This is a personal post about my relationship with meditation and my life journey so far with respect to this practice. I’m not sure if it will be helpful to anyone else, but I wanted to push myself to reflect a bit on this subject so here we are.
The journey so far
I discovered meditation ~10 years ago, before moving to Canada I was struggling with anxiety and emotional balance and my therapist at the time suggested that I should give it a try.
My journey started attending some groups organized by a counselor and through him I ended up taking by-weekly classes for two years with Andrea Cappellari (link in Italian). Andrea taught both Shamata (concentration) and Vipassana (insight) meditation. What really stuck with me of his approach was that, even if all his techings where heavily rooted in Tibetan buddishm, he was always keeping a tecnical attitude and regularly stressing that no religious beliefs were required to rip the benefits of the practice.
One thing that Andrea always pushed his students to do was to pratice at home, and that was a thing that I invariably failed to do regularly. I would practice every few days, especially when feeling down or anxious but quickly stop and go back to my usual routine and favourite addictions (mostly cigarettes and drinks).
In those years I also attended a few meditation retreats and, while I always loved the experience, coming back to “normal” life afterwards always lead to the same outcome. I would come home and stop meditating entirely for months! Some way of compensating for the excessive effort maybe..
Moving to Canada didn’t help, a new life to build, a job to find, a VISA to obtain, finding a house, having my partner move from Italy and eventually, over time, rebuilding a life from scratch took a lot of energy and also worked as a very good excuse to not look closely at the idea of resuming with meditation.
For the first few weeks, when I was here alone and completely lost, I found good help in attending a meditation group of the shambala tradition, but quickly stopped going once I got busy with a full time job and had enough friends to go out with and explore my new city.
Once things start rolling they can get pretty fast, before I knew it we owned a house, a dog, two jobs, friends and effectively had built a new life in Canada (I do love and will be always greatful to this country and what it gave me), but meditation was entirely gone. Just something that I would think about every once in a while.
During these years I tried a few times to use Headspace to get back into the habit. While I think it’s a great app it never worked for me because I was still approaching meditation as a way to feel better. Hence I would meditate only when feeling particularly bad or anxious.
As the year passed my lifestyle changed substantially, I gave up smoking (although I still miss it every day) and later (~3 years ago) also had to give up driking for health reasons. Aside from the occasional use of pot (legal in Canada), mostly CBD for pain management, I found myself leading a life free of most stimulants. 35 year old me looks very fondly at 20 year old me, but I don’t think I could survive more than 2 days of what I used to do to my body back then!
Late in 2019 I found myself battling again with anxiety, even though my conditions are not particularly serious I started observing how they affected my mood. Chronic pain is a bitch, aside from the annoyance of the suffering (and I consider my pain fairly low most days), there are two things that I found really hit me. First I became more sensible to days in which the pain comes back, especially after feeling well for a while, when the pain returns I have feelings of anger, sadness and my mood is way less stable. Second, and more pertinent to the topic, my anxiety started coming back, I find myself worrying that the pain will come back, or that other things will start causing me pain. I’m not sure about others but my mind can always find a way to get anxious about something and now I had the perfect excuse.
I said I realized this was happening in 2019 but, if I’m honest about it, the anxiety never left, getting sick just gave it a head start and now I was just catching up with what happened.
What to do now?
I’m an engineer, that approach to life is embedded with my sense of self, but it’s also very much how I tackle problems. This means that when faced with an issue my usual approach is to study. Around this time I ran in to The Craving Mind by Jud Brewer and immediately started reading.
Even if I had already encountered a lot of the concepts that Jud Brewer talks about (i.e. The power of habit), even if I was already familiar with Jon Kabat-Zinn and even if this is what Andrea always referred to in his lessons, the connection between my anxiety patterns and how meditation could help untangle them had never been as clear.
Unwinding Anxiety is an headspace-like app that was developed to put into pratice the ideas from the book and I decided to give it a shot.
The parallel between the method the app uses and what we do with our clients at work (maybe I’ll talk about my experience with PN coaching too at some point) are stirking and that probably gave me faith in the methodology, given that it worked so well for my nutrition and training habits in the past.
The program guides you to bring mindfulness to you anxiety, to look at your patterns and learn to observe yourself as things happen. Interestingly enough, there’s very little “traditional meditation”.
Did I finally start meditating?
Going through the first few weeks of the course really worked, things kept happening but I felt less of a victim of my patterns. After a while though something changed and my interest shifted. I was feeling better but I wanted to understand more of the why. Not why in a scientific sense but why from an experiential standpoint. What is there, what is this mind that is doing this to me and how does it work?
And this is when I started going back to Andrea’s teachings (well Buddhism techings to be precise). The following is a great and imprecise oversemplifications but it conveys my current understanding. The mind is a muscle, and like other muscles it can be trained. Through concentration practice we can stabilize the mind, once the mind is stable the mind can be used to observe, traditionally observation can be of sensations, feelings, the mind itself and all phenomena. The mind can then see itself and see what is real.
I wanted some answers and I had a way to go get them. Not to feel better, not to run away, but to face them.
So I started sitting, once again with the help of a book: Genuine Happines by Allan Wallace. I know very little about him but he was Andrea’s teacher and I bought the first copy of this book many years ago in Italy, keeping it on a shelf, without ever really trying to put it into practice until now.
The book guides you through a series of different buddhist meditations, and this happens over the course of several months. I will not claim that this is on par with having a teacher and a group with you but so far it’s working out allright.
So that’s what I’m doing, I started 108 days ago and I’m slowing making my way through, 25 minutes a day, most days I feel I can barely keep my mind on the object of meditation, other days it seems to work out.
I still get anxious. I still get angry. I still mess up regularly as I’m sure my partner (bless her), my friends and my collagues can testify.
But it’s been a ton of fun!
Here we are
I don’t know if my experience is unique or common but this is what has been true for me so far. It’s really hard to do something if my goal is feeling better because as soon as I do I lose the motivation.
I believe that the combination of having a different reason and removing all factors that were hindering my practice (mostly smoking and drinking) were the successful combination that got me here.
For the record. I still feel like I “suck” at the pratice itself. The mind is still a wild monkey, jumping all over the place, observing it without getting involved only happens for a few instants, the rest of the time… I become the monkey. The difference with my past attempts is that this time I keep showing up.
I’m very curious to see what happens next. Will I be able to keep it up or will I pick up old habits again? How is travel (when that is a thing we do again) gonna affect it? How are bigger life changes gonna change it? I don’t know. And I’m looking forward to finding out.
I’m not in the business of giving advice but I’m gonna leave a thing for my future self.
Even if you fail. Be kind. If you fuck up it doesn’t mean that you’re a fuck up.