For a couple of years in college, I was a Zen Buddhist, or what I thought one was. I read a lot of books from the New Age bookstore near the university with titles like “The Life and Teachings Of The Great Masters Of The Far East,” “The Lost Years Of Jesus In India,” and “The Tao Of Pooh.” I ate weird vegetarian meals purchased from the lunch counter of a little shop that smelled like incense (and B.O., if I’m being honest about some of the clientele). I seriously considered the benefits of ear candling. I never discussed my spiritual journey with any of my friends and family, which is probably a good thing, because I’m sure I would have been fairly obnoxious. I reeked of Wisdom Lite the way the dreadlocked hippie who dished out my tempeh and beansprout $2.99 special did of patchouli.
Twice a week, I drove to a little temple nestled deep in a rainy, green valley to meditate. The other devotees and I sat cross-legged in an open-air pavilion as an elderly monk delivered a lecture on the importance of Sitting. I could hear the capital ‘S’ in his voice. We learned the proper way to breathe, deep in our bellies, hardening our diaphragms. We learned the correct posture. And then, we sat. We were supposed to empty our minds, like buckets of sand. “Notice your thoughts, but do not attach to them,” said the monk. I tried to think of flowing water or clean white sheets of paper. It didn’t work; it never worked.
Here’s the thing: in those days, I was working three jobs to pay for college, I carried a full load of classes, and I was in the midst of a soul-crushing relationship with an abusive narcissist. I didn’t yet know that I suffered from clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I hadn’t shed the guilt of abandoning the Catholic faith in which I’d been raised. I was living on 5 hours of sleep a night, maximum. I hurtled through my days with very little awareness, bouncing from one activity to the next without stopping to think, because my life was all about momentum. There, in the quiet, tree-sheltered pavilion, all the thoughts I’d been avoiding came swarming into my brain like a nest of red ants. Stillness was my enemy.
Now, I am no less busy. I juggle the incessant demands of work and family like, well, a not very skillful juggler: I drop the ball a lot, but then I pick it up and get right back into it. I’ve accepted the fact that I will never be good at sitting, let alone Sitting, but I remain dogged in my quest for Zen. What I’ve learned is that I need to fit it in during the lulls, like spiritual smoke breaks.
5 Sneaky Ways To Steal Serenity:
1. During the last snooze.
Instead of going back to sleep (oh, so tempting), I lay there in those last six minutes with my eyes closed and just let myself come back into my body. My shoulders may be stiff and achy, my thoughts still fuzzed by fatigue or half-forgotten dreams. I don’t worry about it. I notice, but instead I think about the pillow beneath my head, the purring warmth of the cat who is most likely sitting directly on top of my bladder, and the way my toes feel when I wiggle them. I stretch beneath the covers and open my eyes to the gray morning light. It’s so much nicer than falling back asleep only to later be jolted into wakefulness by that last buzz.
2. While the coffee brews.
During those 90 seconds while the water gurgles over the superheated coils of my coffee maker and the fragrant, life-giving caffeinated nectar drips into my waiting mug, I stand, heels firmly planted, hands at my side, and breathe. I don’t think about emptiness or flowing rivers. I think about the glorious smell of the coffee and tile floor beneath my feet and the feel of the breath filling my lungs.
3. Slow downloads.
When I see that progress bar of doom stuck at 25% after 5 minutes, my blood pressure goes up and I try to will it faster with my mind powers. This doesn’t work, in case you were wondering. Lately, instead of opening up another browser window or grabbing my phone, I’ll use that time to stretch my neck, shoulders, and hands. I’m still doing, but I’ve changed the focus from external to internal. Body, breath, muscles, blood flow. And then, if, after all that, the stupid progress bar is still creeping along, I can return to my regularly scheduled farting around on the Internet.
4. Traffic lights, especially when crossing the street.
This is a good chance for me to take out the ear buds, stick the phone in my pocket if I’m on foot (because none of US are on the phone while driving, right?), and breathe deep from my diaphragm like the monk taught me. I throw back my shoulders and tilt my head up to feel the sun on my SPF protected face. Or to feel the wind or the rain or whatever. As soon as the light changes, I’m back in motion, but I feel better for having taken the time to be still while I waited.
5. When the cat wanders over to nap on you.
I don’t really have to elaborate here, do I? Everyone knows that when the cat climbs into your lap or onto your chest and snuggles down, you are now temporarily immobilized. It’s a law of physics or something. I stay right where I am, as if trapped by a warm, furry paperweight. I put my focus on the creature that has trustingly (and often somewhat arrogantly) decided to make me its furniture for the moment. We breathe together, although one of us is much better at purring. When it’s time to move again, my heart is calm, and I’m covered with cat fur, but that’s okay.
I find that taking my peace in bite-sized pieces is the most manageable way to navigate my often-chaotic life. It’s freeing to let go of the expectation that self-reflection and meditation should come in big chunks of time. The moments of quiet come when they come, to be savored, enjoyed, and released. The important thing, I realize, is to stay open so that when the opportunity arises, I’m ready for my Zen-break.