I’m not shy about my meditation addiction. I’m not tactful, either. When I think it could help someone, I say something. I’ve probably brought up meditation with a dozen of my friends over the past year, and while I hope I’m not too pushy or annoying, I can’t stay silent when I feel I can help.
Last week, one of my teenagers was due to take a first semester final exam for an advanced placement course. She was dreading it. She knew it was going to be hard, and she also knew she could rework and resubmit certain assignments in hopes of improving her grade before heading into the exam. However, she didn’t want to re-do the assignments. Some of them were extremely long, others were multiple choice quizzes where she might not score any more points than previously. She had a good grade heading into the final, but when I sat with her to discuss whether she was ready for the exam, she got increasingly agitated as I pointed out that if she were that worried about the test, she had several opportunities to add points to her grade before taking the test. Basically, her thoughts and her feelings were swirling around in her head in a toxic mix, creating anxiety and obscuring any sense of what the right path was.
Look, I told her. You can only control the things that are in your power right now. You can’t control anything else. You can’t control what will be on that test, whether the teacher will grade easily or not, and what your final grade will be. You can only address the process, not the result. Satisfy yourself that you’ve done what you are willing to do, for reasons that you are comfortable with, and then go into the exam and learn something from taking it. Next time you’ll have more experience and that will help. But right now you can only do what you can do.
A year ago, I don’t know if I could have put it that way. Working with teenagers is tricky, to say the least. They need to own their own process, but they also want to please you and they also want to achieve their goals. Developing a meditation habit has helped me to let go of any notion of control over the future, and I’ve been relentless about delivering that message to my kids.
I’m not a Buddhist, although with my mother’s Asian background and my own studies in East Asian cultures, I know a lot about Buddhism. I’ve always known about the huge role that meditation plays across Asia. But my personal interest in meditation started when I came across Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier. I don’t even remember where I heard about the book, which was published at the very end of 2014, but I had been thinking for some time that it was getting increasingly difficult to pay attention. My short-term memory was worsening, and I was occasionally wandering in and out of rooms, trying to remember why I had gone there to begin with. I was becoming concerned, when I heard a radio interview with a journalist who stated that memory problems in middle age were probably not early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, but more likely to be increased difficulty with focus. I was apparently not paying close enough attention to moments of my life, and letting them slip right through my fingers.
Well, that wasn’t a surprise. I wish I could just blame the increasingly large role that the internet has assumed in my life since I first acquired a Prodigy account in 1991, but it’s not that simple. The internet, kids, managing a household, homeschooling, dealing with first my own and then my spouse’s frequent international travel–it was all piling on. I avoided purchasing a smart phone for a long time but finally caved in 2011. I don’t know whether that helped or made it worse. But at the beginning of 2016, when I found Dan Harris, I needed all the help I could get. I got the audiobook version, which he reads himself. I really liked this, because he has a pleasant, newscaster’s timbre to his voice, and some of his writing is quite funny, so the jokes are told well.
I was convinced by his message, which was that meditation is not just for Buddhists and New-Agers. He is a self-proclaimed skeptic and would not have been convinced by a message that involved, as he put it, “smells and bells.” That was a relief to me. I’m a skeptic also, and I already have a religion, thanks. I wasn’t looking for spiritual guidance. I was looking–desperately–for peace, a way to get the over-scheduler in my head to just leave me alone.
What made a genuine difference was that Dan Harris has put out an app, also called 10% Happier. I started using it and haven’t stopped. It does cost $9.99 per month, but there is a trial period, and by the time my thirty days were over, I was hooked. There are courses with prominent meditation teachers, guided meditations, simple meditation timers, and even brief (one minute!) meditations where you cannot claim that you “don’t have time to meditate.” All of it is delivered with a practical, matter-of-fact tone.
And yes, I have found that it makes a difference. The first time I noticed that the meditation habit was changing my ability to concentrate was an occasion where I realized I wasn’t actually listening to my spouse explain his travel plans. I stopped him, apologized, and asked him to repeat himself. I’m not perfect by any means, but I now recognize many occasions where I start to “zone out” or become anxious about something other than what is in front of me. I’m able to stop and redirect my attention better, and often I’m able to notice and accept feelings of anxiety, frustration, and fear for what they are, rather than to become gripped by those emotions.
My teenager told me that she was willing to accept the risk of walking into the exam without spending the hours of time necessary to rework all of those old assignments, and she wanted to use the time she had to go through all of her notes and old exams instead. In the end, she did pretty well on the exam, but most importantly, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to her about paying attention to what she is doing in the moment, rather than to fret about something that hasn’t happened.