In 2004 I was unemployed and desperately trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was 22 years old. I lived in a crappy one bedroom apartment that I despised. My upstairs neighbors played their music too loud and had sex every night at midnight, waking me up with the sound of their bed slamming against the wall.
My neighbor across the hall was a lady with two kids who spent most of her day screaming at them, and chain smoking outside in the front of the building. My truck got towed from the parking lot one day. Another day the complex across the street from my apartment was engulfed in flames. In the spring, my living room flooded with melted snow comprised of dog feces and urine.
This was not my dream life.
One day, I picked up a book from the used bookstore (because I couldn’t afford full priced books) on the subject of meditation. I’d heard that it was good for relaxation and focus and I thought maybe it could help me get my shit together. I tried one of the meditations in the book- something about visualizing that your leg was blue and really cold, and then it was red and really hot. It was too weird for me. Needless to say, I never picked the book back up again. I thought, if this is what meditation is all about, I can’t do it.
I never forgot about meditation. As time went on, I knew that I would one day figure out how to make it work for me. In 2011, I went to an IDEA World Fitness conference in Los Angeles and signed up for a ‘Mindfulness Meditation’ course. The course was about two hours long and we discussed meditation and then actually meditated for 30 minutes. That’s a long time to sit with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing in a room full of people.
I came home determined to begin a regular practice of meditation. I felt confident with what I had learned at the conference and I started sitting for 10 minutes at a time, building up to 15 minutes once per day, in the morning.
One important thing to remember about meditation is to not judge it. Whatever happens, just let it happen. It’s your unique experience. Don’t get frustrated if your brain fills up with crazy thoughts, just let them flow. If you choose to become self-critical and fight the incoming thoughts, then your meditation will not bring relief, it will only bring more stress.
Over the weekend I was in Oklahoma supporting a client in her first physique competition. On Saturday, my wife Lela and I were sitting by our hotel pool with our feet in the water just talking and enjoying the sun. A guy in his early 60’s was swimming laps in the pool for about 15 minutes, and when he was done, he walked over to where we were sitting and struck up a conversation about my tattoos. Every now and then a stranger will comment on my ink, but I rarely get people who walk up and ask what each of my tattoos means and I why I got them. All of my tattoos have a reason for their existence, so I was happy to share their stories.
The guy then asked if we knew anything about meditation, and I told him that we meditate for 16 minutes 3-5 times per week in the morning. I think this caught him by surprise. I’m pretty sure that he was stereotyping me BECAUSE of my tattoos. He probably thought I was an ex-con out on probation who was lost in the world, wandering around aimlessly- just waiting for him to tell me about meditation and SAVE ME.
He then asked what I feel when I meditate.
I told him that it really depended on the day and what was going on in my mind and body. For example, I just got over a chest cold and trying to sit while your sinuses are filling up with mucous and suffocating you is very difficult. My mental state wasn’t nearly as sharp as it is when I’m in good health. I don’t focus much on what’s going on with my body when I feel good. I simply focus on my breathing and clearing my thoughts.
During some meditation sessions I plan out my whole day in 16 minutes. That’s actually the opposite of what I want to be doing during mindfulness meditation, but it’s helpful nonetheless. Sometimes I’m able to sit with a clear head and very focused breathing and I become euphoric and relaxed, like I’m stoned. My body is detached (I don’t feel it), and I get a nice little head rush. This is what I strive for during every meditation session, but it’s not always possible.
The guy continued to ask about my meditation experiences. “What does it do for you in your life?” I told him that I feel less stressed out on a daily basis. I have zero anxiety, even during a chaotic week if I can meditate at least 3 times. If you’ve ever had chronic anxiety, you know how debilitating it is. Or maybe you don’t even realize how much it’s taxing your nervous system. Ever wonder why you’re always so tired? Check your mental state throughout the day. Anxiety, fear, anger, passive aggressiveness, and a host of other unmanaged emotions will suck your energy all day long no matter how much sleep you get or how much caffeine you pour down your throat.
Meditation brings me back to a balanced state. I feel more in touch with my own thoughts, and I feel that I’m able to focus. This helps me make better decisions and approach situations calmly. My job requires me to “take care of” a lot of other people, and sometimes that means that my own needs get shoved aside. This happens a lot in life. We push our basic needs aside for a bunch of other people’s wants. Our heads get all fucked up and then we are in a catastrophic state of being and we can’t get out of it. We self medicate with drugs and alcohol and we lose our drive for what we truly want in life. Meditation can revive you and change your life.
Here’s what I do when I meditate: I always meditate in the morning after a cup of coffee. I toss a couch pillow on the floor, lock the dog in another room so I’m not distracted by his constant scratching of his various itchy body parts, shut off all the lights, and then I light two candles. The candles have no purpose because I can’t see them while meditating. My eyes are closed. I don’t care, I light them anyway. I put my iPhone in airplane mode so no one can bother me, and I set the timer on it for 16 minutes. I sit however I feel most comfortable, which for me is with legs crossed, chest and head up, and hands on my knees. It takes me approximately two minutes to get myself in the zone, sometimes longer depending on the day.
I inhale normally and count “one.” On the exhale I count “two.” This continues until I hit ten breaths, then I start counting all over again. My goal is to keep my mind clear of thoughts (at this point, nearly impossible for me), and focus solely on those breaths. Sometimes they are deep breaths and sometimes they’re more shallow. I assess each ten breath cycle and take this opportunity to “check in” with myself. If my breathing is shallow and tense, I ask myself why? What the hell is causing me to shudder while breathing? Then I work on fixing it during the meditation, and sometimes throughout the rest of my day.
Meditation sets me up for a happier, more productive day.
Possible complications: Some people get anxiety while meditating. This seems strange considering you’re doing it to prevent or decrease anxiety, but it’s very common. If you have a difficult time sitting for 5 minutes without talking or moving then you need meditation more than you realize. There are different ways you can sit, and various things you can do in order to make your meditation your own. Read books and articles online. Practice different techniques. Most importantly, don’t give up just because it doesn’t go the way you think it should the first time you do it. It’s taken me longer than I’d hoped to reap the benefits of meditation. I didn’t really get much out of it at first. I was determined to make it work for me and I knew that with patience, I would reap many benefits. Like anything else, consistency is key. Keep doing it.
I asked the guy who approached us at the pool what meditation does for him. He explained that members of his immediate family all suffered from severe depression, and he did not. He also said that he attributes his good health to the fact that he keeps his mind clear and healthy. He hadn’t been sick or in a hospital in years, and he didn’t take any medications. I firmly believe that all of these things are benefits of regular meditation, too.
Meditation has helped me through a lot of stressful situations. It has given me the confidence and courage to pursue activities that scare me. It allows me time to visualize outcomes and solve problems. Some days it gives me complete space from my thoughts, which brings relief.
Don’t underestimate the power of sitting down, closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. This seemingly passive activity will completely change your life. And it will help you get your shit together.