Yeah, I’m one of those. Zealous believers and missionaries re: meditation. I practice twice almost daily now. Ten minutes every morning, sometimes more in the afternoon/evening. Because when I’m not meditating, I feel it. It’s pathetic. I am irritable, nervous. Not so nice. It’s not good for anyone – my friends, my family or my patients and students – if I don’t sit down.
A long, long time ago I came of age in California in the mid 1970’s Almost any rumors about flower power, marijuana, LSD, love is all you need are true. I took a “Mandala” class in high school in the Bay Area. We looked at and colored these round, groovy geometric shapes, probably to John Cage or synthesizer music. I was obsessed with the colors and widths of my feathers to be the most demanding for this critical task. I don’t think that was the point of the exercise, but I could be wrong.
In the same school, I took yoga for physical education. Yoga has stayed with me as a lifelong pursuit. At 62, I still stand on my head or hands regularly. Meditation, surely introduced to me at the same time, did not stick. At all. “empty my mind”? Are you kidding me? I had to ruminate over the finest line Rapidograph pens available, in ruby or vermilion; my intense crush on Stevie Wonder, who really understood me; or unpleasant thoughts of body loathing that every woman who has ever been a teenager in America is sadly familiar with.
Over the years I have tried to meditate. Several times. We all know the benefits: improved heart rate and blood pressure, better sleep; mindfulness, self-awareness, stress reduction. Blah blah blah. That’s not why I wanted to meditate. Well, okay, the stress part. Anxiety. Over time, the obsession with pen nibs turned into haunting scenarios of OB crisis outcomes at the tertiary care center where I gave birth. Or being convinced that watching the hit that awaited me was loaded with meaning (not the good kind). Or waking up at night wondering if I had remembered to tell that high-risk patient to count the fetal movements. OK, I was anxious. But I ask you: have you ever met a medical professional who was not?
The meditation still didn’t hold. I tried while raising two kids and then had two more. I learned that worrying about my children was way beyond anything my brain could have ever dreamed up. Was their development normal? How do we teach them to be emotionally intelligent? Were they bullied at school because they were the only Jewish children in a small rural town? How could I protect them? Was I spending too much time at the clinic and not enough time caring for them?
Yet, have you ever tried to sit quietly for 20 minutes with a squirming newborn in your lap? Or to “clear your mind” when you have mastitis and a fever of 103 degrees and a newborn rooting for your nipple? I decided that men invented meditation, and it was just a misogynistic trap that women were supposed to be able to do too. Men seem to be able to “clear their minds” more effectively than women. The research actually supports this, and I thought it was evolutionarily adaptive. Think of the benefits of laser-focused attention in ancient times when men hunted the woolly mammoth…or when, as CEO of a multimillion-dollar healthcare system, one man simply couldn’t being distracted by what to do for dinner. .
Meditation just never worked for me. For years I didn’t even try. Meditate while being a parent, taking care of patients, cleaning up? I thought these acts in themselves were the modern or not-so-modern equivalent of “chopping wood, hauling water” and left it at that. It wasn’t until I was 50 that I finally tried again.
About 5 years ago many things were different. Yes, a markedly increased calm and stillness in the house, I admit. The remaining children are old enough to understand “meditate!” as code for “Leave, at least for a few minutes!” But on top of all that, something else had revolutionized meditation (although it sounds like an oxymoron): smartphones. Meditation apps, to be exact.
Two specific changes fundamentally revolutionized meditation for me. First, lower my expectations of myself to only meditate for 10 minutes to begin with. Between back-to-back patients at work and other tasks, a minimum of 20 minutes had been far too ambitious a goal. And second, an app. I used one of the first, Headspace, because Andy, the founder and narrator whose voice was all Headspace, had a nice British accent. And for the first 10 days – 10 minutes of meditation building on the day before, in order, teaching you the basics – it was free. If I had access to apps all those years ago, it might have stuck even with the busy patient list, loud kids, and landline phone ringing.
I never used Headspace after those 10 days. I didn’t need it. In the morning, after brushing and flossing, I got used to sitting quietly in bed, reading a little daily inspiration, and then sitting up. Restless, not worrying about clearing my mind, trying to focus on the breath, noticing the thoughts, coming back to the breath, thinking, coming back to the breath, just… sitting. Ten minute session. Then start my day.
During the pandemic, I was asked to participate in a study that involved a free year of the Calm app. I sometimes listen to the founder’s 10-minute “Daily Calm” when I’m sitting in the morning, but when my subscription expires in a few months, I won’t renew. I’m just going to go back to… sit down.
And the afternoon ? I like Insight Timer. It’s free, and full of content for any occasion: Anxiety, stress? You bet. Joy? Yeah. Need breathing work? Do you want to recharge your batteries or relax? This too. There are apps of all flavors for any meditation seeker. Some have meditations starting at just 1-3 minutes!
I work less in the office now. And after 31 years of home parenting, none of the kids live with me (good secret dance!). In the afternoon, I lie down on my couch, with my feet up, the light or the sun coming through the window, and I meditate. Or, if it freaks you out to call it “meditation,” you could say I’m just listening to someone talk softly about mindfulness, or affirmations, or joy, or letting go of anger, or worry, or…
It’s worth trying. For everyone. But especially all those who work in the field of health, generally overwhelmed by stress and crises and who have little time to debrief. Do you have 3 minutes? Personally, if I miss an afternoon meditation, I am less patient in the evening with those I love (or those I don’t even know, like new patients). I’m not as likely to assume good intention, from myself or others. My thoughts are likely to wander into negative territory. Even the next morning when I wake up, I am less optimistic about the day.
I didn’t try to make that happen. I sat there, without giving up, for 10 minutes every morning, undeterred by the constant thoughts that crossed my mind. Until I felt so good, I also wanted to try it for an afternoon reset.
It’s not magic, but again, it is. Don’t take my word for it. Just take 3 minutes and sit down. Any of us in the healthcare field – nurse, doctor, nurse practitioner, dietitian, occupational therapist, physical therapist, etc. – could all spend a little more time sitting. Just, simply, stay seated.
Diane N. Solomon, PhD, PMHNP-BC, runs a private psychiatric practice in Portland, Oregon and is an associate professor at the Oregon Health & Sciences University School of Nursing. She is also a certified nurse midwife, president of the Oregon Nurse Practitioners, and a member of the executive committee of the Oregon Wellness Program, providing free mental health care to Oregon healthcare professionals. It has no business relationship with any meditation app or company.