I’ve marked the birth of each of my children with extended visits with a psychologist. There’s nothing surprising about this — each birth is a process of transformation, both for the mother and child, and for me, these particular journeys have been fraught with the realisation that I have work to do before I can be the kind of parent I want to be. I say “fraught” as if there’s something ominous about this discovery of one’s self, but honestly, who hasn’t looked at the mirror at some point after having a child and asked themselves why on earth they are doing the very things they said they would never do as parents? We mirror our own upbringing, and however hard it was for us to experience various small (or large) traumas as children, so many sleepless nights and a culture that assumes that mothers can and should do it all and that families should be able to go on with no support mean intentions sometimes do not translate into practice. My particular challenge is the ability to go from observation to (sometimes) wildly inaccurate story in no seconds flat — a gift that was useful in childhood, but mostly trips me up nowadays.
The prescription? Mindfulness. Lots of it. And so, this break, I’ve been extending my meditation practice to a 20-minute daily thing, with the hope that I get to the point where I can insert a proper pause between observation and story.
Mindfulness meditation is a tricky practice. You’re meant to start by focusing on something — your breathing, your visual field, a succession of body parts, some type of sensation — all the while kindly redirecting your (always) wandering mind whenever a thought or two pops in. The gold is in the redirection, which teaches your wandering mind rather like a parent might treat an exploring toddler, anxious to climb into the kitchen cabinets for the twentieth time in an afternoon. “There you are again,” I imagine my rational self saying, calmly picking my wandering self up again and putting me back where I belong. Over and over again, this practice continues, until the voice guiding the meditation signals the session’s end.
I’ve always wondered if the structure of all these thoughts looks similar for others. Are their brains quite as unruly as mine can be? (The very question, of course, assumes some kind of uniqueness that, well, is unlikely given the frequency of the prescription I’ve been given here.) In thinking about this in parallel to my recent practice, I realised that literature may in fact provide an answer to this question. I’ve been reading The Performance, by Claire Thomas, a book set in a theatre showing a play by Samuel Beckett featuring a woman buried up to her waist in parched earth. We meet several women in the audience, ages ranging from early 20s to early 70s, and are given a tour through the chatter of their mind as they watch this play. We see their traumas and joys and purposefully mundane musings — in other words, their thoughts — interwoven between brief glimpses of ordinary acts made extraordinary by the absurdity of the woman on stage’s predicament. We hear their worries play out in between acts, and watch their silent reactions to the slight moves of others around them. The quiet competition over an armrest shared with a stranger. A stern gaze in response to a cough. The anticipated exchange of pleasantries or panicked phone call during intermission. All contained within the air conditioned quiet that isolates them from the smoke-filled skies outside. The structure of their beautifully shared thoughts echoes thoughts I see within my own mind in some ways.
I’m not sure I would have picked up the connection between my internal chatter and the way most character’s thoughts are shared before I started practicing meditation on a regular basis, but now that I see it, I’m not sure if I can un-see it. I now wonder if this is part of the reason I’ve been drawn to literature since I was old enough to steal a book like this from my parent’s bookshelves.
Perhaps this means meditation offers two benefits: inspiration for writing, and the space to decide how to respond. At least in the latter case, all the work seems to be making a difference. Where there was once no pause, there is now a small something — not quite enough to change everything, but just enough to help me stop and get curious about what I’m truly observing.
If you’re curious about mindfulness practice, there are a lot of options out there for trying out a practice. I personally use the Waking Up app by Sam Harris, mostly because I like the simplicity of the daily meditation practice he puts together. I also highly recommend his introductory course. If you want a free option, Insight Timer is good if you don’t mind searching around for a few practices you like. As with most free things, quality can be hit and miss at times. The 10% Happier podcast also features some free meditations from time to time (and has a paid app of its own, which has good content as well but didn’t draw me quite as much as Waking Up). I am definitely no master meditator, so if you are new to meditation, I would caution you that my reasons for choosing one app or resource over another are often idiosyncratic. I tend to develop strong preferences for (and against) particular voices for no logical reason. With this in mind, I recommend trying various teachers out for yourself to see what works best for you.