One thing I have done to try to improve my situation and specifically my mood and mental health, is that I have begun meditating.
It’s something I’ve thought about doing for years, but stupidly, never thought to actually try. Well, no, I tried a time or two; I asked my wife, who has practiced meditation for years (She’s not strictly a Buddhist, but her philosophy and mindset are often — let’s call it Buddhist-adjacent) how to do it; she tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t take the step of actually having her guide me through the practice, I just wanted instructions so I could do it on my own. And she tried, but it’s hard to work just from someone’s description of meditation, so it never really came together for me. Also, I am very aware that I don’t have much time during the average day: my work day is from 8:00-4:20 (And isn’t it amazing that my high school chose 4:20 as a significant time during the day, as the time when the students need to go home; it’s surely only a matter of time until they decide that each class should be 69 minutes long, and then every middle school boy there will be lost), and my commute is about 45-60 minutes depending on traffic and who’s driving for my carpool; then I need to do the usuals around the house — I tend to get the groceries and wash the dishes because my wife does the cooking; I usually feed the dogs and take them for walks, because she cares for the birds and the tortoise– and so on. I don’t need to list the daily tasks to help you understand why my day is full. But there is the extra factor that teaching means you work at home as well as at school, and also that the work is never done. So literally any time I have a choice about what to do, one voice in my head (sometimes soft, sometimes very loud) says “Maybe you should grade something.” And then because I’m a writer, which is also a task that requires a tremendous amount of time, another voice says “Maybe you should write something.”
All of which is to say that I have struggled to set time aside for something as seemingly unnecessary as sitting quietly with my eyes closed for ten or twenty minutes, trying to empty my head. Surely I should be grading. Or writing. Or vacuuming.
But then this year, my already-full head got over-full. Might have happened with the pandemic; might have happened with buying a house this past spring; might have happened with various health crises and concerns happening to my parents and my wife’s parents. What has always been “a lot” in my head finally became “too much.” I cried out for help, on Twitter, as it happened, and a very kind fellow teacher recommended a meditation app called Headspace, with the extremely strong recommendation that the app is free for teachers. He said it helped him deal with stress, and maybe I should give it a try.
So I gave it a try.
And I liked it.
Now, it has not solved my problems; clearly, since writing these blogs is another attempt to deal with the issues I’m facing. Headspace focuses on what is called “Mindfulness meditation,” which is essentially trying to be present in the moment and fully aware of where you are and what you are feeling, without judging or thinking about the moment or where you are and what you are feeling. And maybe that’s how all meditation works; I dunno. But this meditation is mostly about emptying your mind while focusing on your breathing.
I’m proud to say that I’m good at breathing. I sort of always have been; I’ve been a singer all my life, so I’ve got pretty good breath control and lung capacity. I lost much of that when I became a smoker during my senior year of high school, and for the subsequent 19 years when I kept my pack-a-day cigarette habit; but I gave up smoking better than ten years ago, now, so my breath is back — and seriously, that does make me proud.
But I SUCK at emptying my head.
That’s oversimplifying it, because the idea is not really to empty your head; it is to step back from your thoughts, observing and acknowledging them as they arise, and then letting them go without getting caught up in them. So the thoughts come, as thoughts always do; but they don’t stay, because you don’t stay with them. I like that concept, because it makes much more sense and feels much more realistic than my original misunderstanding of meditation, which was that you were to control your mind so completely that it doesn’t think anything beyond “Ommmmmmmmm.” (And again, not an expert, so maybe that is exactly what Zen meditation, for instance, is supposed to do; but I doubt it. Because I can’t really picture that kind of thought control being possible.)
Regardless, though, I still suck at it.
I think too much. Particularly, for me, I think of scenarios and then imagine myself in them. In those scenarios, I mostly interact with other people who I am also imagining, usually my mental versions of real people I have to, or should, talk to for one reason or another. I plan out conversations, imagine the responses I would get, and then consider ways to reply to them. Sometimes they are pleasant conversations I would like to have — I might think about talking to my wife about dinner plans, for instance — but much more often they are things I am somewhat anxious about, or angry about. I think a lot about what I will say to my students, and also about what I should have said to them but didn’t say. And because I’m picturing whole scenarios and conversations, I get caught up in the thoughts much too easily. I don’t simply observe the thoughts, acknowledge them, and let them go; I grab them and hold on tight. I swallow them whole — or maybe I let them swallow me.
Point is, I can sit quietly, breath deeply, still my body; but then I sit there and think about the same bullshit I’m always thinking about. And in this last year, especially, that bullshit has become extremely stressful.
I took a walk with my dogs this morning. A long walk, which is one of my favorite things to do on the weekends, when I have time. Usually I like to listen to podcasts; that’s been how I get my news, and also how I work slowly on improving my understanding of philosophy and a few other subjects I’m especially interested in. But this morning, I stopped the podcast after no more than a minute, because I had to think about that one class.
All teachers know that one class. (Though one of the especially difficult things about teaching is that that one class changes over the course of a school year, as the students come and go, or as the year progresses and their attitudes and demeanors shift.) Mine is currently my last period sophomore English class. I don’t want to get into details, but we’ve reached the point where something has to change. And I spent the walk thinking about that. The whole time. I went through three different ways I could handle the situation, three different attitudes I could present to the students; each one with an imagined speech I would give to them on Monday.
So that’s what I mean. I get caught up in the thoughts, think about them too much, and I lose time that I should be spending relaxing and enjoying myself — which is something I very much need to do in order to reduce my stress and discontent. I’ve always done it, always gotten caught up in overthinking; but it’s worse now both because there are more things bothering me, and because I’m struggling to deal with being bothered; it takes me longer to work through the problems in my head. Often I can’t work through them.
Though I am proud to say I have come up with a solution for the class, one that I like, and I feel ready for Monday. Which is good because it means I won’t keep thinking about the same issue every time I go to sleep, and every time I wake up. When I do that, lately (another thing I’ve always done, lay in bed overthinking and imagining scenarios), I’ve tried to follow my meditation practice: focus on breathing, relax my body, let the thoughts go.
I can’t do it. Too busy thinking. And also, I suck at meditating, so I don’t really commit to relaxing into meditation, because my insomniac brain doesn’t believe it will help. By which I mean, I don’t believe it will help, because I am my insomniac brain, and I have not yet learned to trust and believe in my meditation. Because I suck at it. Can’t stop thinking, and getting caught up in my thoughts.
You know what, though? I’m still doing it. I’m still meditating. Almost every day.
And I like it.
I like taking that ten minutes or so for myself. I really like being quiet for that time. I like making a commitment, every day, to trying to do something good for me and my mood and my mental health. I like breathing deeply (Maybe I mentioned that I’m quite good at breathing) and I like trying to relax and let go. Even if I suck at it.
I think it’s helping — though again, it clearly isn’t enough on its own to make me feel good all the time — but more importantly, as the guides on the Headspace app keep telling me, it’s not about being successful, or reaching a certain goal or achievement; it’s not about judging the success or failure of my meditation practice. It’s about practicing. It’s about showing up every day, taking the time, making the commitment. And they keep assuring me, if I keep doing it, eventually I will get better at it.
But the whole point about showing up, taking the time, making the commitment? That’s true. I know it from — well, everything.
I know it from teaching, because I know one of the most important things I can do for my students is show up for them, every day or as close to it as I can manage, and willing to work to help them, or as close to that as I can manage. One of the worst things I can do to them is give up on them. One of the most frustrating things about teaching is that they give up on me. Quickly. Repeatedly. En masse. But my job is still to show up for them. Which I do. But it’s hard. And getting harder. But still, I take the time, I make the commitment; and it works. If nothing else, my students almost universally respect me as a teacher, and that’s why.
I know this also from my marriage. My wife is amazing, but also, we’ve been together for more than a quarter-century (and HOLY SHIT I just realized that), and that means not everything is or has been perfect, and that means work. But we haven’t drifted apart, or lost our deep connection, because both of us show up for each other, and keep showing up for each other. Every day.
I know it from writing, because I know that writing requires me to try to keep writing, as much as I can, as often as I can. That one’s tougher, because I don’t see the rewards from it. But I do see some rewards, because I know that my writing now is better than it used to be. And it’s not because I took a class, or apprenticed myself to a mentor; it’s not because I had an epiphany, and it’s not because I met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight and sold my soul. It’s just because I keep doing it. I keep trying, I keep putting in the time and the effort.
I keep showing up.
And things get better.
So that’s what I’m hoping for with meditation.
And with everything else.