While our denial of the fact differs – he adamantly disputes it and I fully accept it to the point of obsessing – my brother and I both experience an immense amount of stress. Mine even manifests into anxiety attacks as a cherry on top from time to time. (His might too, but he’d never tell anyone.)
This fact does not make us special, mind you. We don’t win a pity prize. Stress is the basic cause of 60 percent of all human illness and disease. Since 1 in 5 of us report experiencing extreme stress, it’s safe to say that our hectic schedules, ridiculous expectations and insane pressure to perform are literally killing us.
You might remember our monthly challenges are about improving and enjoying these insane little lives, so, in that spirit, we thought it might be a good idea to dabble in this crazy thing the kids are all trying called meditation. I’ve played in this sandbox before, of course, but something about bringing my brother along made me feel more accountable. More optimistic.
In a podcast I listened to recently, one of the guests said, “Meditation doesn’t fix stuff. It calms the water enough so we can see the stuff.” Then I guess it’s on us to fix the stuff. It’s better than nothin’. There’s a biweekly mindfulness and meditation class for stress reduction in our area. I know the instructor, Dr. Dave, through work, and he is phenomenal; One of those people who drops truth bombs and owns dramatic pauses like a boss and rolls out the blueprints to rewire your brain. It was Bring Your Bro to Class Day, and I was kind of geeked.
Matt had to hit the head before the meeting, so I went in with Dr. Dave. (We rode the elevator up together. Street cred, what?) There was a circle of chairs, every-other one occupied. We wouldn’t be able to sit next to each other. Maybe that’s for the best, I thought. I settled in to the one closest to the door. My brother walked in just as the action started. He looked at me and put his hands up (universal for, “What the …?”) and fell heavily into the next open seat.
“Tonight we’re going to be talking about stress and how it affects us. Specifically at work.” Ho! Ho! Hooooly good topic for my ticking timebomb of a sibling, I thought. I might need this, but no one, and I mean no. one. needs this like my brother needs this. I couldn’t have planned it better. I didn’t look at him. It’s so irritating when someone gives you that look. That oh-you-know-that’s-you look. That obnoxious side glare tethered to accusation and incrimination. It’s the worst. So I smirked into my lap.
Dr. Dave explained that stress is a nonspecific response to any demand or change, either past or present. It’s the Fight/Flight/Freeze mechanism. The interesting thing is, our nervous system (which also resides in our stomach, FYI) doesn’t stop when stressed to sort through the scenario. Is this me reliving that time I thought I lose my child at the department store? OK, that’s old news. We’re good here. No. It just tenses and twists and tortures.
How do we stop the torture? We smell the coffee, that’s how.
Mindfulness, he went on, is intentional (being present in the here and the now) and attentional (moment-to-moment sensory awareness). We are a society on autopilot. We don’t taste, we shovel. We don’t listen, we respond. We don’t explore, we run the routine. Putting on the brakes to snap out of that cycle, off of that hamster wheel, can turn the color on. When we detach from what we think needs to happen and attach to, instead what is happening, we become active participants in our lives. In this respect, being curious is healthier than being in control. And I am a person who craves control. Ask yourself, in the morning, could you take 60 seconds to smell your coffee? It’s just 60 seconds. That’s it. Could you feel the mug in your hands and the steam at the base of your nose? Could you notice the rich color? Could you smell. The damn. Coffee?
Next was putting our talk into practice. Dr. Dave led us in a flow meditation. We began in our toes. How do they feel against the floor? Are they clenched or bent? We went to our stomach. So much stress rests in our tummies. Really stop and listen to your stomach. Then we moved to right above the stomach. Then the chest. Then the jawline. Then the top of the head. These are some of the places we commonly foster tension and anxiety. Just by checking in there. By noticing. We’re doing more for ourselves than we do on any given Monday.
As I sat still and contemplated what my stomach was trying to tell me, I heard it. The Abominal Snowman of yawns. Oh my gosh, I thought, was that … Then, another. The source of these room-sucking exhalations could only be my brother. I opened one eye and looked down the row of people. There he sat. Tons of Fun, looking like he could topple to the ground at any moment. “Oh, I know!” he told me after class. “I was so relaxed, man. I almost fell asleep.” “Yeah. Caught that.”
When our final body scan was complete, I slowly, drunkenly opened my eyes. Nothing had changed except everything kind of felt like it had. You know during a pause, when a room is so still and so quiet you think you can hear the air moving? Like the buzz and natural current of the universe is bouncing off your eardrums. We all looked like a group of frat guys the morning they were released from the drunk tank. All droopy eyelids and turned down smiles. It was such a nice change from my typical psychotic post-work obstacle course run.
I left determined to keep the good vibes flowing. Matt and I agreed on 5 consecutive days, 20 minutes of meditation each day.
After I meditate, it feels like forcing myself out of a power nap. My body kind of wants to stay sedentary and hushed, but my mind is eager to pick back up and race ahead to catch up with what it missed while it was picturing air in my lungs. Right away, I realized that time would be my nemesis on this challenge. I don’t feel like I have time to sit still for 10 minutes. I write that, and then I say it out loud to myself. I don’t feel like I have time to sit still for 10 minutes! Who am I? In what universe is that an acceptable statement for someone to make about such a spec of a sliver of a day? But I do. I make that statement. And I feel that statement. And that is the problem.
Somewhere between tumultuous tantrums over tights vs. leggings and meal planning and freelancing and not cleaning, I lost the ability to sit still and hear my heartbeat. I mean I assume it’s still beating because I am frantically doing all of these things, but I’m not stopping long enough to hear it and sit with it and thank it. I’m not smelling the coffee. And I love the coffee.
I realized through this challenge that my problem might be bigger than quiet. Bigger than 5 days and 20 minutes. It’s more sizable and serious than any app, although Headspace did do its best to work with me. The problem might be my priorities. I’m feeding the stress and starving the senses. Sometimes these challenges are the answer. And sometimes they just give me more questions. And so my elusive love affair with meditation continues …
Meditate for 5 days, 20 minutes at a time.
20 minutes a day.
It’s only 20 minutes.
20 minutes to sit and try and focus on myself.
For those reading this that know me, I know you’re laughing right now. You know I don’t sit still. As my old man would say, “I’m like a fart in a skillet.” I’m not sure what in the hell that means, but I’m pretty sure it means I don’t relax. It’s just not an option. Something’s always poppin’ off. My brain just doesn’t have an off switch. But Biscuits picked it, so, let the challenge begin …
First stop, Dr Dave. The class started with a discussion on “stressors” in our lives – co-workers, expectations of our employers to be available 24/7, workload, money, family, etc. We all have them, but how do we deal with them. Obviously, we all have our ways of coping. Some good, i.e. hitting the gym, running, enjoying nature … and some not so good, i.e. downing a six pack, bottles of wine, excessive eating, smoking a pack of Reds (if you are a badass). Dr. Dave was telling a room full of people looking for tools that meditation was the ticket to stress relief.
Now, this may come as a shock, but I have never meditated before. At least not consciously or soberly. So, I sat with 20 of my new best friends, closed my eyes and focused on myself. I followed his cues – take a deep breath, focus on your toes and how they feel … think about the sounds you hear, are they far away … We were trying to stop our frantic minds and be present, which is something I am very interested in trying to do more of.
Dr. Dave says if you yawn, you are doing it right. Well, i did it right. Thank God everyone’s eyes were closed because my big ass yawned about 20 times in 20 minutes, tears running down my cheeks. I was a couple of minutes away from laying on the floor in front of Dr. Dave and taking a power nap while he wrapped things up.
After the meditation session we talked about things we do to try to gather focus when we are having a stressful day. How we hit that reset button. One lady mentioned she has a stuffed animal with really soft ears in her car that she can look at or pet and focus on to try to calm her mind. Another lady has cats and watching them wake up signals her to focus on herself. For Adam Sandler fans who’ve seen Happy Gilmore, it’s finding your “happy place”. It’s letting all of the bullshit we deal with drop away so we can get back to kicking ass instead of thinking of everything we have going on at once and freaking ourselves out. I know my reset is going to the gym. What is yours?
We all strive for some sort of balance in our lives. One of the reasons this challenge interested me so much is because I struggle to be present. My mind is consumed with the things I need to do, what I should be doing, what do I have going on at work tomorrow, what do I need to do first, check my work email, return texts, laundry, do we have any food at the house to make for dinner … shit! I just missed my daughter’s entire basketball game. Why does all of this stuff consume me? I know I’m not the only one. I’m not complaining, either. It’s life, right? I get it. But the balance … The balance is what I am after.
Technology is awesome. It’s very efficient, inexpensive, so much information, but we all need to make time to disconnect and just show up. Fuck all of this other shit that I have going on or things I need to do. Uncle Map is hanging with his niece and son putting up his Christmas tree and being present in this time and enjoying the moment. That’s what makes me genuinely happy; watching my son playing baseball and having a conversation with my daughter and ex-wife. Happy is putting down the phone and being where I am, not working.
That is my biggest struggle and I am trying to be better. We can all return those texts and emails at our convenience. We can “like” our friends’ pictures and read their posts later. It will still be there. Be present and do whatever it is you are doing and do it fully.
This challenge made me think about the way we act when someone unexpectedly passes in our lives. We all step back and say, “Shit, man … life is so, so short. I need to do all of these things I want to do now because my ass could be gone tomorrow.” So you think about all of the things you want to do, then a few days pass and you are back in your daily grind and won’t think about those wants until the next big life event makes you go, “Shit, man …” That’s what this challenge did for me in a way. When you sit with just yourself for 20 minutes, it gives you time to realize all of this crap that consumes us daily – work, keeping our house up, going to this function, meetings, social obligations – at the end of the day, it’s all just noise. It’s all bullshit. What matters is your friends and family.
Life goes by so quickly. My son is 12, my daughter is 10, my folks are getting older, my nieces are growing like weeds, my buddies all have busy lives … So, when I get to spend time with these people I love, I want to do nothing but love and enjoy every second of that time because you can’t get it back. We need to stop worrying about everyone else, what they are doing, why they have a different opinion, who gives a damn? Do you and enjoy all of the people you surround yourself with and wonderful things you get to experience in this crazy-ass life.
I guess I should have started sitting still a while ago, huh?