Meditation, mindfulness, and more

Meditation is a technique, able to be accomplished in different ways, where an individual focuses their attention on something particular and with the goal of achieving a clear or calm state. It is rooted deeply throughout history and several religions, but has become more commonplace in the Western world over the last few years.

Everything I initially thought about meditation came from the Jedi.

Yeah, the Jedi from Star Wars. Are we surprised?

I knew it was supposed to bring you peace, and it was some type of mind exercise. Was it clearing your mind? Or was it focusing on one thing? Both? How did you do it?

It turns out, it could be either and there were different ways to do it.

I had read about the benefits of meditation from a variety of articles. It was a buzzword that I was seeing everywhere. Again and again, I read about how people had their lives changed through the practice of meditation, but I had no idea where to start! My mind was always running wild, filled with anxiety, I had no idea where to even start! And nothing I had read at that point really gave me guidance. To be fair, it really can be an abstract concept. No two individuals will have the same meditation practice. It wasn’t exactly a new concept; people have been practicing it for hundreds of years, but in the moment, I felt very removed from meditation. I didn’t think I could ever quiet my mind in such a way to meditate.

When I wasn’t doing well and was off work, I was desperate to try anything to get better. As part of my treatment plan, I wanted to look more into meditation. So many said that it had helped them, I was desperately determined that it would help me. My therapist gave me breathing exercises which gave me a starting point. I kept searching different things, but honestly, meditation didn’t start to make sense to me until I picked up Dan Harris’s 10% Happier book. Harris, a weekend anchor for “Good Morning America,” was quite the cynic before he picked up meditation. I mean, he admits that he still is a cynic, but it’s different now. Meditation helped him change who he is.  It took him time to pick up a routine, but eventually he got it and began to notice a difference. He wrote in everyday terms and was very relatable (His second book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, acknowledges the alleged “wacky” of meditation even more so in layman’s terms).

Following what Harris suggested, slowly, I began to practice meditation. And by practicing meditation, I was sitting quietly focusing on my breath. I would inhale a breath on one, exhale on two, inhale on three, exhale on four. I would do this as long as my mind remained focus on just the breath until eight, and start over again. If my mind wandered, I would just start over.  I was surprised; focusing just on my breathing, and my breathing only, was easier than I expected. It also surprised how quickly time went by as I meditated. I started with only meditating two minutes at a time, but gradually built up. And with each practice, I began to notice a difference; subtle at first, but it began to add up.

So, what is meditation?

Meditation is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “to engage in contemplation,” “to engage in mental exercise such as the concentration of breath or repetition of a mantra,” to focus one’s thoughts on,” or “to plan or project in the mind.”

That’s kind of a lot to take in.

Meditation is estimated to have been practiced for more than 5,000 years and is practiced in religions and belief systems such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and is integrated into yoga practices. Even the Greek were known to meditation after Alexander the Great’s military exploits led him to India, and his men, having learned from the Indian yogis, brought the practice back home.

There are seven types of meditation: Mindfulness, Transcendental, Guided, Vipassana Meditation, Loving Kindness, Chakra Meditation, and Yoga Meditation. Each has its own style, and ultimately its own purpose. Benefits of meditation include reducing stress, controlling anxiety, promoting emotional health, enhancing self-awareness, lengthening attention span, improving sleep, reducing blood pressure, increasing compassion (including self-compassion), reducing depression, increasing focus, boosting the immune system, and improving mood. My own practice took me to mindfulness.

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is being present.  Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines mindfulness as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” Mindfulness is about accepting and recognizing that there is not a “right” or “wrong” way to think in each moment. Practicing mindfulness is about recognizing your thoughts in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or the future. There are so many things you can do “mindfully.” Mindfulness may seem like the latest buzzword, but it’s true. You can mindfully eat and notice when you’re really full and not overeating or anything. Eating for nourishment while truly enjoying the food. Taking time to walk mindfully, recognizing how you’re feeling and everything around you. Be mindful. Notice the world around you.  

It amazed me how I began to feel after meditating. I was feeling a calm that I really didn’t know. Having felt as if I had been fighting against my mind for the last almost seven years, the calm was both somewhat startling but still very welcome.

This is where the Jedi come back in.

Meditation makes me feel a way I can’t fully explain. It is a calm within myself. There have been times now, where I feel the anxiety taking over, and I’m able to catch it in time and focus on my breathing and able to restore myself to something resembling calm. It brings me back to myself. This is something that I have never been able to do. For once, I felt as if I had control over my mental illness, instead of feeling as if it had total control over me. Even in those horribly crushing moments where I would have the urge to cut, now I had something to use against it. It was much easier, more so than it ever had been, to clear my mind or at least refocus my attention to my breath, and breath, in and out – with a purpose – until I felt as if I could unclench myself, physically and mentally, and move on from the feeling. We’re talking a game changer, people.

You will know [the good from the bad] when you are calm, at peace. Passive. Yoda (“The Empire Strikes Back)

Yoda is talking about the Dark Side versus the Light, but I started to think about it from a different perspective. The Light Side of the Force is meant to represent good, calm, and peace. The Dark Side is a more erratic. As Yoda once states, it involves more negative emotions such as fear, anger, hate and suffering. It occurred to me that the Dark Side could be, in a sense, a metaphor for my mental illness. My mental illness made me feel anything but calm; the anger I felt at times was like nothing I had never known before. Fear and suffering are both, unfortunately, staples of anxiety and depression. I knew those all too well. And I hated everything about it. I really try not to hate anything in my life; I wasn’t raised to hate and I believe that it is a waste of energy. But I hate everything about mental illness; what it did to me, who it made me, and everything is took from me. I knew the Dark Side too well.

I began to wonder, was meditation helping me separate from the part of my brain that I imagined was diseased? I had always viewed mental illness as a parasite clamped onto my brain; was meditating helping me, figuratively, peel that parasite away and let myself be whole again?

Meditating was helping me understand myself in a way that I can’t fully understand, but something is working. I found myself breathing easier throughout the day, similar to how I did as I meditated. My body just responded to it. I even found myself noticing when I was tense in my shoulders or jaw and allowing myself to relax.  When I began to worry about either the past or the future, I reminded myself of the  now. It amazed me that some things I was able to stop worrying about by practicing mindfulness. I was only in control only of myself in any moment. I had no control over the actions of anyone else. Obviously, it was something I knew was true before, but meditation and mindfulness helped cement it in my brain. It is weird, I can’t explain it, but it works. We’re going to look at some other Star Wars quotes with the concepts of meditation and how I view it.

The belonging you seek is not behind you… it is ahead. I am no Jedi, but I know the Force. It moves through and surrounds every living thing. Close your eyes. Feel it. The light… it’s always been there. It will guide you. Maz Kanata (“The Force Awakens”)

I know, it’s weird. But what Maz is saying here, I kind of get it. Everything you use within meditation is within you. I’m getting deep, I know, but it’s true! You are using your own mind, thoughts, and breath. It is a practice in self-awareness, self-development. Everyone has a feeling of self, a layer of themselves that only they know. Meditation helps you find it. Meditation can guide you. Some have used mindfulness meditation to work out issues; even if it is just by having a clearer mind to think things through! If Luke’s failure when he lifted the X-Wing was because he didn’t believe in himself using the Force, then why can’t the Force, in this metaphor, be the energy within yourself? Meditation is about self. If we’re going with the Light Side if self and the Dark Side is mental illness metaphor, then this totally applies to me.I thought I was gone. I never thought I would be the person I was before I got sick. And 26 year old me isn’t the same as the 19 year old me, but growth is expected. But when I started feeling better, I started finding parts of myself and my personality peeking out that I hadn’t seen in years. When a friend told me I seemed like myself again, it made me so happy. After all that time, that part of me still existed. It was just buried. And I guess some part of me led me back to myself. Mental illness really is a confusing trip of self-discovery. If you’re going to get better, you’re going to have to take some detours on the way; even if it seems the long way round. But it’s so worth it.  Let’s go to another Yoda quote:

For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship. Yoda (“The Empire Strike Back”)

Have you ever heard anyone talk about your energy, positive or negative? It is an abstract concept. Perhaps it is the life force within us all? There is something, whether it be a greater being or the miraculous power of science, that allows all of us to live. See, this is what meditation does to you. Your thoughts end up going deep. But think about it. A million little things, actions, moments all come together at the right time to create life, to create you, me, and everything around else. It really gives you perspective. Somehow, all these things happened for a reason to lead you to where you are now, the people you meet, the things you experience. Something gives you your personality, strengths, and weaknesses. I’m not trying to get into religion here, but whatever you believe or don’t believe, to me, it’s kind of difficult to believe that there isn’t some additional outside influence or power bringing everything about life together.  

All his life he looked away, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was! Hmm. What he was doing! Hmph. Yoda (“The Empire Strikes Back)

This is mindfulness. Yoda is chastising Luke for not being present. Mindfulness is about being present, focusing on the now. I don’t think you can get more mindfulness-centric than this.

I am one with the Force and the Force is with me. Chirrut Imwe (“Rogue One”)

And this is literally a mantra. Chirrut views the Guardians of the Whills and the Force as a religion, and he says it like a prayer. It is a mantra. There is an entire type of meditation based on mantras! He believed in the power of what he was saying. When you practice mantra meditation, you’re supposed to believe in what you’re saying. The power of positive thinking, anyone?

Am I crazy? Well, depending on who you ask, that is debatable to begin with. But I truly thing that meditation is making a difference in my life. My treatment has been a myriad of things. Treating mental illness is like putting together a puzzle, except you don’t know what the picture is supposed to look like so you end up putting in some pieces that don’t quite fit. But meditation definitely has a place in mind. I don’t do it as much as I’d like, there are plenty of things I’m still working on when it comes to self-care and taking care of myself. But there are times when my anxiety begins to climb quickly, and I now know that I have meditation to help me along the way. It doesn’t make other forms of my treatment, like medication or talk therapy, any less important or necessary, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Is it wacky? Kind of. It’s definitely weird. It has led me to thinking some deep thoughts and asking questions that make my head go in circles. But it has improved other aspects of my life, like breathing when I work out. I’m more aware. If you’re thinking about starting to meditate, my advice would be to read and to start your practice slowly. Let it grow naturally. There are countless resources available on the Internet and books in general, read about it and learn about it. I hope you figure it out.

Oh, and Lucasfilm/Star Wars/Disney, I am totally available for book ideas on analyzing Star Wars or stories about the Jedi. I’m just putting that out there.  

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