View this post on Instagram
A dear friend commented a few days back:
“There is so much stillness around you, Roopa. There is such a sense of peace when I see you and talk to you. What changed? Are you meditating or something?”
She giggled when she asked me about meditating. And I understood completely.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a true-blue Scorpio who is overly passionate and feels everything deeply. Being still is not something I am known for within my core group.
But then life happens. Age happens. Tragedy happens. Maturity happens. And as passionate as I still am, things do change—I changed. I went from being chronically hyper to staying still and finding my zen.
And it all happened organically.
No one in my friend group would believe that my calmness came from meditation. That was just not me. And they were right. So, I answered my friend and said, “Nope. No meditating.”
It’s not as if I haven’t tried. Over the years, several of my well-wishers have tried to get me to slow down. They worried about the possibility of my getting high blood pressure if I continued the way I did. So I did try to meditate.
With meditation, we’re told to focus on something (maybe a candle flame), repeat a word or a mantra, try and get rid of conflicting thoughts, and focus on breathing. I was warned that meditating takes a while to “get” and that I should give it time.
Well, I did. I tried to meditate for months. But it just did not work. For one, I could never sit still in one place long enough to count beads, which is supposed to allow one to focus better. I couldn’t stop my mind from focusing on the clutter of my thoughts. In fact, when I meditated, I found myself thinking of and getting hassled about things and situations I had actually long forgotten. Honestly, I ended up more tense and hyper after a meditation session.
Others recommended that I expend all that hyper energy by doing intensive workouts. So I tried those too. I went to the gym and walked on incline treadmills, lifted weights, did Zumba, hot yoga, Pilates, and so much more. I always started strong—with gusto. And while I’d stick with a new workout regime consistently for two full weeks, I’d then give up.
Luckily, I realized early on that I had to exercise for my physical fitness because I am not blessed with the skinny genes that some are. And as a short person, I need to keep my weight in check since even a measly extra pound makes me go from slim to stocky in an instant. I knew I had to exercise to avoid turning into a balloon, and over the years the only thing that stuck was walking.
I’ve been walking anywhere between 60-90 minutes every single day (Yep. Every. Single. Day.) for the past 15 years. And not because I like it but because it was the only physical activity that I hadn’t given up after two weeks.
Over time, I realized that walking didn’t just allow me to stay fit, it also allowed me to calm down. Those 60-90 minutes that I walk—sometimes inside my apartment, sometimes within the walking pathway of my condo complex, and other times outside in nature or smack dab in the middle of a bustling city, even as buses and cars and cycles and tuk tuks whizz past me setting off a cloud of dust that settles on my face and my body—were actually therapeutic for me.
It was during those walks that I mulled over my life and the choices I was making and the issues I was dealing with. Since I walked by myself, I was able to do this quietly and calmly. And with that sense of calm came a sense of awareness. My mind was free of the other clutter that typically takes hold of me and I started to see things clearly. And with that clarity came a sense of peace, which then translated into other aspects of my life.
Unbeknownst to me, I was meditating—except I wasn’t doing it the traditional way. I wasn’t sitting cross-legged on a floor with my eyes closed and trying to keep my mind free of clutter. I was doing it as I walked the streets of my city, amidst the sounds of traffic and the screams of a toddler and the noise of customers arguing with the vegetable vendor.
This made me think: What else am I doing that isn’t meditation in the classical sense of the word but is doing for me what meditation does for others?
Here are four other alternatives to meditation that have helped me find peace:
I’ve used this example in other contexts as well, but cleaning is such a profoundly meditative and spiritual experience for me.
As I go down on all fours and use an old toothbrush to get that ratchet black stain in the corner of my bathroom door, there is a sense of peace that comes over me that I cannot explain. I find myself thinking about profoundly important life choices like shifting to a new city, telling a loved one I can’t put up with their BS anymore, or asking for a raise from my boss as I use my rag cloth to clean off the mild layer of dust on my work desk or clean off the limescale in my shower stall or remove all the curtains in the house and toss them in the washing machine.
I do some of my best thinking when I’m cleaning. And I’m also at my calmest when I do so.
Binge-watching movies and TV shows
This may be counter-intuitive. How can I become a calmer person when I’m bingeing thriller TV shows like “The Night Agent” or “Jack Ryan” or doing a Quentin Tarantino movie marathon? How can watching gory, violent movies like “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Kill Bill” (one and two) be meditative or therapeutic?
It is for me, though. Even as I’m fully engaged in whatever film or TV show I’m watching, whether it’s a comedy or a romcom or a thriller, another part of my brain is able to disengage and focus on the movie of my own life. Maybe it’s the multitasker in me that’s able to navigate two different worlds at the same time and make sense of both.
Other times, the content I’m watching will remind me of something I’m going through in real life. Then I pause what I’m watching and think about the issue I’m dealing with. The break can be 10 seconds or 10 minutes or an entire day. But watching shows or movies sometimes allows me to calmly think about my real-life situations and, often, find solutions to them.
I know how incredibly privileged I am to include this in my list of alternatives to meditation. I have a job that allows me to travel. Going to a brand new place, meeting new people, immersing myself in a completely different culture, and allowing myself to go with the flow has settled me down more than anything else.
From wearing a hijab to see the inside of a stunning mosque in Istanbul to being smart about the places to avoid in Paris (yes, there are many unsafe places in the stunningly beautiful city) to wondering if this is what space looks like when I saw the vast white expanse of land that went miles without a single human as I made my way from the airport in Reykjavik, Iceland, to my hotel, travel is such a meditative process.
And oddly enough, I find every aspect of traveling soothing and calming. Even waiting many long hours in transit at airports. I am not someone who will ever complain about long layovers because I love laying back, watching the hustle and bustle of travelers from all over the world, and thinking about my own life. Traveling is beyond meditative for me.
Eating is more than just food for my body and brain. It’s more than me being a foodie who adores new cuisine. To me, food (both cooking and eating) is meditative. I will admit that I’m not the greatest cook, so I prefer others’ cooking to my own, but the whole process of sitting down and enjoying food is calming. As I taste the varied masalas of Indian cooking—from turmeric to dhaniya to cardamom—to the gooey goodness of Italian pizza from a mom-and-pop restaurant on the streets of Rome to being a gluttonous pig who just has to eat a McDonald’s burger and fries every once in a while, I both enjoy the food and think about my life at the same time.
There is a joke among my friends, “The best way to calm Roopa down is to feed her.” Amen!
If you’re like me and the classic meditation process simply doesn’t work for you, I hope these alternatives give you something to think about.
Don’t worry if you cannot meditate the traditional way. Maybe your wellness and meditative routines could come from being immersed in nature, walking your dog, playing with your children, going hiking, jumping out of a plane—it could be anything. But once you find out what it is, you’ll find your calm, your zen.
If you also practice other forms of meditation, don’t forget to let me know in the comments below. I would love to try new ways to meditate!