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Stumbling Towards Zen

by Hollie Gantzer

 

I was stuck. Stuck in a years-long pattern of anxiety and general unhappiness. Stuck in my head. I waited around for things to change, helplessly assuming that certain tweaks in my external world would be what would bring me closer to the ever elusive state called happiness.

But, one day I got sick of waiting. I decided to question my old ways of thinking and dive headfirst into anything and everything that took me out of my comfort zone. From embracing yoga in favor of “hardcore” workouts, to chopping my hair off for the first time in 15 years, to letting go of long-held grudges, if it scared me or made me uncomfortable, I did it.

Meditation fell perfectly into this category. It was something I always thought only monks and hippies did. I pictured weird (probably smelly) people sitting cross legged and chanting with the thick stench of incense and bullshit in the air. Yet, thanks to my newfound effort to push through my many discomfort zones, I now find my cynical (yet, lovable) and curmudgeonly self meditating twice day.

My curiosity was first piqued by a book I read called 10% Happier. The author, a news anchor named Dan Harris, told his story of the time he had a panic attack on live television and eventually made his way to meditation in an effort to get to the bottom of why the incident happened. From what I could tell, he was far more curmudgeonly and sardonic than me. So, if he could buy into this meditation thing (and be 10% happier), why couldn’t I? Plus, as he pointed out in his book, there was scientific evidence showing that meditation actually changes the brain in a positive way. I certainly couldn’t argue with science.

My first attempts at meditating were a frustrating battle with my racing mind. No matter how much I tried to pay attention to my breath (everything I’d read about meditation recommends using your breath as an anchor – it’s the thing you can pay attention to when your mind starts wandering), my runaway train of a brain took over. It’s amazing what thoughts pop into your head when you’re trying desperately not to have thoughts in your head.

In breath…out breath…in breath…out breath…in…out…in…out…Did I dye my hair too dark? It might be too dark in the winter when I’m extra pasty. Like that time in college when I accidentally dyed my hair fuchsia and then had to cover it with a color that was almost black. So unflattering. I miss college…those were the days. Wait – I stopped meditating, dammit!! Ugh! In breath…out breath…in breath…out breath…in…out…in…out

I desperately wanted to get the hang of it. I was impatient and I wanted to find Zen now. So I took the advice of the many articles and books I’d read on the subject and searched for meditation groups in my area. The thought of participating in such a thing sent my shyness and social anxiety hurtling into overdrive. This was definitely out of my comfort zone.

Group number 1: the near miss

My first meditation group fell on a steamy, stormy August night. I trudged through the parking lot under thunder clouds while swallowing down gulps of apprehension. I entered the building and followed a stream of people making their way to a small meeting room. On each chair there was a printout about the importance of mindfulness. “I know all about mindfulness!” I thought to myself with a smug smirk. Mindfulness is part of the foundation of meditation, so clearly, I was in the right place.

The room was booming with chatter as people greeted each other, hugged and shook hands. Everyone seemed to know each other. Some, very well, as their embraces turned into hushed, huddled conversations with concerned eyes and knowing nods. A man with two fully tattooed arms and a bushy beard seemed to be the leader. He came up and gave me a solid handshake, his meaty mitt engulfing my hand.

This is not the crowd I expected to find at a meditation group. These people looked more like some sort of suburban biker gang with their moms than Zen-loving hippies.

A few minutes after the designated starting time, the burly, tattooed man went to the front of the room and the crowd quieted down as he began speaking. “We’ll begin like we do every time,” he said, “with the Serenity Prayer.”

Hmm, that seems odd, I thought. But, okay. Not knowing it by heart, I muddled through the prayer mostly lip synching. When we were done, Burly Tat Man spoke again. “Thank you all for attending our support group for family and friends with loved ones battling addiction.”

Um, what? WHAT? I’m not at the right group! Shit! I can’t just get up and leave, can I? That would be so rude and SO obvious. But, dammit, I’ve been looking forward to the meditation group for three weeks! Am I supposed to not only miss it but sit here and pretend I have a loved one suffering from addiction? Maybe I can pretend like my phone rang and I need to leave to take the call. Or maybe I can fake a seizure. Screw it – I’m not missing the meditation group.

That’s when I stealthily tiptoed out the door and went about my way looking for my fellow meditators. They were just down the hall – all six of them. They varied in age as well as weirdness level. Some were shoeless. I sheepishly walked in apologizing for my lateness and explained how I’d gone to the wrong group and how the mindfulness printout threw me off. They laughed and I indulged in a giant sigh of relief.

The session started with everyone explaining “where they were” with meditation and raising any questions they had or topics they wanted to discuss. After some brief discussion, we embarked on round one of semi-guided meditation. Our fearless leader, a soft spoken, slight man in his early 30s, instructed us to find a comfortable posture, close our eyes, and breathe deeply. He told us not to get caught up in the worry that we’re not “doing it right,” because there is no wrong way to meditate. This is exactly what I needed to hear. With that, I dove in.

In breath…out breath…in breath…out breath…in…out…in…out…Oh man, my stomach just growled SO loud. I know everyone heard that. Embarrassing. It sounded like a dying car motor. Why does Night Ranger say “motorin’” in “Sister Christian?” I know I knew that at one point but it must have fallen out of my brain. I need to Google that when I get home. Ugh, my stomach again. I should have eaten before I came. What should I have for dinner? I wish Chick-fil-A wasn’t mean to the gays because, dear God, do they make a delicious chicken sandwich. But I don’t feel right being a patron there. Although, I did volunteer at the Gay Games this year. That should allow me a sandwich. Actually, I had to get there at 6:00 am, that should buy me at least three delicious sammiches. Gaaah –I’m not focusing!

For the majority of that 45 minutes I was convinced I was getting nowhere because my mind was running wild. But when the group leader rang his little gong to signal time was up and I opened my eyes, I felt different. Kind of (but not quite) like the feeling you get after a massage, nap, or hot shower. It was as if some of the weight had been lifted off of my brain. This was definitely different than when I meditated on my own. These hippies might be onto something.

Group number 2: yes, I don’t have cancer

More Googling led me to a second group that I went to on a frigid December night. Upon entering, I was asked to fill out a registration form. After the usual name, age, occupation kind of questions, I got to a section that stopped me in my tracks – “are you cancer patient or caretaker?”

Umm…I’m neither. Crap. Am I allowed to be here?

As I fretted about what to write, the meditation group leader tapped me on the shoulder, introduced herself and led me back to the room where the group was being held. She said I could fill out the form later. I’d dodged a bullet.

I took a seat in the meeting room while she excused herself for a minute to get something from her office. A tall man in his late 60s was the only other person there. He was friendly and struck up a conversation immediately.

“I love this group,” he said. “I wish they held it more. Mediation is the only thing that got me through chemo. Can I ask…do you have cancer?”

“No.” I said apologetically. “But I’ve known a lot of people who have.”

As soon as that came out of my mouth I realized how stupid it sounded. But I didn’t know what else to say. This was the first time in my life I felt guilty for not having cancer.

When the group leader came back into the room, she led us in a guided meditation. We were instructed to close our eyes and imagine we were walking down a path. The scenery could be whatever we chose – something that helped us feel relaxed. Before I got very far, my mind interrupted to remind me of the whole “not having cancer” situation.

When I fill out the form, maybe I can just skip the “do you have cancer” section. Or, maybe I can make up a fake relative and say I’m their caretaker. Or maybe I should just say I have cancer but I’m in remission. But what if they follow up with me and I have to pretend I have cancer for the rest of my life?! I’ll have to get one of those bald caps that actors wear. This sounds like a Seinfeld episode in the making. Gaaah, I’m not focusing! Ok…in breath…out breath…in breath…out breath…I’m walking down a scenic path…

Eventually, I managed to whip my mind into shape and really focus on the guided meditation. Again, when it was over and I opened my eyes, I realized that a wave of calm had washed over me.

“You don’t realize it’s doing anything until it’s over,” the other lone group participant observed afterward as if he was reading my mind. “I hope you come back again,” he added.

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It’s been nearly ten months since I began my foray into meditation and pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone. I’ve discovered that a funny thing happens when you make changes to your inside world – your view of the outside world changes.

Meditation has taught me how to look beyond the tornado of anxious thoughts that I used to let take over, stop me from doing things and keep me in my shell. It’s not that those thoughts don’t still pop up, but I no longer let them run the show or cloud my perception of situations.

Taking some breaths and tuning into the calm that’s always there beneath the din of the brain’s constant churning gets me unstuck when I’m tempted to revert to being stuck in my head again. It’s helped me shift to the more peaceful, content mindset I have today – something I never thought would be possible for me.

I plan on checking out a few more groups and I’m even considering going to a weekend-long retreat. If I go, I can only hope my slightly muted, yet still present tough guy side won’t try to sneak in any beer.

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