From the time I first learned what it was, meditation never really appealed to me.
Blame it on an unwillingness to sit still and silently for any period of time, skepticism that it has any real benefit, or a lack of understanding about what the point of it even is, but meditation never seemed like something I wanted to spend my time doing. Honestly, I thought it was a strange habit reserved for Buddhist monks and new-age hippies.
For the most part, my only brush with meditation was in yoga. As classes wind down, that normally means it's time for savasana, or corpse pose. I might appear as still and peaceful as a corpse lying on the mat, but my thoughts are usually bouncing back and forth between what I want to eat for dinner and how cold my feet are, rather than settling into the clear, thoughtless void I've always imagined you're supposed to strive for. (Not to say that spending a few minutes taking a glorified nap isn't my favourite part of yoga class. It's amazing.)
Sometimes, classes will also incorporate guided meditation. In my experience, it never made me feel relaxed. Rather than calming my mind, trying and failing to reach a deep, meditative state made me feel like I was doing it wrong. It was also pretty boring, and, depending on how tight my hip flexors and hamstrings were that day, a little uncomfortable.
But the older I get, and the more stressful or challenging situations I encounter, the more I've come to see the benefits of seeking some calm.
Earlier this summer, I was dealing with a few more anxious feelings than usual. I definitely wouldn't call it crippling, but it felt like my mind was going in circles at a mile a minute. I was struggling to focus, and it felt like a pit had permanently lodged itself in my stomach.
As much as packing a schedule full of work, friends and fun helped distract from those feelings, I didn't feel like it was addressing the issue.
I decided to toss my skepticism aside and take some advice from the friends, strangers and authors of online articles who continue to tout the benefits of mediation for easing anxiety and stress. I downloaded a free app that offers a month-long trial for guided mediation sessions. It felt a little weird at first, and I definitely failed to make it a daily habit, but it felt good to take a few minutes out of my day to focus on nothing except taking a few deep breaths. I noticed that I was able to focus better in the immediate aftermath, too.
So when I was offered a pass to last weekend's Wanderlust festival, I decided to take advantage of one of their meditation workshops to see what more I could learn. Led by meditation expert Light Watkins, the class was called "How to know if meditation is really working."
I didn't go in with any specific expectations, but what I absolutely wasn't expecting was for the session to completely change my perspective the way it did.
The class focused on "the more counterintuitive ways in which anyone can measure progress with their daily meditation practice." Watkins' approach rejects the idea that meditation has to be the stereotypical, monk-style practice characterized by rigid, motionless posture, perfectly crossed legs, and a vacant mind.
Instead, he teaches students to sit comfortably and allow their mind to wander where it will. As he explained, that random stream of thoughts might not be so random at all, and might result in some important or insightful connections being made—leading to better mental processing, healing and a better-rested mind. Watkins argues wandering thoughts aren't an obstacle standing in the way of successful meditation, but a symptom proving that it's working.
Basically, he wants his students to make meditation a daily habit because they enjoy it, rather than basing their practice in discipline.
Oddly enough, when I stopped stressing about all the thoughts running through my mind and trying to will them away, my mind started to calm down all by itself.
Who knows if I'll ever reach peak, Buddhist-monk level meditative state, but now, I realize it can still be effective and even enjoyable, despite experiencing a constant stream of thoughts. And as far as an excuse to sit and chill for a few minutes? I'll take that any day.