In 2012, I ran 13 miles from Arlington, Virginia, to Silver Spring, Maryland, on a half-dare. I had only begun running a few months before, and I was increasing mileage at an exponential and, unbeknownst to me at the time, dangerous rate. I took the Metrorail and bus home, my limbs feeling as if in suspended animation from the hours spent pounding pavement.
When waiting for the bus, I sat on a crowded bench. Moments later, an elderly woman walked to the bus stop, her cane clicking on the concrete. When we made room on the bench, she said, “I don’t want to sit. I get stiff when I’m still.”
I get stiff when I’m still.
That notion easily embedded itself into my Type-A personality, and I spent the next two years in constant motion. Movement manifested in every aspect of my life. Sure, I was running, biking, and hiking. I was also writing ridiculous to-do lists that left little room to breathe. I said yes to everyone, taking on too many responsibilities. I poured myself into every endeavor and became an anxiety-riddled, fidgety twentysomething who left no room for self-care.
This obsessive productivity started to weigh on me, and I soon found myself in a psychologist’s office with symptoms of anxiety and depression, including frequent fantasies of self-harm. I finally admitted I needed help when I started daydreaming about driving into the concrete divider on the highway on every commute home. I wasn’t suicidal, but I wanted a way to make everything just stop for a while. All of my responsibilities (self-imposed or not) were becoming too much to bear, and an intentional car accident seemed like a surefire way to hit pause.
(I was later diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Bipolar Disorder II.)
During the first few weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, my therapist introduced me to mindfulness meditation. She explained the numerous benefits of meditation, and it all seemed rational at the time, except for one thing: I had to sit still.
But, “I get stiff when I’m still.”
That woman’s offhand remark at the bus stop in 2012 seized my thoughts. That offhand remark that helped fuel my journey that eventually led to my therapist’s office… I just couldn’t let it go.
But I had made the appointment. I kept returning to her office because I knew I needed help. I knew it was time to relinquish control. It was time to let go.
Meditation provides a way of learning how to let go. As we sit, the self we’ve been trying to construct and make into a nice, neat package continues to unravel.
We’d end every session with a 20-minute guided meditation, and I began my own practice at home. It started as five minutes of deep breathing every day and evolved into so much more. I added the essential oil of wild orange in attempts to perform classical conditioning on myself. I knew that in times of stress, I would not always be able to stop and meditate. I could, however, smell wild orange. Developing this habit served as a trigger to bring my brain back to a more meditative state.
I didn’t conduct lab tests to measure physiological changes, and I don’t know how my progress in therapy would have been impacted without meditation.
I do know that sitting still was one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn to do, and meditation is an integral part of my daily habits of self-care contributing to my overall emotional stability and sense of peace. That’s why I do it.
Meditation is not spacing-out or running away. In fact, it is being totally honest with ourselves.
This post is narrowly focused on meditation. While I do promote meditation for its physiological and psychological benefits, I am not suggesting that it is the sole therapy practice for individuals with mental disorders. If you are suffering from a mental illness or engaging in/thinking about self-harm, please consult a professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (available for online chat on their website)