Last week I noticed an old part of the fence in my yard had separated from its post and was threatening to fall over. Although I am not handy in any way, I grabbed a hammer and nails and headed out to bring the two pieces together until a more permanent fix could be implemented. The first couple of nails weren’t quite long enough, but when I found one that would work, I pounded it with all my might. It was a weird angle, though, and it was still a little loose, but I decided to just leave it alone. A half hour later, despite being back in the house writing, I couldn't let it go. I thought about that wobbly board and went back out to hammer it some more. You can see where this story is headed. On the fourth trip to try and improve my work, I hammered it so hard the original board split and the two pieces separated completely. This is so like my general approach to my life that I can barely even call it metaphorical. If there is something about which I can perseverate, I am on it.
I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. I have a memory of myself as a young teenager waking up in my little twin bed, covered with a yellow, quilted comforter in the security of my very middle class suburban home. Instead of enjoying the relative ease of my life, my mind went immediately to what I had to worry about. Once I had settled on which drama in my life distressed me most, I was set for the day. Whether it was how I was going to write my English paper when I hadn’t actually read A Tale of Two Cities, or what I was going to do about going steady with a boy I didn’t really like, I could hang on to that dilemma with every inch of my being for days at a time.
I would love to say that I am way over this kind of behavior, that I know when and how to let go of something and trust the universe that everything will work out just fine. And, in some ways, I am able to display a bit more self-control than I did when I was in my teens and even in my 20s and 40s. But just last week, I found myself hooked onto a self-imposed problem as if my tenacity meant the difference between life and death. Despite knowing it wasn’t even in the vicinity of life-threatening or earth-shattering, I dug into every corner of that quandary until I had exhausted myself and anyone else who would listen. I was shocked at my inability—and maybe even unwillingness—to just let it go. I’d done all I could do and anything else was beyond my control. That seemed to make no difference to the chatter in my head.
It was this experience—and my seeming inability to stop my brain from the rampant road trip it was taking—that put me in the perfect mindset to start thinking again about meditation. I’m clearly not a person who naturally resorts to a calm frame of mind when faced with a stressful situation. Instead, I rush to needing to find a solution and then hammer away at that outcome until I can barely concentrate on anything else. The idea of sitting mindfully and concentrating on my own breath usually seems as useful as banging myself in the head with a metal bucket.
I can’t ignore the feeling that I’ve discovered something new for myself, despite the fact that people have been practicing meditation for 3,000 years.
Of course it turns out that doing nothing other than what can be done is the perfect answer in most cases. Reminding one’s self that there is only so much we can control is actually a decidedly more beneficial activity than standing out in the yard with that hammer and handful of nails. But getting from here to there is infinitely harder than I imagined. I started with a little five-minute guided meditation, positioning myself comfortably in a big chair in my living room. I followed the voice, attended to my hands, and feet, and heart, just as the speaker from the podcast suggested. I noticed my breath, I relaxed my shoulders, I was aware of my thoughts as they floated delightfully into and out of my brain. I felt quiet and present ... and then I looked down at my watch. Only 30 seconds had passed and I still had another 4:30 to go. I hope this goes quickly, I found myself thinking, over and over again, suddenly realizing I hadn’t heard the last three or four sentences the calm voice was reciting.
By the third day, it really was easier to concentrate and the time passed much more unnoticed than when I’d started. I have to admit that, even as big and clunky as I feel in this delicate land of letting my brain take a rest, I’ve noticed a difference. One morning when I was running after practicing meditation for a few days, I started in on one of my regular monkey mind excursions. Wait, this is exactly what I’m trying not to do, I remembered, and actually focused instead on the tap, tap, tap of my running shoes on the concrete, “It’s Raining Men” blasting on my i-Pod. In less than a minute I was truly present right where I was, and I noticed it.
I can’t say I’ve achieved some lifetime victory, or that my growing ability to bring myself back to the current moment is going to serve me as quickly and efficiently as it did during that run. But I can’t ignore the feeling that I’ve discovered something new for myself, despite the fact that people have been practicing meditation for 3,000 years. The test will come partly in my ability to keep practicing. I still have sheet music I bought 25 years ago when I swore I was going to start practicing the piano again. And really, the ultimate challenge will be my ability to use this tool the next time I’m holding tight to something I can’t control. In the peace of this moment it seems so much more useful than that hammer. I hope I can remember that then.