by Emily Morris
For the past year, I traveled to publications all over the United States. I worked for a media company in Ann Arbor, installing and training users on software that publishes the advertising content of newspapers. As a recent college grad, I felt awkwardly proud and self-conscious saying, “Yeah, I’m here on business.”
When working with larger companies, sometimes I’d be gone for two weeks, home for a few days, and gone for another ten. On the road, I often worked fifty or sixty hours a week. Numerous times I woke up in a hotel room without the faintest idea of which state I was in.
Halfway through the winter, the internal struggle between pleasing our customers and taking care of myself began taking a toll on my body. I was always eating on-the-go, inhaling a greasy plate of whatever was fastest. I found myself in hotel gyms at 1:00 a.m., iPod blaring, just trying release pent up anxiety. I woke up each day with a stomachache.
Around February, I admitted to myself that I had to slow down. As luck would have it, a few weeks later I passed the Zen Buddhist Temple on a walk through Ann Arbor. It was a yellow, Victorian-style house with a brick wall and a discreet sign advertising meditation classes in front. Although I’d heard stories about meditation transforming one’s perspective, the idea of sitting alone and focusing on not thinking had never made much sense to me.
One weekend, with work piling up and a relationship turning sour, I decided to drag myself to the temple for the afternoon service. It was a slushy February Sunday, and I removed my boots upon entering the foyer. The Dharma teacher, Maum, bowed to me with her hands in a prayer position, and I bowed in return. Each person did the same before entering the temple itself.
Inside, the lighting was dim, and there were four rows of mats facing the center. Each had a small, round pillow on it. I followed the example of others, settling onto a pillow with my legs tucked beneath me. I focused on breathing deeply.
We meditated for a brief period, and then Maum spoke about the interconnectedness of beings. She asked us about our experiences, generating a group discussion on listening without judgment. I walked out with a clearer mind and a deeper respect for others. Miraculously, I realized I’d let go of my anxiety.
After the service, Maum poured us tea, and I signed up for the next day-long meditation retreat. If one service could help, I thought, a day of meditation might provide the tools to quell my anxiety for good.
“What I’ve found is that meditation is not about escaping from reality, but rather building an inner stillness that permeates your being even amidst chaos.”
The day of the retreat was a sunny March Saturday—I could smell the earth beginning to thaw. The other attendees and I arrived around 8:30 a.m., trickling in through the basement door. There were twelve of us, and we ranged from petite to large, shaggy-haired to clean-cut, and young to old.
We were sleepy but anxious, yawning and glancing around. There was a small kitchen, a sitting area, and a dining table near the stairs up to the main floor. After we’d signed in, Maum introduced herself as the head of the retreat. She passed out an itinerary and explained that we would keep noble silence nearly the entire day, a prospect that both frightened and comforted me.
Soon, I simply felt comforted—I realized, while sitting in silence all day, that complaining about the stress doesn’t quell it. Understanding where it’s coming from does, though, and consciously sitting with my thoughts with zero distractions allowed me to see my thought patterns. They were largely negative and self-critical.
We sat in meditation from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. in a sun-lit room on the main floor. The mats lined the perimeter, and we sat facing inwards. The sitting was broken into 25-minute intervals. At the end of each period, Maum gently hit a gong so that the ripples of sound floated into our ears and called our attention back to the room.
Then, she guided us through stretches: we massaged our faces and rolled our shoulders. We stretched our legs, wiggling our toes and bending and releasing each knee. Soon, she hit the gong again, and we began another interval.
Since it was a beginners’ retreat, Maum gave us occasional guidance. She set an example by bowing to the room each time she entered and exited. She knelt in front of her mat, smoothed it, and fluffed the pillow before each period. During the first interval, she told us to allow our thoughts to float in and out of our minds without judgment. She said that our minds would naturally wander, but we should always redirect our focus to the breath.
At noon, we had a silent lunch of rice, vegetables, water, and tea, cooked by Monyeom, a Dharma guardian of the temple. When we were finished, we cleaned our dishes, and Maum mentioned that we should silently thank our objects for their service.
The afternoon included more sitting meditation, a walking meditation around the local neighborhood, a period of rest, and a period of work practice. Work practice includes any physical labor that needs to be done around the temple. Maum instructed me to trim candles. Other attendees stacked a delivery of wood.
At the end of the day, we gathered in the basement sitting area to chat. We had fruit, cookies, and tea, and introduced ourselves, describing what brought us there. One woman had just given birth to twins and said that her meditation practice had fallen by the wayside as a result. She’d attended in order to escape from the chaos of her world, a common theme among us. I felt relieved; I wasn’t alone.
Since then, I’ve made time to meditate a few times per week. What I’ve found is that meditation is not about escaping from reality, but rather building an inner stillness that permeates your being even amidst chaos.
The time I invest in sitting with myself allows me to clear my mind and supplant old, negative thoughts with new, positive ones. Then, I can face the day’s challenges with a clear focus and quiet courage. Whether or not you’re interested in trying it, there are a few concepts that anyone can take away from meditation.
Five Meditation Concepts we can all use in our daily lives
1. Be present
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “live in the moment.” If you’re like me, you may be thinking, “Yeah, that sounds great, but how?”
Start small. Anything can be a meditation: all you have to do is focus 100 percent of your attention on the task at hand. Even if you’re just washing the dishes, do it with great care and consciousness. Feel the water splash over your palms, squeeze the sponge between your fingers, and smell the floral notes in the soap, all while carefully rinsing the residue from your utensils.
With practice, you’ll start to live more of your life this way—aware of all of your senses and immersed in your current experience. You’ll find that the coffee tastes richer and it’s quite beautiful how the light filters through that window in your office. Plus, when you complete important tasks, you’ll be more focused.
2. Breathe, then react
It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of life’s chaotic moments. Before reacting to a coworker’s harsh words or a friend’s unsolicited advice, take a deep breath and remind yourself that their words are not about you. Their words come from their own emotions, thoughts, and ideas, and ultimately those ideas stem from that person’s belief system. Don Miguel Ruiz explains this in his book, TheFour Agreements.
Once you realize this, you can listen to others without internalizing their criticism. In other words, you are free to use the ideas that work for you and let go of the ones that don’t. Alternatively, take a walk before dealing with the situation.
3. Only consume what benefits you
This goes for anything: thoughts, foods, experiences, you name it. If an unpleasant thought pops into your mind, you do not need to agree with it. You can let it go or modify it. Trade in, “I’m so stupid,” for “I’m learning more every day.” Commit to this habit, and it will change your outlook and eventually all of your experiences. An old teaching from meditation speaks to the way this works: “Right thought, right speech, right action.”
Every person who I speak with teaches me something. Even those who I disagree with teach me something because I view every interaction as an opportunity to learn.
Quite simply, people feel valued when someone listens to them without judgment. Don’t plan what you’re going to say next. Just listen, think about the person’s viewpoint, set aside your beliefs, and respond empathetically. Once you shift into this mindset, you’ll find that new friendships and business prospects fall into your lap.
5. Love yourself
“I love you,” is a commonly used phrase. I rarely hear people say, “I love myself,” and I think we should change that. Let’s openly admit that we love ourselves. Start by making a list of things you like about yourself. When you’re struggling, reread it.
Since we all make mistakes, let’s agree to forgive ourselves daily. Then, let’s love ourselves in any way we choose: take ten minutes per day, if not more, to do an activity you enjoy.
If you’re really strapped for time, just give your full attention to your nightly routines. Take extra care while washing your face and brushing your teeth, silently thanking your body for its hard work. Praise yourself for the things you accomplished that day—no accomplishment is too small to celebrate.
Advice from the Gurus: How to Get Started
Diane Powers, the founder of Bridgepointe, a non-profit that brings young students in the suburbs together with their counterparts in Detroit, has been practicing meditation for 19 years. She recommends starting with a Mindfulness Meditation course.
Years ago, after Powers had her third child, she experienced sciatic back pain. Her neurologist, Dr. Mitchell Elkiss at Providence Hospital, asked, “Do you think you can heal yourself?”
“It was the first time a doctor had ever asked me such a deep question,” Powers said. When she said yes, he pointed her to a Mindfulness Meditation course taught by a Physician’s Assistant, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. The purpose of the ten-week class was to control pain.
“I really liked having my first meditation classes be of science,” Powers said. “I recognized that just by controlling my thoughts, my body would respond. That was the most enlightening moment: I recognized that what I was thinking would come out in my physical body.”
Nine years ago, while seeking a spiritual practice, Maum found the book, Stumbling Toward Enlightenment by Jeri Larkin, who lived at the Zen Temple in Ann Arbor. She enjoyed the book so much that she decided to take a trip to the temple. Today, she teaches meditation courses in the same space. Seekers can take a class every Thursday evening for five weeks, or attend a beginners’ retreat.
If you’re a reader, pick up The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. The audio version contains portions that listeners can use as meditations. Another eye-opening book is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Both Tolle and Ruiz have informed my meditation practice, and in turn, this article.
If you’re a kinesthetic learner, yoga is a great way to begin. Hillery Beavers, a mother of four-year-old twins, first discovered meditation in a yoga class, where students would “lie on mats and go through each point in the body to relax it.”
Beavers recommends taking your mat to a quiet place to try this practice out. On the same note, I recently joined Yogis Anonymous, a website that has guided yoga and meditation videos for learners of all levels.
Meditation may have a stigma in our society: to many, it is mysterious and unconventional. By dissecting its benefits, though, we realize the stress reduction tools we’ve been missing. I attended the retreat eight months ago, and I can honestly tell you that now, when my grandma’s calling and I have 21 unread emails along with six calendar reminders going off and I had to be at my appointment ten minutes ago, I forgive myself for my tardiness and say a silent thank you for the magnificent life in and all around me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily is a Detroit-based writer, poet, and social media consultant. She works as the Communications Director of El Sueño (“The Dream”) Project.