The unscratched itch (why I meditate)

<!––>Every morning before dawn, I roll out of bed, stumble through the dark to our living room, and plop myself down in front of a massive light box. This suitcase-shaped panel blasts 10,000 lux of faux sunlight directly into my face. “Light therapy” serves as a sort of reality check, realigning my body clock to an earlier sunrise than we enjoy here at our northern latitude.

To stave off boredom during these half-hour light box sessions, I practice mindfulness meditation. These two practices, meditation and light therapy, are similar, in my mind. Just as bright light realigns my body clock to a healthier rhythm, meditation realigns my thought life to healthier patterns, too: from anxiety-driven obsessions to the steady rhythm of my breath.

Context: prayer as listening

I came late to the mindfulness party. In the evangelical tradition of my childhood, prayer was more about talking than listening. Every day, during my “devotions” (Christianese for bible-reading and prayer), I followed a familiar script: recite a list of God’s best qualities, confess where I screwed up, thank God for the good stuff in my life, and, finally, ask God for what I wanted—or what I felt I should want.

By the time I hit college, this daily prayer regimen had grown tiresome. I would often spend hours a day talking at God, churning through a long list of required topics. I came to dread that time, spent locked my dorm’s study room. The burden grew so heavy that I stopped praying altogether, save for hurried recitations before meals.

Fortunately, I eventually met faith-minded mentors who approached their spiritual practices less rigidly, more humbly, and more thoughtfully. They demonstrated how “quiet time” is better spent being quiet—i.e. shutting my mouth and stilling my mind—than babbling on and on.

Adopting the practice

Along these lines, seven or eight years ago, a close friend introduced me to mindfulness meditation and shared how it helped tame his anxiety. As he framed it, the practice was simple: just focus on your breath. When your mind wanders, return your attention gently to the breath. Repeat.

At first, I was suspicious. It seemed almost too simple—like some sort of trick. Eventually, though, my curiosity won out. I gave meditation a try, and, before long, I was hooked.

Reflections & results

What makes meditation “sticky” for me? In short, meditation provides a reliable way of short-circuiting anxious thought cycles.

Here’s what I mean: I occasionally find myself haunted by uncertainty. I wonder whether I said something dumb in a past conversation (“Did I offend her?”). Or I worry that my haircut looks stupid (“Is my head weirdly shaped?”). Or I fret about my health (“Does that bad test result portend a medical disaster?”). I retread the same mental territory over and over again, trying to think my way out of the problem. That never helps; instead, rumination makes me more anxious than when I started. It’s like scratching an itchy rash; in the end, the sensation only gets worse.

In meditation, I resist the temptation to scratch that mental itch. Instead of ruminating on an unanswerable question, I focus on something else instead: my breath. The sounds in the room. The physical manifestation of anxiety itself. Anything but that troubling question. As many times as it pops up, I acknowledge it, but don’t pursue, gently returning to my focus object instead.

In this way, meditation is “practicing the turn”: rehearsing the shift from unhelpful thoughts to steadier sensations. In my morning session, I repeat that cognitive move, again and again—so that I can perform it later that day and and derail circular trains of thought in “real life.”

There are signs that it’s working. I’ve noticed at least two encouraging improvements that I attribute to my meditation practice: first, I’m more aware of my own emotional state. It’s a subtle change, but I often find myself thinking, “Man, I’m really anxious” (or tired, or hungry, etc.). Somehow, the simple act of acknowledging those feelings loosens their grip and makes it easier to act charitably, in spite of them.

A second hopeful development? I no longer dread my morning “quiet times”; I actually look forward to visiting the meditation pillow. That was rarely the case when I dedicated that time to talk-heavy prayer.

Getting started with meditation

If you’re interesting in trying mindfulness meditation, I would highly recommend checking out an app called Headspace. The program was designed by a former Buddhist monk and provides an entertaining, novice-friendly introduction to the technique. The full program requires an incredibly expensive subscription, but the first ten sessions are free—and that might be enough to get the hang of things.

Once you’ve established your practice and feel comfortable meditating with less guidance, consider transitioning to an app like Insight Timer. It provides an intuitive interface for scheduling chimes to mark your meditation stages. ■