I used to be one of the most anxious people I know. I hid in the bathroom reading books during recess until third grade. I was verrrry comfortable in my fantasy world of spunky little girls, fairies and their talking animal companions.
I found “other people”, large groups and the world in general to be a very over stimulating, unnerving place. I was extremely uncomfortable in social situations and I would have to be dragged to other kid’s celebratory events. My 10^th birthday was a party of two, my wee boyfriend and some donuts at the local roller rink. The world felt much safer when I had a best friend, usually someone very outgoing, at my side.
As I prepared to enter third grade, I decided to try to be normal. I had a sense that what I liked to do and how I liked to be wasn’t working for me anymore. I made a choice to go out for recess, take some dance classes, and even play on some sports teams.
This worked all right for a while but in my teenage years, I discovered self-medication! What a find! Having a drink would make me feel comfortable, brave and confident. It took the edges off the noise and chaos and the shyness would melt away.
Alcohol ultimately ended up just being a band-aid for the constant internal churn that I experienced. My brain was so active that it was uncomfortable and often emotionally painful. I analyzed everything back and forth and back and forth again.
I even had this loop that I dubbed My Own Private Torture Movie of all of the embarrassing things I’d ever done. In my many moments of self-doubt and fear, this humiliating loop would flash all my shame highlights at me. Good times.
I want to be clear that while these experiences were very difficult, I consider them part of the human condition. Emotions are signposts, pointing you to areas that you need to work on. I needed to find a safe place within myself. I needed to be my own port in my storm.
After college I moved to San Francisco. I had joined my local YMCA and was trying to still the mind with regular exercise. My mother’s advice when I was young and felt myself spinning was to run around the block to relieve the fight or flight sensation. I ran that treadmill at the Y but it wasn’t doing much to relieve my anxiety outside of the gym.
One day I was checking out the schedule of other offerings and saw that they had a meditation class. I was intimidated but intrigued and decided to check it out. The class was held in a dingy carpeted room with very little light.
There were two men that taught the class-Ken, an ordained Buddhist priest, and Jake. They initiated us in the style of sitting zazen, traditional Zen Buddhist mediation. So we just sat and then we asked questions and then we walked in circles quietly.
We did this for an hour every Tuesday and it was magical. Meditating in a group is powerful. You can draw on the energy of everyone around you. Their energy can help calm you if your mind is racing. There is a gentle support in a group dynamic and it was a great space for a beginner.
I learned to still the mind from its normal huffing and puffing. I learned to put one foot in front of the other and Pay Attention to what I was doing. I tried walking meditation once outside of Macy’s in Union Square and had one of those moments of enlightenment where I truly felt no separation between myself and the throngs of strangers around me. I was hooked.
I can’t say that I meditated every day after that. I can say that I discovered the most valuable tool in my managing my anxious nature that I’ve ever known. I can say that a decade later my meditation practice has finally become a daily practice and that I am seeing huge benefits. I sleep more deeply, stress is significantly dialed down, anxiety is minimized and in general, I am less reactive and more responsive to life.