This time of year is tough: resolutions, winter time blues, Fat Tuesday.
Apart from resolutions, I think about habits – either starting new ones or trying to get back into old ones I’ve let slip.
Take meditation. I had a decent mindfulness practice for almost 10 years. But with kids and moving and new jobs, I let that habit slip. Or fitness: my workout regiment has come and gone for years. After the glut of the holidays, I always have to kick-start that habit after the new year.
Even my photography habit goes into hibernation this time of year. I always have to give myself a project to wake it back up again.
The trick is to not feel bad about letting habits lapse. They come and go, and that’s natural. I could feel guilty about not working out, or taking more photos – or I could just get moving and start forming those habits again.
Every year this cycle starts again. And every year I have to remind myself: it’s okay.
My little wooden Buddha has the best spot in the house, in terms of keeping an eye on me. He rests right above my TV, facing the couch, in the living room.
And it’s a good thing, too, because I trust his insight.
Or my insight, as it were. Because my little wooden Buddha reminds me to develop that insight through an on-again, off-again meditation practice I’ve tried to keep up with since 2006.
When I am practicing, I find it helpful. I can relax, concentrate, and unspool the tangled wires in my mind. But finding the time, as with anything, is hard. And even when I think I’m starting the habit again, it doesn’t take long for me to fall out of practice.
I often share the National Geographic story that helped me tinker with meditation as a way of life. I figured, if a Buddhist monk was, on paper, the happiest person alive because of meditation, surely it’s worth a try.
There’s also something about a philosophy/religion that tackles attachment and confronts desires that appealed to me. It still does.
So my little wooden Buddha sits up there, eyes closed, palm in palm, waiting for me to sit my butt on a cushion and close my eyes for 10, 15, or 20 minutes. And breathe.
I picked him up in a little gift shop on State St. in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2005 – when the idea of some sort of meditation practiced first took hold. Now, all these years later, he’s still sitting there calmly, waiting for me to begin again.
When I tell people about my on-again, off-again meditation practice, I share a National Geographic story about the science of the mind. In the article, neuroscientists wire up Buddhist monks:
For the past several years Richard Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been studying brain activity in Tibetan monks, both in meditative and non-meditative states…When Davidson ran the experiment on a senior Tibetan lama skilled in meditation, the lama’s baseline of activity proved to be much farther to the left of anyone previously tested. Judging from this one study, at least, he was quantifiably the happiest man in the world.
That last sentence had a big impact on me. Here was a kind of proof that meditation rewires the brain – in a good way. In a measurable way.
So I tried it. And when I did, I started giggling.
It was January 2006 when I first tried meditation. I downloaded a podcast, sat in an uncomfortable, half-hearted lotus position, closed my eyes, and listed to the instructor. Then, laughter. Uncontrollable, tear-inducing laughter.
After that first time, I didn’t laugh anymore. But boy, what at first impression.
Then it happened again when I tried a chakra meditation, concentrating on specific centers of the body. There again, right when I started to focus on the heart and throat chakra, I started giggling like a fool.
Today it happened a third time. This time, it was thanks to a simple message on a simple website playing a simple song (courtesy of Ben Brooks). The music started, my shoulders slumped in relaxation, and – what do you know? – I started laughing uncontrolably.
For me, I think there’s a bit of self-hypnosis involved. It’s almost like there’s some magic affecting my susceptible brain, and what I feel is the release of tension. Not being used to that feeling, I start laughing. It turns out it doesn’t even take meditation to kick start my giggle reflex. It could be something as simple as soothing music.
This is all evidence in support of what I read years ago in that National Geographic article – that meditation, or a relaxed state, changes the chemistry of the brain. What I feel, as a result, is a release of tension. And that feels funny.