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Reluctantly Contemplative: Meditation, Stress Reduction, and Midlife Crisis

HarleyMeditation was my mid-life crisis. Sure, I bought a motorcycle, got a tattoo and fantasized about running away to the West coast, but the real change, the one that caused a subtle but profound course correction, was discovering meditation. Meditation has not only changed the quality of my life, it’s also very likely kept me from killing myself.

My gateway drug was a class in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a politely secularized version, I gather, of the Vippisana tradition. Libby, my instructor, a well-grounded, professional researcher, frequently began classes by citing the latest findings of cognitive psychologists about the benefits of meditation. Since I am a recovering academic and a scurrilous tease, I often chided her in good nature, “What about NASCAR drivers and performance poets and JavaScript coders… Don’t they find benefits to meditation too?” Libby would grin, catching the joke. Despite her scientific exhortations that meditation was good for us, the class was thoroughly experiential. Over the 8 weeks, a half dozen of us learned techniques to gain perspective on our raging monkey-brains. There was no guilt trip when, for instance, my attention strayed from inhaling and exhaling to the aggravations of my work day. “That’s what minds do,” Libby would say, “When you notice, just re-direct your attention back to your breath.”

That process of focused attention, the inevitably wandering brain and the gentle re-focusing gave me insight into my thought processes. I became able to watch the repetitive life script of my personal drama and not immediately get caught up in my habitual reactions. The “enlightenment” I found was an extra couple of seconds between stimulus and patterned response, not some blissed out mountaintop gaze at eternity. Those two precious seconds frequently allow me a chance to notice my personal dog shit and not to step in it.

Let me be clear: I am not “contemplative” by nature or upbringing. I was raised in a pragmatic, non-pietistic branch of protestant christianity who put equal emphasis on feeding the poor as on bible study. Prayer seemed mostly a way of gathering determination and courage to go out and do the difficult work of social justice. By disposition, I am critical sometimes cynical, depressive sometimes suicidal, practical and results driven. I am still all of those things now that I meditate but now, I often find a sliver of wiggle room to choose how I respond in a given situation. Sometimes I behave according to comfortable habit; sometimes I am able to surprise myself.

I meditate daily, often twice a day, for about 20 minutes. In the morning upon waking, I’m amazed how my mind is already busy, if not agitated. A little focus helps me prepare for the day. I sit in a comfortable chair — I’m no ascetic — but I keep my back erect because it allows me to breath without effort. Sometimes I listen to music or a guided meditation but frequently, I listen to the sounds of the awakening world around me.

Shortly before I started meditation, I had a well worked out fantasy of hopping on my motorcycle, of ending up in Portland or Marin County. I was desperately bored of the repetitive nonsense of the life I was living here in Michigan, and I wanted to change everything. I suspect I would have found the same boredom on the Pacific coast that I experienced on the Great Lakes because I would have brought it with me. In the words of Buckaroo Banzai, “Where ever you go, there you are.” I still have regrets, disappointments, frustrations and irritations; that is, I’m still a mortal human. But every now and then, I experience two extra seconds when I can surprise myself.

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