I downloaded the Calm App on my phone and got underway. I didn't complete the 90 days. The 60+ that I did offered me a heap of value for what came next.
Namely how great this can feel and how I don't need to 'watch my breath.'
The following years from 2018-2021 had me feeling "like I should mediate." I did it here and there. In early 2021 this sense became louder. It also still felt like a 'should' and I had a billion reasons why I couldn't.
June 2021 rolls around. Sydney was in its second lockdown. I was again embracing slowed down, solo time. Calm had just charged me for another year of premium subscription. Truly, I'd forgotten all about it. I decided to challenge myself to 100 days of meditation. It felt different. Like a challenge that I wanted to do. Not to get to the end, rather to do it at all.
On June 26th I began my 100 days of meditation. And straight away I did a few things very differently.
- I weaved the practice into an already set morning routine - after coffee and before breakfast. This was about piggybacking on a sequence of established patterns and behaviours to make it more likely of happening again. This is something discussed in neuropsychology and I figured worth trying for myself. It helped set the scene for myself immensely in those first few weeks.
- I took the pressure off - 3 minutes was perfectly acceptable. Sometimes I wanted and did more.
- I remembered the breath isn't my thing - and it's not the only thing you can pay attention to. My home base, the thing I paid attention to, became my hands. Specifically the heat or tingling in my hands.
- I sat in a comfy chair - because sitting still on the ground for periods of time isn't a vibe for my body. And that's OK.
Here's what I learnt from 100 days of meditation.
The goal is not to have no thoughts. The goal is to practice being. As simple and hard as that. To be present and notice being in a body, your body. For someone with anxiety, this was hard fought. And I'm so glad I stuck it out. Likely not possible if not for the aforementioned acts. You will have thoughts. You will let them take you away. And the practice is "catching them" and bringing yourself back to the present. As my meditation teacher Jeff, encourages, come back with an inside laugh. It's ok. It's all ok. You have a busy mind? Cool. Welcome to being human.
Catching thoughts is part of the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that I've done since I was 19 years old. So perhaps I knew the concept, yet it never stuck until these 100 days. In my anxiety treatment, it's noticing where your mind has gone and coming back. In meditation I was able to notice this and be OK with it. Some of those thoughts for me included how I should write a post called 'what I learnt from 100 days of meditation.' Outside of meditation, I could notice more and more where my mind wandered to and where I felt that in my body.
Body connection is another layer of learning from these 100 days for me. I've previously heard how meditation may not be accessible or even helpful for some trauma survivors, especially survivors of sexual violence. I remember in the past being incredibly uncomfortable 'paying attention' to my body via what's called a body scan, paying attention to the presence, type or absence of sensations you notice in your body. These became easier, safer and more accessible as time passed. And are also something I've been able to access outside of meditation in more anxious moments. Including when I'm rushing around, feeling irritable or eating fast.
It’s cool noticing your body and being a body is cool too. Whilst paying attention to my breath isn't a vibe for my meditation practice, focusing on the tingling and aliveness of my hands is. Their warmth. Being able to mentally trace my fingers and notice where they meet one another. That's very cool. Practising with my eyes open and using mental notes of 'see' when I see something, 'hear' when I hear something and 'feel' when I feel something whilst simultaneously getting lost and not realising 25 mins had passed is remarkable. There's an enormous parallel to my work of supporting clients' connection to their body and noticing what's going on for them.
Self compassion is a skill I'd been actively working on and had found challenging. Meditation has allowed me to be kinder to myself when I notice my mind wander or lose concentration or when something in my experience isn't how I might expect it to be. And this self-compassion helps my overall experience as it feels helpful and supportive. It's OK to be a human, to be me. Another parallel for the work that I do with humans supporting their own self-compassion practice.
A sense of deep relaxation. To my core like I’ve never known before except for when I’m lying in the sun (and this has less skin cancer risk associated with it). It's also become clear through this lesson, how easily we lose that sense of relaxation in our busyness. I tend to notice this reality more than ever and slow down in my life.
Outside of meditation is interesting and where teachers I've heard say you may start to notice shifts. For me it's been in looking for those moments and relishing them. The sensation of the wind on my face, how my toes feel in my shoes, watching a cobweb dance around outside my window. I've also been far more aware, helpfully, when I feel overstimulated and anxious. I know in the past I raced and pushed through these moments, not daring to acknowledge them for fear they'd linger and not honouring what I needed to ground myself.
I'm also less bothered. Equanimity is apparently what this is. And I'm so grateful for it. My meditation teacher describes it as being impartial and unaffected. Not clinging to the 'good' stuff we like and prefer (our bias) and pushing away what agitates us. This practice of equanimity has taught me that the suffering of moments can come from working so hard to only experience what we define as preferential. When instead, can we bring in neutrality? Can we observe? And let be? There is no preferred moment, only what is here already. Suffering comes from trying so hard to fight that.
I don't need a teacher. I did. And I mostly still do. I remember believing that I could never access meditation without guided teaching. Having a calming voice in my ears. And I do grow from and enjoy that. Though sometimes I've found myself in a moment drawn to meditating and also without my phone. So it's looked like meditation on a beach. In my car. Waiting for coffee. And that's been super cool to do and know how much I've learnt.
I'll miss it. It's now actually been 100+++ days of meditation and even before the challenge ended, I noticed how I missed it if I didn't practice in the morning. I'd yearn to sit and be still. To notice breathing in my body. My hands. My body being pulled by gravity. The tingling in my left arm. The deep sense of relaxation at times. The laser-like focus and concentration at other times. It's as if I'd remember to meditate because I felt like something was missing. In the past 177 days since beginning this journey, I've missed 2 days of practice. And that's OK too.
It isn't meant to go any which way. Sometimes I meditate with my eyes open and others times not. Sometimes I feel irritated by mind wandering and other times I can view it light-heartedly. At times my body sensations provide a heap of feedback and sometimes they don't. I'm getting more accustomed to it all being welcome and that's also translated to all of me being welcome. Sometimes my meditation practice is great / easy / interesting to focus and bring my concentration to a body sensation or sound I hear and sometimes it’s interesting how not easy that is.
Not wanting it to end is a thing. When I’m prompted to open my eyes, often it’s a surprise because I'm settled and could stay. That I can sit still and be ok, not squirming, not resisting, that's cool and astounding to my younger self. And the benefit of this is immense.
I see the world differently now because our world is wild. Fast. Intense. Harsh. Distracting from ourselves. We are encouraged to push and push to our own detriment. And it's this parallel that's shown up the most in my work. Also why I begin my group sessions with a moment of mindfulness. The impact is immense, for me and my groups. In order to pay attention to your body and learn to connect with it, at the core you need to slow down and bring focus to that. A starting point for the intuitive eating work I do with clients and where my own meditation practice has shown me how easy it is for us all to be caught up and disconnected.
I know meditation is a practice and one that I've decided will remain in my life. I'm incredibly grateful for its teachings and can't quite believe all that's happened since starting.
To explore the intersection of slowing down to take care of yourself as an intuitive eater, listen to this brief podcast episode on self-care.