It wasn’t a resolution so much as a coincidence, but early in 2022 I decided that since I’d spent three years now putting sustained energy into improving my physical health with some good results that it was time to attempt the same for my mental and emotional well-being. I’d avoided it partly because it was such a murky goal. I mean, I suppose in a way a bright-eyed and newly-minted physician proclaiming “eat better and exercise more!” is also murky, but as a former vegetarian I had better tools at hand for transitioning to a (more, still not exclusively) plant-based diet. And my husband was already walking – or more accurately, running – the path to a stronger, more resilient body, so I possessed both a template and an exemplar. The doctor’s twin pronouncement, “Work on reducing your anxiety!” felt far more out of reach, even anxiety-inducing in its own right. There was so much in the world to be anxious about. How could I quell that buzzing in my brain?
More specifically, my internist had recommended a meditation app called Headspace. I had blown him off because, after all, I had been a seasoned, app-free meditator back when I was in college and it was just a matter of picking the habit back up, right? Except that – perhaps predictably – I never actually seemed to find the time.
When February of this year rolled around and I finally decided to take his advice, rather than just accepting the recommendation at face value I wanted to explore the wider space of meditation apps in case I could find something better. What I found was that the meditation app space is…vast.
Googling “best meditation apps” yielded article after article. 3 Best Meditation Apps. 7 Best Meditation Apps. 20 Best Meditation Apps. And there wasn’t even that much overlap between them. Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer, and Buddhify were the most commonly referenced, and for lack of a better winnowing strategy I focused on them and a few more exotic contenders.
Several I felt comfortable rejecting out of hand. Insight Timer had more of a celebrity presence than I felt I needed. “Let Matthew McConaughey read you a bedtime story” is no doubt someone’s jam, but not mine. Buddhify touted its “on-the-go” meditation for busy people – three minutes to serenity! – that I found both unnecessary given my lifestyle and very off-putting. The less frequently name-checked Sattva had an appealing old school approach to meditation in the Vedic style, with chants, mantras and mudras, but its home page also prominently featured a weird MBA vibe, as if an entrepreneur had tricked some artless lamas into offering up their wisdom and then packaged it like frozen burritos for sale. Slogans like “What gets measured, gets managed!” and the touting of “group meditation challenges,” invited me to do nothing so much as close Chrome and walk away.
That left me with Headspace and Calm. Headspace’s home page fronted its fee schedule in a simultaneously straightforward and disconcerting way, and offered the oddly specific claim that you would feel 14% less stressed in 10 days, but after that gave you some hint of what they offered, ranging from courses for beginning, intermediate and advanced meditation to sessions on how to deal with climate anxiety, nature sounds for bedtime and playlists for improved focus.
Calm gated access to its content behind the question “What can we help with today?” and options such as “Improve sleep quality,” “Reduce stress or anxiety,” “Self-improvement” or “Something else” and then required you to create an account before you could see anything at all.
So I relied, to some extent, on reviews. And ironically it was the positive reviews of Calm that decided me on…Headspace. Not because Calm seemed bad, but because reviewers’ tallying up of Headspace’s “negatives” crystallized for me what I was looking for from meditation. Calm played soothing nature sounds during their meditations. Aside from the teacher’s voice, Headspace was “too silent.” After a short talk on the meditation’s subject, the Headspace instructor’s directions were largely “invariant” from one session to the next, while the Calm teacher sprinkled little unique stories and anecdotes throughout. Headspace meditations also failed to provide “action items.”
Silence? Consistency? No todos to busy my mind with after the meditation is over? Literally, sign me up.
And Headspace has on balance been a positive influence, even if I have my issues with it. I like that the founder and voice of many of the exercises was once a Buddhist monk. I like less that he now has a net worth of one hundred million dollars. I like that there are daily short talks on interesting, varied topics that motivate me to take the time to meditate. I’m less fond of the push reminders and gamified streak achievements. But I am meditating again, and that feels like a good thing.
Since college, to the extent that I did intermittently resume something resembling meditation it was usually of the moving sort. Typically yoga, or tai chi, which let me feel like I was getting a side order of exercise with my mindfulness. But when I started running seriously yoga tended to exacerbate any niggling issues with my hips and knees rather than alleviate them. And after a four mile run I had neither the forty minutes nor the energy to devote to tai chi. So “just sitting” acquired an appeal that it hadn’t had previously.
I had forgotten all the unusual experiences that can crop up during a sitting meditation. For the first week, the transition from busy to quiet mind was accompanied by a bright, white flash. That faded with time to be replaced by other phenomena, like the feeling that my hands were six inches to the right of where they actually were. And although before I would have said our neighborhood was quiet I awakened to just how noisy it actually is, in birdsong, crow caws and hawk calls, in cars driving over gravel and weed whackers and wind chimes and rustling leaves. All good sounds, though, the sounds of life.
I had also forgotten how difficult meditation can be. The mind is a noisy place, and it likes the noise, so when I’m focusing on the breath suddenly replays of last night’s Destiny 2 video game session pop up in my head, or images of me being a goat farmer even though that has been an ambition of mine – well, never. If I try to meditate for longer than fifteen minutes I start believing that something has gone wrong with the app and that I’ll be sitting there literally forever. Which makes no sense, but there it is, and I have to exert all of the self-discipline I have at hand not to open my eyes and check that it’s still running because of course that isn’t the problem but rather the monkey mind getting restless and wanting to do something, even if that something is verifying that I’m still supposed to be meditating.
Then there are difficulties of technique. Headspace recommends counting your breaths – one on an inhale, two on an exhale, up to ten when you start over at one again. But I have a wee bit of an awkward relationship with counting. I can tell I’m in an anxiety vortex, for example, if I’m cooking and start counting the number of knife strokes I’m making – one cucumber slice, two cucumber slices – or how many mushrooms are dropping out of the bag, or how many flower stems I’m trimming. So instead while I’m meditating I try to focus on the act of breathing rather than a cyclical enumeration of inhales and exhales.
But as someone who is prone to hyperventilation that can also be problematic. Autonomic functions aren’t typically things we think about, for good reason, and when I first started focusing on the breath I was doing a lot less observing (as the instructor suggested) and a lot more, “Wow, that seems wrong, let’s force it into a different pattern” (which invariably makes it all worse: see “hyperventilation” above).
There are exercises to help regulate abnormal respiratory patterns when you fall into them while meditating – for example counting(!) seconds for each inhale and exhale and making sure that the latter is longer than the former. Or breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. And Headspace also has cute little videos of lazing cats, gently bobbing balloons, and its ubiquitous orange happy face swelling and shrinking in a gentle rhythm to match your breaths to.
Still it was a solid month before observing rather than interfering with respiration was the norm rather than the exception at the start of my every meditation. And on days when I’m anxious I still sometimes struggle. But now the struggle occurs during the meditation, and after a few minutes I’ll realize that a certain pressure has eased. I can ride the gentle flow of breath, and usually carry that forward after the session is over and not have to wrestle with it off and on all day.
I was surprised at the effect that even twenty minutes of stillness and breath observation had on the rest of my day. My meditation practice in college had been centered around Zen koans or mantras, and I didn’t really stop to wonder if that was the best approach for my already hyper-busy graduate student’s mind. My answer now is “probably not.” Sitting in silence, observing passing thoughts but not following them, has made me more – for lack of a better word – intentional when I go about the rest of my day.
Over the past years, for example, I had gotten into the habit of listening to music pretty much from when I got up in the morning until I went to bed, grown reliant on it to the point that if Spotify cut out in my car in a cell tower dead zone I went into something of a panic at the very notion of its absence. But when I began meditating again, I did it in silence. Then I started keeping a meditation journal, spending another few minutes thinking about whatever lesson the instructor had to impart that day, and I did that in silence as well. And soon that compulsion to reach for something to listen to fell away. I listen when I’m in the mood some artist or genre in particular. But otherwise, silence is fine.
And though I’m far from perfect at it, I’m slowly learning to “do the thing that I’m doing,” without letting my mind run off in twenty other places. Watering flowers is watering flowers, not thinking about next week’s menu plan or why I haven’t heard from the landscapers yet or wondering if a few tweaks to my gamepad setup will help me not die so often when I’m playing Elden Ring.
Short, Sharp Shocks
This may all sound like an introduction to “how I became a calmer, happier person, and you can too!” But it isn’t, not entirely. Because any meditation practice with even a hint of Buddhism underlying it – and given its roots Headspace has more than a hint – requires grappling with fundamental concepts like suffering, compassion, impermanence and attachment. It asks you to change your perspective on the world and how you interact with it on a deep, and sometimes deeply uncomfortable, level.
One early meditation spoke of anger and contempt, and how those feelings damage both you and the people around you. I felt resistance to that notion building up in me in a wave of – well, anger. When I stopped to examine my feelings I realized that in fact I like my anger and contempt, am even deeply attached to them. I think of them as the source of a lot of my cleverness, the wellspring from which quippy remarks and righteous outbursts flow. Who am I without them?
And yet one of the reasons I started meditating again was because in a cultural moment that is often aggressively, even angrily, prescriptive about what to say, what to think, how to feel, I wanted to find a different way. And what did I think that meant if not me being different? I don’t have control over anyone else.
Another meditation dealt with living through challenging times, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And I had been struggling with how to engage with the horrific loss of life and suffering, especially on social media, virtually paralyzed by what could be the right response.
Silence out of respect for the trauma of the country’s citizens rather than posting my dog’s latest antics? But then would I ever say anything again? According to Wikipedia there are currently five major wars being fought (10,000 or more deaths in the past year), eighteen wars (1,000 – 9,999 annual deaths), and twenty minor conflicts (100 – 999 annual deaths). Ukraine was a surprise and a shock, with more immediate potential consequences for the U.S. than more distant disputes, but those distant disputes are no less traumatic for the individuals caught in them. Should I try to hold them all in my mind?
Alternatively, should I acknowledge Ukraine’s suffering at least briefly, then move on to my mundane life? Change my profile picture, post articles and photos on the horrors of the war or where to donate for relief? Get angry with other people who are posting silly TikTok memes? Ignore it completely because it is too vast an event for me to have anything useful to say?
This was a moment when I could imagine the value of having a teacher instead of muddling through alone with an app. They might have specific suggestions rather than the vague generalities of “How to Cope with Challenging Times.” But ever since my few regrettable years as an evangelical Christian I’ve been allergic to religious organizations, even ones as unmoored from their centuries of liturgical and ritual trappings as contemporary Buddhism in the West. So I stuck with my solitary muddling.
Then the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. And I realized that my ruminations on Ukraine and social media were a mere intellectual exercise in which I had – not to my credit – no real emotional or moral stake. I had words here, about viewing how other people and I myself interacted on social media against the backdrop of the invasion through a lens of compassion, and I deleted them all. They were glib. They were the self-absorbed trivialities of a child trying too hard to look like an adult in the room by mimicking the vocabulary they heard.
And the “anger” that I considered in that early meditation was a paltry thing compared to what I felt now. This wasn’t a toy kind of rage to amuse myself and others with, but a surging force that pumped through my entire body mingled with my blood. I had a headache for four days straight when the decision was announced, that for over a week returned if I thought about it for too long. I ran myself to nausea my first workout after (“after” only means one thing to me now), and spent a month listening only to electronica and ambient music rather than run the risk of hearing some man singing about his love for a woman. Lines from 10-year-old me’s talking Ken dolls played through my head like a hammer striking an anvil. “Barbie’s a great cook!” “Barbie hates math!” How can we be here…how can we be here…how can we be here again!”
When I sat down to meditate I hated it. When I clicked on Tricycle’s “Daily Dharma” emails I hated them too. Be calm? Be compassionate? Be understanding? Fuck you! But I kept sitting, kept reading, because a tiny seed had begun to sprout just enough for its single, slender, bright green cotyledon to remind me that anxious days and hard times were why I had begun to practice again, and if I walked away in turmoil no true leaves would ever grow.
I breathed. I grew angry. I breathed some more. Thoughts slowly arose from my rage, about what role anger played in this whole mess in the first place. For decades canny politicians had been stoking outrage over abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues to paper over economic and ecological policies that were deeply unfriendly to the constituents they courted. And it worked. Because we like our anger. It reminds us that we’re alive.
I needed to remind myself of the truth of it. Anger is blinding. Anger makes me easy to lead around by the nose. Anger isn’t necessary for action. I breathed. I let the anger go. I reached for equanimity. Mostly.
The Man in the Trench Coat
I continue to struggle with equanimity. In a “Daily Dharma” recently the author, a Zen priest, said that most people do, even more than with loving kindness and compassion. Equanimity is the virtue that left the taint of nihilism over Buddhist practice when it was first introduced to the West because people were convinced that it meant not feeling anything, not caring about anything. And though intellectually I know better, know that lack of emotion and lack of attachment to emotion are two different things, those threads are difficult to separate out.
I remember the incident that set me on my first serious investigation of Buddhism. My mother and I were at the South Coast Plaza Mall in Costa Mesa one morning. It was early, before most of the stores were open. A few days prior we had run afoul of a close encounter with a man wielding a knife at a Wendy’s, and we were both on edge. So when I saw a man walking idly, examining everything around him with a scrutinizing gaze, I grew tense. “Keep an eye on the strange guy in the trench coat,” I muttered to her.
Five minutes later I’d forgotten him, as we came across a beautiful, massive diorama in the central courtyard, almost overwhelming in its intricate details. It depicted a tall, snowy mountain rising from verdant foothills, the foothills in turn surrounded by bustling cities full of skyscrapers and people and cars. So many people and cars, rushing about their oh so very important business. The foothills were populated more sparsely, by farmers absorbed in tending their fields, woodcutters absorbed in felling their trees, fishermen absorbed in catching their fish. The mountain was the most sparsely populated, only a handful of people dotted here and there. Each of them was alone, and each gazed contemplatively at the path ahead of them or at the sky.
“This is beautiful!” I exclaimed to my mother. “And allegorical, I think,” I added as I studied it. “The masses who live unnaturally,” I gestured at the cities, “the people who live close to the land but too hand to mouth to think about it,” pointing at the hillside, “and then,” I peered closely at the mountain climbers, “the few trying to see and understand more.” We circumambulated the display slowly. “I wonder who made this?”
Behind me I heard a soft, pleasant voice. “The strange guy in the trench coat.”
I turned beet red even before I turned around. He was smiling gently, no rancor or judgment in his eyes. He could have been annoyed, maybe even should have been annoyed. But instead he said softly, “I’m glad you like it.” He slipped a card out of his pocket and held it out to me. It was for a local Buddhist temple. “You should visit,” he said. “I think you’ll like us.”
My parents discouraged me from going, mumbling something about cults, and while I sometimes regret capitulating I also understand why they reacted as they did. I had just recently emerged, after all, from that unfortunate feverish bout of evangelical Baptistry, and they were enjoying the return of their bitter, agnostic daughter too much to want to lose her again so soon.
But I studied and meditated for a while on my own, and I remembered the diorama and the man in the trench coat. And I think of him now as one of my models for equanimity. I certainly judged him a vagrant or a criminal, and unkindly spoke my assessment aloud, and it would not have been unreasonable for him to judge me in turn and respond with irritation and hostility, or just not engage with me at all. But even if he did have any of those feelings, he chose to set them aside and focus on my appreciation for his work.
And after all these years I still remember him, and the small lesson he taught in a simple exchange. And on days when I’m busy or tired or just don’t feel like slowing down I’ll hear his voice saying, “You should visit. I think you’ll like us,” and I’ll put on my headset, fire up Headspace and sit for a while.
I have so far had no success at meditating, but you’ve inspired me to try again.
I hope it goes well for you! For me, if nothing else, it’s twenty minutes a day that I don’t spend doom scrolling through the news 🙂