It takes a lot of work and plenty of discipline to do nothing.
That's the biggest takeaway I've gleaned so far in about three weeks of semi-diligent meditation practice.
Meditation has been on my radar screen for years. It's no secret that I can be a high-strung worry wart. It's been a issue since I was in grade school, getting stomach aches at the idea of a multiplication test. It never let go as I grew into an adult.
For a while, I was in between professional jobs, working a couple of different part-time jobs at a downtown St. Paul YMCA. I got to know one of the members there, and was telling him that although I had no stress in my life, I still constantly worried. I was stressed, I told him, because I didn't have much stress.
He recommended a book called "The Relaxation Response," by Herbert Benson, a doctor and clinician at Harvard University. The book outlines the fight or flight syndrome the body goes through when under stress. Bad things happen to your insides, particularly your circulation system, if you are constantly under stress, but you're unable to fight or flight.
I found the book fascinating and credible. But even so, I probably tried to meditate maybe three times.
Just didn't see the point. I started to run more, figuring that would be better than trying to pick fights.
A few years ago my wife and I took a meditation class through Continuing Education at the University of Wisconsin Marathon County. That was an interesting experience, but not enough to spur me into action, er, inaction.
I'm not sure why I've been so resistant to the idea of regular meditation. It's got the backing of scientists as being terrific for you both physically and mentally. Eastern religions believe it's the key to opening up the spirit.
Maybe that was part of the problem. I never really was sure that clearing my mind and opening myself up is a good idea. Best be safe and stay closed.
Several weeks ago, meditation came up again. This time I was writing about the effects of stress has on the heart, and cardiologists were telling me the same old story, how bad unchecked stress can be. But one said that meditation was a proven antidote to those ill effects, and that brain scans showed that regular mediation strengthened the part of the brain that helped the body relax and take things in stride. Wow, I thought, that's pretty compelling stuff.
But still I didn't do it. It just seemed so weird, doing something by not doing something; accomplishing a goal by doing nothing.
Then a few weeks ago, I ran across a copy of the magazine Scientific American Mind. "Sharpen Your Focus," the cover headline read, "How the science of mindfulness can improve attention and lift your mood."
The article reiterated the reams of studies that shows meditation to be a salve for the crap seems to seep through all of modern society -- pain, anxiety, depression. But what really caught my attention was a description of a study of U.S. Marines who were able to maintain focus and memory under stress through meditation.
That did it. If it is good enough for Marines, then it's good enough for me. So I started the mindfulness exercises, trying to empty my mind of thoughts and focusing on my breath for 10 minutes at a time.
It's a lot harder than I expected, especially at first several times I tried it. Ten minutes can seem like an eternity if there's not a TV blaring, a phone to thumb through or something to read.
But I have persevered. I can't say I meditate everyday, or even if I'm doing it right. (Is there even a wrong way? I don't think so, from my memory of the class.)
Am I happier, calmer and able to focus for longer periods of time? Gosh, I don't know. But I think I am and can. And if you think you can focus better, then really, can't you?
Keith Uhlig’s blog veers toward outdoor silent sports, running, biking, kayaking, etc., but also can be about eating cheese, growing up and living in central Wisconsin and life in general. You can reach Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org.