Find your zen in an armchair
Jun 19

Find your zen in an armchair

Confessions of a Meditation Skeptic

If you had told me a few years ago that I would one day become a traveling evangelist for meditation, I would have coughed my beer up through my nose. For most of my life, to the extent that I’d ever even considered meditation, I ranked it right alongside aura readings and Enya. I figured my racing type-A mind was way too busy to ever be able to commune with the cosmos. And anyway, if I got too happy, it would probably render me completely ineffective at my hypercompetitive job.

Two things changed my mind. The first was the science. In recent years, there has been an explosion of research into meditation, which has been shown to reduce blood pressure, boost recovery after your body releases the stress hormone cortisol, strengthen the immune system, slow age-related atrophy of the brain, and mitigate the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Studies also show that meditation can reduce violence in prisons, increase productivity in the workplace, and improve both the behavior and the grades of schoolchildren. Things really get interesting when you look at the neuroscience. Researchers have been peering into the heads of meditators and they have found that the practice can rewire key parts of the brain involved with self-awareness, compassion, and resilience.

The second thing that changed my mind about meditation is that it does not necessarily entail a lot of the weird stuff I feared it might. Contrary to popular belief, meditation does not have to involve folding yourself into a pretzel, joining a group, or wearing special outfits. The type of meditation I’m discussing here is called mindfulness meditation, which is derived from Buddhism but does not require adopting a belief system or declaring oneself to be a Buddhist.

As the Readers Digest article explains, I began my practice slowly, with just five to ten minutes a day, which is what I recommend that everyone aim for at the start. Frankly, if you find time for even one minute a day, you can count that as a win. The practice does get easier the longer you keep at it, but even after doing it for years, I still get lost all the time. Here’s a random sample of my mental chatter during a typical session: “In. Out. Man, I am feeling antsy. What’s the Yiddish term my grandmother used to use for that? Shpilkes. Right? Words that always make me giggle: ointment, pianist. Wait, what? Come on, man. Back to the breath. In. Out. Likes: baked goods. Dislikes: fedoras, dream sequences, that part in techno songs where the French accordion kicks in. Dude, come on. In. Out. In. Alternative jobs: papal nuncio, interpretive dancer, working double time on the seduction line.”

You get the idea. To give you a sense of exactly how simple it is, here are the three-step instructions for beginning meditation:

  1. Sit comfortably. It’s best to have your spine reasonably straight, which may help prevent an involuntary nap. If you want to sit cross-legged on the floor, go for it. If not, just sit in a chair, like I do. You can close your eyes or, if you prefer, leave them open and adjust your gaze to a neutral point on the ground.

  2. Bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and out. Pick a spot where it’s most prominent – your chest, your belly, or your nostrils. You’re not thinking about your breath; you’re just feeling the physical sensations. To help maintain focus, make a quiet mental note on each in-breath and out-breath, like “in” and “out.”

  3. Every time you catch yourself wandering, escort your attention back to the breath. This third step is the key. As soon as you try to focus on your breath, you’ll start having all sorts of random thoughts, like “What’s for lunch? Do I need a haircut? What was Casper the Friendly Ghost before he died?” This is totally normal. The whole game is to notice when you’re distracted and begin again. And again. And again. It’s like a biceps curl for the brain. It’s also a radical act. You’re breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of rumination and projection, and instead focusing on what’s happening right now.

As the New York Times article notes, people assume they can never meditate because they can’t stop thinking. But the goal is not to clear your mind – that’s pretty much impossible. The goal is to focus your mind, for a few nanoseconds at a time, and whenever you become distracted, just start again. Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation; it is succeeding.

I have been meditating for eight years now, and I am still plenty ambitious. However, these days, I’m not as sweaty, agitated, and unpleasant about it as I used to be. Meditation has helped me sort out my useless rumination from what I call “constructive anguish.” I’ve learned that the less enchanted you are by the voice in your head, the more you can make room for entirely new thoughts and feelings to emerge. It has enabled me to take even more delight in my work, my wife, and our son, Alexander, who suffuses me with warmth whether he’s offering me a chicken nugget or wiping macerated muffin on my sleeve. I am less in thrall to my desires and aversions, which has given me a wider perspective and, at times, a taste of a deep, ineffable unclenching.

In sum, meditation empowers you to tap into what lies beneath or beyond the ego. Call it creativity. Call it your innate wisdom. Some people call it your heart. Ew.

Zen in an Armchair

But what does all this have to do with finding your zen in an armchair? Well, as it turns

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