I was about 10 when I first heard about meditation. My parents, who weren’t exactly hippies but embraced things like food co-ops, Beat poetry, and Ms. Magazine, got into transcendental meditation briefly in the ’70s while we were living in England. They each had a mantra that my brother and I begged them to tell us. They never did. My father, a type A businessman, didn’t stick with it much past those early days, but my mother, an artist and seeker, continued to meditate on and off for decades, through the devastating illness that took her life at 68.
In high school, I took an independent study course to learn Taekwondo. Our teacher wanted us to have a well-rounded experience, so he took us out for a sushi lunch and taught us to meditate. He led us through a guided meditation, and I remember feeling a calm that I had never felt before. Sure, my mind wandered to things like homework or a new crush, but in between those thoughts were blips of peace. This was a revelation. I was a big worrier — even as a kid — and saw disaster around every corner. I would stay up at night, listening to the airplanes overhead and imagining nuclear bombs dropping. I was more of an insomniac at 9 than I’ve been in my entire adult life.
Those fears and worries eventually abated, and as I entered my teens, I figured out how to have more control over the thoughts that scared me. Even so, my mind was in constant motion. Many of the thoughts that plagued me were negative, a constant swirl of teenage angst. Frankly, it was exhausting.
Am I a different person? No, but I can step back from my thoughts and get some perspective.
I returned to meditation in my mid-20s, on a monthlong family trip to Tuscany. I was there with my brother who had just moved back from the West Coast and was coming off a speed bender; my dad, who was deeply depressed; and my mother, who had just been diagnosed with an incurable illness. We were staying with an old family friend who was struggling with what I now know must have been menopausal rage. Under the Tuscan Sun it was not. The villa was between two small Italian villages, and you couldn’t get anywhere without a car. I tried to escape by taking walks along the dirt roads, but that proved to be dangerous.
Fortunately, I met a young yoga instructor who was also staying at the villa. I would see her practicing on the terra cotta terrace overlooking the hills of Tuscany. Curious about what she was up to, I wandered over one day and she asked if I wanted to join her. I enthusiastically said yes.
At the end of each yoga practice, we’d lie in shavasana and meditate for a short time. Calm washed over me and soothed my frenetic mind. I had a chance to momentarily take a break from worrying about my mom’s illness, my weight, arguments with my dad, and other distractions. I came to think of meditation as a little mental vacation. It wasn’t a total escape — the thoughts were always there, sneaking in between the spaces — but it was an opportunity to take control over my monkey mind, a Buddhist phrase that means “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.”
While I continued to practice yoga regularly throughout my 20s and 30s, I let meditation fall by the wayside. Until, in August of last year, at age 49 and struggling with sleeplessness for the first time in my life, as well as hot flashes, I decided to give the Headspace app a try. The simplicity of the app, the short time commitment (10 to 15 minutes), and Andy Puddicombe’s comforting (and, dare I say, sexy) voice hooked me.
Now, nine months later, I’ve completed 29 hours of meditation and 128 sessions, all conveniently tracked in the app. Am I a different person? No, but I can step back from my thoughts and get some perspective. That frustrating client who might have had me stewing for days now isn’t such a big deal. I’m less reactive, and there’s a growing sense of calm deep within me that didn’t exist before. I’m sleeping better, too.
I’ve also noticed that meditation is almost like a palate cleanser for the mind, helping clear away the debris as I transition from one part of my day to the next. Another unexpected benefit is that it gives me a quiet moment to think about my mom, her soothing influence, and how much meditation helped her as she neared the end of her life. I may still have monkey mind, as we all do to some degree, but now I look forward to my daily practice and time to recalibrate in the space between my thoughts.
Sacha Cohen is founder and president of Grassfed Media. To see more of her work, go to grassfedmediadc.com.