Finding meditation in the beautiful messiness of life

I discovered meditation at a time when I needed it the most. This is typically how life works, I’ve found. When you find yourself in the most unkempt state of all, when things seem bleaker than bleak, something intervenes in some small, mysterious, unexplainable way. For me, my something showed up shortly after my grandmother passed away.

She wasn’t just my vitamin-lady-in-residence. My grandmother was someone who helped me make sense of myself, someone with whom I identified as a mid-20s single female who had a penchant for bossing around people, places and things. She and my grandfather understood me and created a place where I could feel safe expressing my new thoughts and ideas. In her absence, I felt that the person who most understood me in the whole world was gone.

To top it off, at the time of her death, I was living where she and my grandfather met—a town full of beauty and possibility and dreams. However, I learned quickly that reality is always a little more normal than any of us would like. Colorado’s cost of living made my budget smaller than ever before, my career felt stagnant, and I lived in the basement of a 100-year-old house that was freezing cold all the time. Life felt tight, inflexible; I was emotional and overweight (again); and the men I was meeting were abysmal.

Then Oprah appeared

Somewhere during the weeks after my grandmother’s death, I received an email from Oprah about a meditation promotion she was offering with Deepak Chopra. Meditation was something I’d heard of before! Counselors and psychiatrists who’d been helping me work on abuse and anxiety issues had said in passing, “You should really try meditating,” but no one ever offered any instructions beyond that. In my mind, I assumed meditation was some voodoo mind trick that would make me do really weird things. So I stayed far, far away.

But in this incredibly messy time of my life, I had a different reaction to the idea of meditation. My grandmother would have been open to what life brought—she would’ve been open to something like meditation. So I decided to give it a try. There are a lot of different styles of meditation, I quickly learned, and this online meditation retreat was intriguing but didn’t feel right to me. Discouraged, I thought I might try something else: I would ask the universe to bring me what I need. At this point in my life I wasn’t comfortable with concepts like prayer or God, but I did know that something, some energy, was always afoot and working on my behalf for good, and maybe it could help me get out of this funk.

A teacher in an unlikely place

Probably six weeks later I flew to Boston for a business trip. Our company was attending a marketing conference where your days are spent back-to-back in informational sessions. By the second day, I was exhausted and needing a break from search engine optimization and email automation tips, so I walked into a 20-minute session on mindfulness and communication. This is where I heard my teacher speak for the first time. I don’t remember everything she talked about, but I do remember that she shared very openly about a time when her road rage got the better of her and how mindfulness isn’t meant to make us mutants, but it’s to make us more human—so that when we feel very real feelings (like rage) we have the opportunity to ponder them instead of just instantly reacting.  She probably said a bunch of other amazing and insightful things, but all I knew was that she taught meditation and I had just asked the universe for something and it looked like it just made good on my request.

Meditation is more about making room for the mess than kicking it out

Soon I began devouring her online videos about meditation (in an obsessive-compulsive, probably not healthy, but it worked out OK in the end, way). And I began practicing by putting two of my bed pillows on the floor and following her directions. At the time, I thought that I’d finally found it—the antidote to all my problems. The thing that will make me skinny forever, eliminate all my nervous and anxious energy, help me connect more deeply with God (or whomever), and, yes, I’ll finally be OK in the world.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Meditation is not something to practice to rid yourself of the seven deadly sins or your most embarrassing habits. I learned over time, meditation wasn’t about self help as much as it was about self compassion. It was about bringing all the mess and beauty of your life, of you right now, and giving it a place to be OK.

There is obviously a practical side to mindfulness awareness meditation. You sit for a set amount of time (5 minutes, 50 minutes, doesn’t really matter) and you try to bring your focus to your breath. Rather than zigging and zagging all day long in and out of this thought and that worry, you let those thoughts rise and let them go and return to being curious about your breath. Eventually, somehow, that exercise of coming back to the breath drifts into your daily life.

Where I made room for the mess

The first place it showed up in my daily life was inside my inner voice. A few months after starting meditation, I slept in on a work day. I bolted out of bed, dragged my dog outside and heard a sharp, angry voice say, “Amanda, how could you be so stupid? You know better than to set it for p.m. instead of a.m. Of all the most idiotic people in the …”

Suddenly I stopped myself and listened. I wanted to crawl back under the blankets on my bed. Is this how I really talk to myself? I’m yelling at myself over something as simple as setting the wrong alarm clock?

In years past, that critical voice would’ve run me over for days, but not this time. Something in meditation had given my mind just enough room to squeeze in a quick moment of pause, a graceful reprieve. And that’s where I began noticing a change inside me. I began searching for a gentler, softer, kinder voice (which isn’t easy when you struggle with anxiety!). I began searching for the place where that kind voice lived inside me, and I tried giving it a say in things like jobs and relationships and my future.

Life did not (and still has not!) become a bed of roses, but meditation has helped me organize the clutter that naturally builds when you live with anxiety. It has helped me (numerous times) come back to reality when my anxiety and panic want to take over. It also gave my mind a chance to really process my past with spiritual abuse, to ask hard questions of God without expecting any certain answer. In short, by making friends with my mind, with my inherent messiness, I found a way to stop resisting so much of what confused me and instead embrace the mysteries of life, faith and being human. It's a really worthwhile journey, and I'm so grateful to be on it.