Don’t Drink And Meditate, And Other Things I Learned While Going Zen For A Week
Both my parents are Buddhists, so I thought this would be easy. I was wrong.
This story is part of a 10-piece series for which HuffPost staffers agreed to experiment with improving their health and decreasing their stress on the job. It’s also part of our monthlong “Work Well” initiative focusing on thriving in the workplace.
I have always wanted to meditate regularly. My parents are Buddhists, and my mom often touts how a consistent practice would help my anxiety. She’s got a point: A recent study found meditation can actually change a person’s brain, making them more focused, empathetic and calm. Yet every time I start a regimen, there are many obstacles that always make me bail.
I work long hours and can barely even boil water in the morning. I’ve almost always lived with roommates in big cities, which means a peaceful, solitary space is hard to find. Did I mention I’m anxious? That makes it hard to sit still with my thoughts. But I do well with deadlines, so I jumped at the opportunity to force myself to meditate for at least a week.
Despite my enthusiasm, this challenge was a lot harder than I expected.
Meditate for 10 minutes every morning for a week — ideally, before I turn on my computer and become stressed out. My goal is to release my thoughts rather than indulge them. My dad says to let ideas flow through the front door of your brain, but rather than invite them to stay for coffee or tea, promptly usher them out the back.
My hope is that through this process, my mind will feel like an open, grassy field rather than the usual mud puddle of anxiety.
I live in an apartment with a couple and my boyfriend, so there is pretty much never quiet time. I expect to be constantly distracted. I’m not a morning person, and I regularly stay up late to work, so it will probably be hard to find any zen beforenoon.
If I can pull this off I expect to start the day with a positive attitude and alert mind. I would love to feel less anxious, though that’s a lot to hope for after a mere week of sitting cross-legged.
Day 1, Tuesday
My boyfriend is out of town, so this morning I put a cushion on his side of the bed, facing the window. I lit a candle to create ambiance and stared at a tree, because my father told me it’s important to focus on an object. But like a restless puppy, my mind would not sit still. This might be because I already broke one of my rules and checked email pre-meditation. Big mistake.
I took deep breaths and tried to clear my thoughts. I felt like every time I swept one away, someone dumped 500 more worries into my brain. My neck and back ached in ways I never notice when I’m distracted. The silence amplified my sore body and anxious mind. Toward the end I felt a hint of relaxation, but mostly I just realized how much work doing this every day would be.
I didn’t feel any calmer on my way to work.
Day 2, Wednesday
This was one of those mornings where it felt hard enough to just put on pants, never mind reach a higher state of consciousness. My brain was foggy from the sake I drank the night before. I forgot to put on my glasses, so everything outside my window looked blurry. The weather was foul — all grey and rainy — and my roommate was vacuuming in the background.
To avoid thoughts, I counted — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — but they came anyway. I started having story ideas, the kind of epiphanies that flood your mind during a long walk. I wanted to hold on to them, invite them in for tea, even though that’s antithetical to meditation. After the 10 minutes were up, I typed some out on my computer.
I didn’t feel calm, but I felt inspired.
Day 3, Thursday
Today I broke my morning rule and meditated before bed. I thought this would be the perfect way to ease myself into a deep sleep. I was wrong. I had been working hard on an assignment that day and was exhausted. Instead of staring at the tree outside my window, I winced at my tired reflection. I meditated on how bad I looked and felt. I changed positions a few times just to keep myself awake. I closed my eyes to avoid distraction but quickly drifted into sleep. My neck felt creaky. I checked my phone twice to see when the pain would end. Time was a stubborn bastard who would just not move and I was a failure.
The more stressed I am about work, the harder it is to clear my mind.
Day 4, Friday
Today, I could not find the time to meditate for 10 minutes. I finally remembered to sit with my thoughts before dinner, as I waited for friends to pick me up in a cab. I sat on the couch with my coat on and tried to focus on our cactus plant.
That situation was not ideal. I was completely distracted and hopped up on Fridaynight adrenaline. There was no chance of inner piece.
If I’m too focused on work right when I wake up, it’s impossible to carve out the quiet mental space to sit and think later in the day.
Day 5, Saturday
Today was my biggest fail of all. Turns out I suck at meditating on the weekend.
My friend was throwing a huge Christmas party, and I was her wingwoman. All day we cleaned her apartment, bought booze, rearranged furniture and stressed about whether or not anyone would show up. When I finally went home to shower and get changed, I realized I’d forgotten to meditate again that morning. Since I was in a rush, I told myself I would clear my mind back at my friend’s place. Right. Hot tip: You won’t reach a zen state right before a party. Instead of practicing mindfulness, I drank boozy cider and danced to Justin Bieber.
On the plus side, I’m pretty sure I obliterated my thoughts that night, just not in the way Buddha would approve of.
Day 6, Sunday
Tonight I meditated hung over.
I went to bed at 6 a.m. after Saturday’s festivities and spent today eating chips and watching Netflix. By the time I was ready for sleep, even assuming my regular position in front of the window felt too hard. So I simply sat up in bed and closed my eyes. My neck felt stiff from a night of whipping my hair back and forth. I was fidgety. Once I closed my eyes, I felt relaxed, but I wasn’t able to actively push away thoughts. I was lifeless. Luckily, my mind was too tired to be anxious, and it just kind of turned off.
By the time I went to bed, I felt so ready for sleep — but not like I had accomplished any intellectual exercise.
Day 7, Monday
This morning I switched settings and meditated in the living room near the plants. Seemed like good feng shui.
I had already started working, but the main problem was that I hadn’t eaten anything except a ginger snap since waking up. Meditation magnifies every weakness. For 10 minutes I listened to my stomach rumble like the inside of a tunnel with cars speeding through. I did not have the energy to sweep away thoughts. Instead I looked at the plant I recently bought and wondered whether I’d be able to keep it alive.
That kind of meditation doesn’t have any effect on your work day.
Day 8, Tuesday
Since the weekend was such a flop, I decided to extend the week-long challenge by a few days.
I stayed up late last night and felt off-kilter this morning, but I still managed to meditate before checking my email.
I was much more focused than in previous days. Despite the fact that my boyfriend set the fire alarm off and used the blender in the span of those 10 minutes, I was relaxed and somewhat clear-headed for the first time. Bodily pain wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. The time zipped by and once it was over, I did feel more calm.
For the first time in this experiment, I approached work with a cool head. Maybe there is hope for me after all.
Day 9, Wednesday
Hopes dashed. Back to bad habits.
I was rushed this morning, so I put off meditation until the evening, after a few whiskeys. I felt like a kid waiting out detention. Everything was amplified: my fuzzy head, my darting eyes. Minutes stretched out like bubblegum. I checked my phone twice — first there were three minutes left, then 25 seconds. I was going through the motions and couldn’t focus on any one thing. Houseplant! Lamp! Stuffed animal! My thoughts ran wild, and I could not reign them in.
I definitely need to meditate right after I wake up if I want to reap benefits at work.
This challenge did not go smoothly. Since I’ve meditated before, I thought a deadline would just provide helpful pressure to keep a routine. Instead, I learned that to meditate consistently I would have to change my lifestyle.
Meditation magnifies the way you treat your body and mind. Been slumped over a computer for 12 hours? You’ll erupt in aches if you try and sit still. Worried about something? Good luck turning all those thought scribbles into a blank slate. Drunk? Get ready to feel even more woozy. Meditation is the anti-bandaid — it exposes your wounds. To successfully clear your mind you must change bad habits.
I learned that for meditation to help me at the office, I actually have to work and stress less. Otherwise, I am too rushed in the mornings to carve out 10 minutes. And even when I manage to, I spend the whole time noticing how anxious I am about what needs to get done. This week has inspired me to slow down. I really thought that by day seven, meditation would be easier. But it only felt good when I had mental space and physical energy.
Meditation is the anti-bandaid — it exposes your wounds. To successfully clear your mind you must change bad habits.
Before I try and meditate every day, I will commit to a schedule where I wake up early and don’t turn on my computer right away so that I have enough energy to clear my head. It wasn’t effective for me to meditate later in the day. Once I establish that routine, I will add in meditation a few times a week and scale up from there.
Sitting to clear your mind is an excellent barometer of physical and mental health. It was sad to realize I could not even sit still for 10 minutes. I recommend meditation to anyone who needs a reminder that to be more effective at work, they need to slow down.