Meditation is a life-saver. Relaxation is not the real reason I return to it daily, though.
Content warning: mention of suicide and sexual assault.
For the past six months, I meditated every day for five to ten minutes. As you might imagine, this helps me feel more at ease during times of sky-rocketing stress.
But the real reason I return each day is not to relax or clear my mind. Meditation is an avenue for my present experience. I am able to understand myself and release what once felt distant and haunting. Spooky stuff, indeed.
My family was strained by young and single parents, low wages, inaccessibility to higher education, and immigration restrictions. I got the sense early on that my village of caretakers struggled to keep up. I watched and learned that our family system worked better when we put individual needs aside for the benefit of the larger group.
But emotionally there was dysfunction that compounded the strain. The group could not mend unhealthy coping or unfairness. It certainly could not disappear anger, paranoia, loneliness, illness, or deep sadness.
When I cried, I was met with, “suck it up” and “stop being so sensitive.” Moments of anger were selfish or stupid and eventually punished. After a while, I internalized these responses and no longer waited to hear them from anyone else. I spoke them to myself.
This childhood repression of my senses and internal landscape really did a number on my mental health. I struggle to this day. Significant parts get processed in therapy. I cannot recommend meditation without adding group or talk therapy to the list.
The crucial step is getting help that speaks to your own needs. I cannot speak for all, every, or some mental illness. I do have a lot to say about my own experience.
The first time I went to therapy was scary as hell. I was a world away and at college, family members were distant. Difficult feelings, new situations, and a constant pressure to succeed became too much to handle. I knew I had to try therapy.
At the therapist’s building, a couple sayings of, “you got it,” in the bathroom mirror and I warmed up to mental healthcare once more. Brushing my sweaty palms on my jacket, I summoned the courage, and drum-roll, found myself in the therapist’s empty waiting room. I sat down stared at the magazines.
Fidgeting and nervousness alone prove that our minds are connected to our physical health. After a campus sexual assault incident, the entanglement of my body and mind called for concentration and care.
One of the outcomes of that professional care was learning my diagnosis of general anxiety and chronic depression. Meditation felt impossible. I hope that through sharing, someone might question that very same distance for themselves.
With more therapy, I opened up about intrusive thoughts and overwhelming feelings to other people, too. Sharing ideas and stories on mental health got mixed reactions and responses. At times, peers and professors who meant well gave advice but never seemed to quite get it.
This advice often came in the form of optimistic affirmations and quick quips about healthy coping mechanisms. Meditation was one of the strategies I was directed to time and time again. Although it came from a place of good intent, these comments always left me feeling even more confused and invisible.
It was as if people around me did not realize the struggle to brush my teeth in the morning. Let alone setting aside time and energy to meditate. I internalized my lack of experience in the skill as shameful and it became another way that life was not fair.
Screenshot. A Tumblr user comments on and shares a Tweet about the difficulty of focusing on mediation while struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and neurodiversity.
Twitter user @aggressivequeer and Tumblr user @poedameron-tony in the screenshot speak to their own experiences. At one point in life, I agreed with them. This is understandable.
The meditating was warped by the YouTube videos that I used for several months. At first, the videos I watched met criteria of a lot of views and no huge red flags. The descriptions evoked relaxation and a positive mindset.
So rich and promising were these YouTube videos that I eventually found myself questioning them. “It must be satire!” I declared one day on a morning that I felt particularly irritable. People could not possibly feel this good all of the time. Perhaps by coincidence, I happened on a meditation that was made with sarcastic intent.
I slowly left meditation and, unwittingly, felt the continued sense that I was doing something wrong. Not getting to the intended result clouded my present experience. I gave up.
This year I decided to pick up meditation again, which probably is not a surprise. At the start, I had no idea I would still be reaching for this technique after several months. With all of the chaos, I was willing to try anything once, or twice.
I searched for meditation guides online that felt trustworthy. I was not looking for a quick-fix or immediate relief. I knew that I needed to take small steps each day and that if something sounded too good to be true, it probably was.
What I found was a strong undercurrent of people and instructors who do not meditate because it feels good but because it feels present. Meditation courses from Headspace and calm.com accept the experience as it is, rather than as we wish, expect, or demand.
This presence is new and still unsettles me. After resisting difficulty, I was letting my thoughts and emotions be. I meditated by compassionately returning to my breath even after getting lost in thoughts or feelings. The compelling piece changed from wanting to get somewhere to being where I was and accepting what was here.
I find myself reaching for self-regulation after disappointment, upset, exhaustion, or all three. When I meditate, I use my breath and mindfulness to release the tension that comes from clinging to expectation. To anything.
I do not have to follow worried thoughts down a rabbit-hole of doom. I take note of my thoughts and emotions and that is enough. A thought may return ten or twenty times during a meditation and I may experience frustration. The part that matters is returning.
I remember that I am not wrong, bad, or different for feeling tough emotions and experiencing difficult thoughts. I am human.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273–8255, or, your local suicide prevention hotline.