Why you should care
Because if you’re thinking about trying meditation, here’s one way to dive in.
Laura Fraser is a San Francisco-based journalist, New York Times’best-selling memoirist and the co-founder of Shebooks.
I was swimming laps one day when I got to thinking about how mad I am that I don’t meditate more often. Of course, it’s unfair to berate myself for not doing something I know is good for me (meditating) right in the midst of doing something else that is good (swimming). But that’s just proof that I’m not compassionate with myself — i.e., that I need to meditate more. Like everyone else these days, from prisoners to startup founders, I realize meditation is essential to my well-being — and I’ve actually done it sporadically since before it was trendy — but that doesn’t make it any easier.
So there I was, slapping the water, yelling at myself about how I never meditate, even though I know that it makes me kinder, calmer and more patient. In fact, I once went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat and returned looking so relaxed my friends suspected I’d been off in Brazil having a face-lift. A random woman in a store I visited right after the retreat asked what I had done to have such a “peaceful glow.” An acquaintance at a party told me I seemed “gentle,” which is not a compliment I’d ever heard before.
Not two weeks after coming home from the meditation retreat in a blissful Buddha state, I was back to swearing at drivers.
Meditating keeps me from getting too wound up, helps me let go of worries, resentments and grudges, and gives me the buoyancy to float above useless anxieties. It helps me breathe. Float, float, breathe.
But the problem with meditation is that, like exercise, you have to do it often or the effects wear off. Not two weeks after coming home from the meditation retreat in a blissful Buddha state, I was back to swearing at drivers, firing off fierce emails and acting like the Dowager Countess on the phone with customer-service operators. I vowed I’d meditate. But no matter my intentions, I rarely sat (my meditation pillow is decorating the guest room).
Actually, one of the biggest problems with meditation is the sitting itself. Like most people who work in front of a computer, I sit all day long. When I’m trying to counter the stress of working, I don’t want to sit some more. In fact, as far as I understand it, yoga exercises were developed so people could tire their bodies enough to tolerate sitting meditation. If I had all day to exercise, then maybe I could sit and meditate too. But if the choice comes down to exercising or sitting, I’ll pick movement over meditation every time.
In the pool, I glanced at the clock to see how long I’d been swimming. Ten minutes. Forty to go. I was going to have to come up with something else to get mad at myself for not doing. I get so bored swimming laps. After you count the tile patterns on the floor and note who’s swimming faster or slower than you, there’s nothing to think about. It’s not like swimming outdoors, where you can look up and enjoy the sands of the Mayan Riviera or the trees surrounding a kettle pond on Cape Cod. You’re in a big, wet box, and it’s totally mindless.
I didn’t think about any issues — why dirty dishes are invisible to my partner, why my friend didn’t like the present I gave her.
Then I had a thought: Why not meditate and swim at the same time? While my body is on autopilot — breathing, turning and reaching — my mind could do a few laps of loving-kindness. In this type of meditation, you offer words of kindness and care to people in your life — typically starting with the easy ones and working your way up to those with whom you’ve had difficulties, ending with all beings everywhere. You imagine their faces and say words like, “May she be safe, may she be happy, may she be healthy, may she live in ease.”
I decided to try one per lap. I started with my wonderful boyfriend and best friends, holding their faces in my mind, repeating those loving-kindness phrases and then working out toward more distant or difficult friends, family members and colleagues. I didn’t think about any issues between us — why dirty dishes are invisible to my partner, why my best friend didn’t like the birthday present I gave her — but just focused on the phrases. Some people took several laps before I could manage to swim a whole lap with nothing but goodwill toward them, when I could move on.
The 50 minutes flew by. I got out feeling physically invigorated, and had an increased sense of calm and happiness that I don’t usually get with a session in the pool. I was singing in the shower.
Since then, it’s become my practice to meditate while I swim. I don’t do it every day, but at least once a week, I spend a whole day smelling chlorine on my skin and feeling compassion in my heart.