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A few years ago, as part of a wellness regimen meant to overcome my often debilitating anxiety, I decided to begin a meditation practice.
I was going to beat my panic attacks, and I was going to win at life by meditating, so I went at it with my typical Type A, hard-core zeal.
Since I didn’t want to meditate wrong (Goddess forbid), I studied up. I bought books, pored over websites, followed Instagram accounts, and made a few Pinterest boards. I even bought some new essential oils. I don’t know why, but it seemed like meditating would work faster if I smelled like lemongrass and sandalwood.
Successful meditators have fancy pillows and a shrine in their home, preferably with a little fountain and some statues of deities. They have bamboo growing somewhere, there’s always incense, and I definitely needed some extra flowy, white linen outfits, right? And once I had all of my accessories in place, I realized that highly effective people set concrete goals. I would achieve total enlightenment in three months, cure myself of anxiety and depression, become a famous inspirational speaker, and live calmly ever after, dammit.
At first, I scheduled and logged my meditation sessions obsessively. I journaled, I practiced, and I reflected. I tried several variations of Om, 25 different Sanskrit mantras, and more YouTube videos than I’m willing to admit. I even meditated about meditating.
Still, every day when I’d sit or lie on my mat, with some gentle pan flute music playing, I always wondered if I was doing it “right.” It didn’t feel right. Nothing was happening.
I was so bad at meditating that a lot of the time I’d simply fall asleep, and I didn’t even try to stay awake. I’d suffered from insomnia for so long that it was pretty amazing that I could fall asleep at all, so I took it.
Not only that, my mind wouldn’t even go blank. Wasn’t that supposed to happen? I was also pretty sure I was supposed to see mystical visions and get into contact with my spirit guides, and maybe start remembering some particularly meaningful moments from my past lives. Exactly zero of these things occurred, so clearly, I was a failure at meditating.
Tracking my progress became my obsession. Was I rewiring my brain yet, I wondered? How could I measure it? Did I need a better mantra? More repetitions on my mala? A prettier mala with different, more powerful crystals? I tried guided classes and techniques I found on the internet, but I wasn’t necessarily feeling different. Maybe I needed to go to one of those ashrams where you have to be silent for a week and eat nothing but lentils, I thought.
Little by little, all my crazy habits began to drop off. I stopped all of the scheduling and obsessing and analyzing my meditation habits. My journal ended up under my bed, and I left it there. My malas hung on a nail in my bedroom, and honestly? I didn’t really like the smell of those essential oils anyway.
I stopped thinking about meditation so much. I gave up trying to quantify my achievement. Some days, I forgot to meditate at all—at least in the same ways I had been. Sometimes, I didn’t chant, make complicated hand motions, or perform elaborate rituals, and instead simply rested, letting whatever thoughts came in my head come in and then float out, because I’d concluded that completely clearing my mind was unlikely to happen anyway, and I probably wasn’t cut out for mystical visions.
At first I thought I’d failed, but then on a walk one day, I realized something: not caring so much about meditating meant the meditating was working! I hadn’t been meditating “wrong” since there isn’t really a “wrong,” but I had been unconsciously trying to overachieve one more thing, and that attitude was a symptom of the anxiety I was trying to overcome.
I’d been treating calmness as a competition and trying to be the best at it. That approach pretty much defeated the whole point of the practice.
People always told me I was wound a little tight. I knew was high-strung, perfectionistic, and unflinchingly goal-oriented, but what I didn’t know at first was that I would carry these traits, which were a symptom of my anxiety, into my meditation practice.
Meditation taught me that my calmness, my enlightenment, my “progress” so to speak, could not be measured, logged, quantified, or assessed like data. It was the antidote to that mindset, and when I unconsciously began letting those impulses go, when I detached from the eventual outcome, that’s when I understood that I was finally getting closer to what I was seeking.
There is no valedictorian of meditation. There are no outside rewards, no Tibetan monks to dump a barrel of Gatorade on your head as if you were a star athlete who finally won the big game. There is no future goal to strive toward.
Some days I’ll meditate, and some days I’ll take a nap. I might skip a week and catch up later. Who cares? Luckily, I’m not getting graded. No one is judging me.
Understanding this has been enormously freeing. I no longer seek validation for meditation, not even from myself. Whatever. It’s okay. Most of the time, I maintain a pleasant sort of indifference in the moment, and it’s the very opposite of anxiety.