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How to Fail at Meditation (the First Time Around)

One mom's sideways journey to mindfulness

Published on: May 22, 2017

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Clad in my down jacket, I’m sitting cross-legged on my deck, trying to capitalize on a rare day of weak winter sun. I’m listening, somewhat impatiently, to a meditation guided by Andy Puddicombe of the wildly popular Headspace app when the former Buddhist monk catches me out.

raising-kind“If we’re only interested in getting a result from the exercise, if we’re not interested in the journey and the process of it, then we’re never really going to find the answer that we’re looking for because the journey and the process — that is the answer.”

My reaction on hearing those earnest words in my earbuds? Crap. This mellifluous Brit just blew my cover. Hold the journey, Andy! This outcomes-oriented writer and mother of two really wants results!

I was looking for a path to less-judgy self-talk from my naturally overactive, always-analyzing brain.

Let me back up here. This past winter, I pledged to use a meditation app to sit for 10 minutes every day for a month, bottom affixed to my yoga bolster, in the hopes of kick-starting a mindfulness routine that would last. I was looking for a path to less-judgy self-talk from my naturally overactive, always-analyzing brain. More than I like to admit, I was stuck in well-worn grooves of anxiety and rumination, expertly honed through years of habit.

I wanted a way to shush my inner, self-critical Mean Girl. I wanted a greater sense of ease that could positively influence my work and my relationships. I wanted to model for my kids the importance of self-care and compassion to help not just myself and my family, but also to foster and connect with a broader culture of mindfulness. And the timing felt urgent: Like many multi-tasking moms, I needed all the tools I could muster to avoid constantly flipping my lid while juggling work with parenting a preteen and teen — not to mention the stress-inducing fallout from the presidential election.

A ridiculously tall order of wants, I know. But a 48-year-old can dream, right?

I should’ve known better than to expect a wholesale transformation. After all, this wasn’t my first mindfulness rodeo. Several years ago, I took a six-week meditation class. Here’s what happened: a “walking meditation” turned into a grocery list compilation (balsamic vinegar for that pear salad); a worry session over my ailing dad’s health and a day-dreaming stint about an upcoming Mexico trip (bodysurfing, aaaah). And then, rather than gently bring my attention back to the present moment “without judgment” as instructed, I promptly judged myself for having “failed” Meditation 101. Here’s what I don’t remember happening: Achieving a blissful, Zen-like calm. Surprise! The mindfulness thing didn’t stick.

But this time, I told myself, would be different. Spoiler alert: It was. Here’s why.

Step one was shopping for a secular mindfulness app. I started with the lauded (and free intro) Stop, Breathe & Think. After two weeks, I had to switch because I found the woman’s voice uninspiring.  Now, I have mindfulness crush on Andy the Brit from Headspace (intro app is free, annual subscription is around $8 a month for this “gym membership for the mind”). Admittedly, it feels paradoxical to use a cell phone — seemingly the poster child for distraction — to foster in-the-present-moment mindfulness. But I knew I couldn’t DIY this; I needed the structure of a program.

Step two was getting over my resistance to a 30-day challenge and my worry about what I might find hiding in the dark folds of a temporarily quieted mind. (I’m happy to report that no monsters have surfaced—not yet, anyway.)

Step three was figuring out how to schedule yet one more thing. A friend who’s a longtime meditator suggested doing it at the same time every day to increase the odds of it becoming a habit. It seemed natural to meditate before bed, but too often I found myself so tired that I was just going through the motions. I tried to do it first thing in the morning before even showing my face to my family, but that didn’t work out either.

In the end, I did “successfully” meet my goal of 10 minutes a day for 30 days. I wound up fitting it in whenever worked best on a given day, mostly in the morning after downing my caffeine and seeing the kids off to school but before I dug into work. And I’m still at my 10-minute Headspace dose, nearly four months in and counting.

Not that I always make my daily butt-to-bolster appointment. But when I miss my 10 minutes, I make up for it: I make an extra effort to be more present in routine things, from slicing carrots to washing my face. Or I try to actively opt out of multi-tasking. If I’m walking to an appointment, I try to walk and focus on what I’m seeing, hearing and smelling rather than plug into a podcast.

When I plugged 'how to fail at meditation' into Google, I got 3.5 million results.

So how has my mindfulness adventure been different this time around? I’m surprised by how often I appreciate the break from “doing” to just “being.” (That said, I have days when meditation feels like another chore to tick off.) I’m surprised to find myself drawn to the South Korea-born and U.S.-educated Zen Buddhist monk and teacher Haemin Sunim. His book The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide; the U.S. edition came out in February. (The book builds on his viral tweets about mindfulness). And I’m surprised to see “results” in the form of nascent self-compassion. I try to talk to myself like I would to a close friend; I’m a bit gentler, a bit kinder. A slip-up at work or home doesn’t automatically trigger a beat-myself-up session.

If I have any tips for others it’s this: Be patient and manage expectations. When I plugged “how to fail at meditation” into Google, I got 3.5 million results. Many say there is no such thing, only a failure of patience. I now get why it’s called a “practice,” even though that term still grates. It’s normal for the mind to wander, not a failure. I practice recognizing when my mind wanders and bringing it back to the present breath. I practice observing my thoughts and emotions like a third-person narrator.

My 10 mindful minutes a day haven’t made my anxiety and stress disappear but they make me feel better equipped to manage both. Meditation is a tool that helps me be pickier about what to react to in a perpetually whirring mind — and to slow that whirring down, if only a little.

It’s true that I’ve yet to levitate in lotus position during a state of nirvana. But I have managed to slow the perpetually scrolling to-do list, to listen to myself and to others more intently and to be more mindful of when I’m not being mindful — and for now, maybe that’s enough. Though, I wouldn’t say no to the levitating bit either. 

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