I had always relied on my mind to solve problems, but that wasn’t working this time. Turns out, my mind was the problem.
Many years ago, I was a hot mess. I considered myself to be someone who had done all the right things in life to be “successful.” I was your classic “Type A.” I worked hard in school. I was proficient at my job. I had a beautiful family, a lovely home, a closet full of nice clothes . . . But I found my inner and outer world changing in a way that was gradually becoming frightening to me.
I couldn’t sleep. I would worry incessantly most every night. I was quick to anger with other people, especially if I felt they had “wasted my time”. I would catch myself in repetitive thought loops every morning as I got ready for work – rehearsing things I imagined I would say to people who had treated me unfairly.
I became semi-obsessed with organizing things – everything. Perhaps unconsciously I felt that if I could have everything in its place (and labeled!) I could conquer time and the growing sense of chaos I felt. Ultimately, my body caught up with all this mental tension. I ended up sick – diagnosed with breast cancer. My sense of control over my life eroded even further.
While I sensed that what was happening inside me was not good, I didn’t really know how to manage these problems. I had always considered myself highly competent – expert even - at most things. Yet there was still something essential that I couldn’t seem to control: my racing, repetitive, stressful thoughts. I was aware of them, but I couldn’t figure out how to stop them and escape their seeming grip on my life.
My normal method for solving problems, namely “thinking” about them, wasn’t working. I noticed myself rehashing the past and rehearsing an imagined future and firmly labeled this habit “bad”. Yet no matter how many times I caught myself in the same thought loops, nothing changed. The same pattern of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and out of control would repeat itself the next day. My body was bearing the brunt of this internal war.
Eventually I - the formerly proficient expert at everything - became scared. “Why can’t I think my way out of this problem?” I thought. It took some time before I finally learned that thinking was never going to solve this problem. Thinking too much, and paying too much attention to the bossy narrator in my head, was itself the problem. But I didn’t know that yet.
Like most people, I had always assumed that the “voice” in my head was “me”. And I always listened to “me” above all else. I had no idea then that it was even possible, much less a healthy thing, to learn how to “let go” of “me” on a regular basis. Such a thing never would have occurred to me if it weren’t for a very lucky opportunity.
Enter my first yoga class at age 45. It felt strange to even take an evening out of my hectic schedule to do nothing but slow down, stretch, and feel my breath. During the “savasana” or relaxation pose at the conclusion of the class I found myself lying on the floor as the teacher guided us in a meditation. It was then that something life-changing happened to me. The voice inside my head went quiet.
The inner tyrant who kept me up at night worrying, who constantly rehashed old hurts and went over and over ways to verbally vanquish my perceived enemies, was completely M. I. A.
“This is incredible!”, I thought. I couldn’t even recall a time in my life that I felt such inner quiet, this complete absence of “the bossy voice” - except perhaps when I was a young child. “Do you mean there is something more to life than this constant narrator?” I wondered in astonishment. “Is there a reality apart from this relentless taskmaster that is driving me to anxiety attacks, depression, and possibly an early grave?”
Over the next few years, because I had this glimpse into another more peaceful way of being, I immersed myself in the study and practice of meditation. Now I practice every day. It has not always been easy, but it has been profoundly transformative.
My meditation practice has taken me to the heart of who I am. It’s helped me understand why my stress got so out of control (Hint: the roots go way back in time). Meditative practices like Loving-Kindness and Self-Compassion have been like a trusted friend, helping me heal some old wounds that were driving my anger, worry, and obsessive “driven-ness”.
And guess what? I’m OK after all. Now I have resources and tools that take me out of the thinking machine in my head, and into my body and heart. My inner world is a much more peaceful and joyful place.
If any of what I have described sounds even remotely familiar, I want you to know something I wish someone could have told me back then – there is a way out. As one of my meditation teachers, Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “As long as you are breathing there is more right with you than wrong with you.”
There are healthy ways to work with a mind that, like mine, has become stuck in unhealthy patterns. I am a big proponent of yoga and meditation because they have helped me so much. If you’re a “Type A” like I was - no matter what your age - it’s OK to be a beginner. You do not have to have all the answers! It’s absolutely fine not to be the expert. In fact, that’s a great place to discover something entirely new and powerful!
Meditation is an ancient, time-tested, scientifically sound practice that has been described as “simple but not easy.” I can attest to that from my own experience. It took many years for my unhealthy habits of thinking and feeling to become entrenched. So, they didn’t disappear overnight. It took a serious commitment on my part – devoting some time, participating in training, and developing a regular meditation practice - to change things. But they did go away.
In some ways taking up meditation is like entering into your own laboratory – the laboratory of “you.” This is where you can really get to know your own mind and try out new ways of working skillfully with those unhealthy patterns that many of us develop over our lives.
As you begin to do the work of practicing meditation, you discover that you have the power to turn toward your own reactive inner voice, and the stress and anxiety it generates. You learn to do this with patience, kindness and care. This “turning toward” what’s difficult changes everything! It opens up the healing space of awareness within you. As you continue to train in meditation, you discover your inner awareness is spacious and much larger and steadier than the anxiety and repetitive stressful thinking that may currently be dominating your life. In this larger inner space, the “thinking machine” is much less dominant. Sometimes it peacefully relaxes into silence.
By patiently practicing mindfulness meditation, you can begin to soothe that inner voice and train your mind that it’s OK to just “be” in this moment – as it is - without struggling to get anywhere else or change anything that’s happening. As you continue to train your mind as part of a regular routine of meditation, your mind begins to understand that not only is it OK to be in this moment, but that this moment is the best, most healing place to be (even those moments that aren’t exactly as you would like them to be.) This moment is the only moment in which change can take place. By training your mind to rest in this moment, you can tap into your potential for change and positively influence the course of your life.
If you are dealing with the escalating symptoms of stress and would like to explore mindfulness as a method of stress reduction, register for my free webinar “Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief”
Madeline Ebelini is a former stressed out lawyer turned certified mindfulness instructor with a mission of helping people reduce stress through teaching them practical and effective mindfulness techniques. She teaches the 5-star reviewed online course Mindfulness For Stress Relief, and leads a weekly live online meditation group Remember to Breathe.
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