What it actually feels like to meditate

I’ve meditated every day for five years now, and every time is still a roller coaster ride.

But the payoff is worth the ride. In fact, it’s the ride itself that pays.

For at least the first ten minutes, sometimes even 15, my mind jumps from thought to thought. I worry about what I’ve got planned for the day. I often replay things that happened the day before, usually conversations that made me feel vulnerable.

Did I sound stupid? Did I say too much? Does she like me? I’m just destined to be lonely.

This is my mind’s default state — unsettled, questioning myself, meandering in the past or the future.

It wouldn’t be so bad if all I did was daydream. What I really like to do is find patterns, to create meaning, to tell stories.

These stories are like looking up symptoms on WebMD. A cough can mean bronchitis or lung cancer or adenoidal hypertrophy. They spiral out of control into assumptions stacked on assumptions, until I’m wracked by anxiety about something that either didn’t happen or hasn’t happened yet or may never happen at all.

Before I started meditating, the stories were in the background all day long. They’d die down if I was really engaged in something, but that something had to be really engaging — say, a good TV show or a close friend who really listens.

But during meditation, after ten or 15 minutes of this frantic thinking something shifts. My body seems to unclench deep inside. My shoulders relax back and down, my stomach muscles release, my face eases, my breath falls into a comfortable rhythm.

It’s like I’d been swimming against the current and finally let the waves just take me.

My mind lets go of whatever I was thinking about and starts to notice more, as if I took a step backwards to witness the present moment. I hear the rain falling outside. I feel the warmth of the room. I smell my roommate’s coffee brewing downstairs. I notice that I’ve slumped over and sit up straight.

Time flows by as an unbroken chain of sensations rather than something to be measured or planned or worried about.

But, sure enough, as soon as I settle into this newfound awareness — known as “mindfulness” — another story rips me away. Planning that email I need to send narrows my focus and stops the flow. A few more minutes pass as I’m lost in thought.

Then some part of me notices that my mind is wandering, and I bring my attention back to the sensations in my body. I hear the sounds in the room. I’m back! I open to the flow until, inevitably, my mind takes me away again.

The bell rings, and I bring this mindfulness off of the cushion, to breakfast, work, and whatever the day has in store.

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My podcast, Meditation for the Masses, is mindfulness for the 99 percent. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and everywhere podcasts are available. Stream this episode below.