I’m Pretty Sure Meditation Is Helping

George Bellows

I casually meant to start a meditation practice for about five years. Mostly, I thought about how my practice would be structured. I concluded that meditating before bed, while possibly beneficial for my intermittent sleeping problems, was not realistic for various logistical reasons. Meditating first thing in the morning, right when I woke up and my husband was still asleep, made the most sense. I made a mental agreement with myself to set my alarm 15 minutes earlier to build in time to sit. Each night I would look at my clock and think of some excuse for why I couldn’t do it just then. This went on for another six months or a year.

My dad named one our cats Pema after Pema Chodron, the buddhist nun and author. Pema the cat is a Maine coon; she looks like a little lioness with her puffy coat and splendid curving whiskers. She won’t sit in laps, but she loves being petted and brushed and all other forms of attention. Calm, loving, and fearless, she lives up to her human namesake. She recently chased a raccoon out out of my parents house after it snuck in through the cat flap, and then ran onto the porch to make sure it wasn’t still lurking in the vicinity. My dad calls her his hero and role model.

In my teens, my dad loaned me his copy of Pema Chodron’s, “When Things Fall Apart” during a particularly anxious and difficult period. He told me it was great. He encouraged me to read even a single page. I did read it, and I kept reading it, because it was magnificent and it helped me feel like my feelings were OK, and also that I could manage them.

On my 26th birthday, a big box arrived at work. Inside was a yellow meditation pillow, cheerfully dotted with blue and white, plump and firm and ready to be sat on. It was from, guess who, my dad. I had bought him a meditation pillow, a solid green one, a few years before. He’d gotten very practiced at meditating every morning, sometimes sitting for 30 or 40 minutes at a stretch. I liked the idea of owning a meditation pillow; it made me feel virtuous just having it around. Maybe people would be impressed with me. But I didn’t use it. I hoped my cat might adopt it as a perch. Instead it lived on a bench in the living room, propped up on its with a bunch of other ordinary pillows.

Eventually my dad bought me a copy of another one of Pema Chodron’s books, “The Places That Scare You.” Like “When Things Fall Apart,” it tackled the mental anguish, insecurity, anxiety, and pain that challenge all of us with love and also absolute clarity. You can let difficult times and experiences harden you and make you afraid, the nun counseled, or you can use painful feelings to deepen your own sense of compassion and courage. It is the best kind of sobering, certain advice that you need when you are circling the drain. I read it most of the way through and left it on my bedside table for a while, in case I wanted to reference it. Over the years, I loaned it to friends during breakups and re-read it during times or pain and uncertainty. Like many reckoning, confronting truths, the writing makes perfect sense as you read it. Then you put the book down and you’re stuck with your bad feeling again and you can’t quite remember what it was you thought you learned while reading it.

What finally got me meditating wasn’t strength of character, or will power, or maturity. It was personal crisis. My dad, the same one who bought me the books and the meditation pillow and who named the cat Pema and who calmed me down whenever I was upset, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of bladder cancer. There are plenty of books that say they can help you through that kind of thing, but I didn’t want them.

It’s OK if you don’t read the Pema books cover-to-cover, my dad said. Pick them up again whenever you need them. It doesn’t matter what page or chapter. You’ll find something useful.

One night after my dad’s diagnosis I looked at my alarm clock and decided I had the motivation to set it back by the 15 minutes that I had up until then only had the courage to think about. This small act that felt so significant took about five seconds to complete. The next morning I got up, pulled my practically new meditation pillow from the bench where it lived, and dropped it in front of my living room window. During the one or two times I had tried to meditate in the past, I’d lit a candle to focus on. This time, I just looked straight out my window at the southern magnolia tree planted in the sidewalk outside. The leaves moved in a similar way to a candle’s flame, to and fro, gently swaying. I sat for 10 minutes, using a meditation app I’d downloaded on my iPhone. When I got up, I felt better. I mentally corrected myself from the feeling of “better” by remembering something I’d read in one of my Tricycle newsletters:

Meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is. (Barry Evans, “The Myth of the Experienced Meditator”).

I got up the next day and the next day and the next day and kept doing it.

My dad had four rounds of chemo, each spaced three weeks apart, through the spring of 2013. He weathered them as well as we could have hoped. He was tired, and sometimes very heavy with the intense awareness of his mortality, knowing he was sick yet not feeling like a sick person. But mostly, he was alright. I joked that he was the valedictorian of cancer. In mid summer he was scheduled for surgery to have his whole bladder removed, and a new one refashioned from three feet of small intestine (I called this his DIY bladder). Three days before his surgery, my mom organized a mass meditation for any friends and family who wanted to participate as a cosmic, prayerful exercise. My husband got up early with me that day so that we could coordinate the timing of our meditation with my family, who were in a different timezone. He used the meditation pillow because he can’t sit cross-legged comfortably, and I took a couch pillow. We sat together we sat for ten minutes.

When my dad got out of surgery, he was very weak. He had to stay in the hospital for five days while nurses constantly took his vital signs, emptied the many tubes and bags coming out of him, and cheerfully made him do all sorts of things he did not want to do. He had an ornery French-Canadian roommate named Jean who complained constantly about the quality of the hospital’s care but refused to be discharged. It was July. Outside, New York cooked like an oven, but inside the hospital my dad could not get warm.

He and I didn’t talk about meditation in the first few weeks of his recovery. I thought about bringing it up, but I didn’t have the energy. Sitting on a pillow felt like an insurmountable effort for me, let alone him. After about a month, though, once I was back home and he was more mobile, I mentioned it. No, he hadn’t been meditating, he told me. Yes, he had been thinking about it. He would do it. Maybe he would start today.

Image: George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo (1924)

Job History in 10 Questions
An Independent Game Developer

"I'm a good example of 'follow your passion,' but I think it's bad advice."
“I’m a good example of ‘follow your passion,’ but I think it’s bad advice.”

Name: Tim
Age: 31
Industry: Video games
Title: Independent game developer (self-employed)
Location: San Francisco, CA

Most interesting job you’ve ever had?

I would say the most interesting moment in my recent career was when I was hired at my previous job and got the opportunity to design and develop my own game. I happened to join at a good time when they’d just received a lot of investment money and were looking to create interesting content for a new online world. Every new hire was asked to pitch and build a game. I had a few ideas I’d fleshed out a little bit, and there was one was the most obvious choice. That idea became Corpse Craft. It was totally unexpected and exciting.

Least interesting job you’ve ever had?

Working as a dishwasher. That was torture.

Any role models or mentors?

I wish I did have a mentor; that’s been something I’ve felt is lacking in my career. I’ve had a couple of role models at previous jobs – both were the heads of the company I worked for at the time and I respected and admired them. My biggest role model is my dad. He started his own non-profit organization when he was thirty one – the age I am now. He just retired from that job this year. (read more…)

Invisible Scripts: Do You Know What You Think You Know?

Buy our invisible script popper!

An invisible script is an assumption that is so baked in to how you view the world and your choices that you don’t even question it. It often involves an inner voice telling you what you should do, need to do, or can’t do.

Here are some common invisible scripts we can think of off the top of our heads:

  • I need to go to grad school to be successful
  • Traveling is the best way to spend free time/money
  • If I follow my passion, I’ll find a job I love (or, I need to follow my passion in my career)
  • I can’t raise kids while living in a city
  • I’ll be happy once I make more money
  • Spending a lot of money on gifts demonstrates much I care
  • After getting married, I need to buy a house
  • Couples who are truly compatible never have bad fights
  • It’s important to be liked
  • The harder something is to attain, the more important it is
  • My job has to be completely sustaining to me
  • Being busy all the time means you are important and valued

(read more…)

My Mother’s Other Career

My mom with her horse, Isis.

My mom is an artist, and for most of her career was an art teacher. First she taught in after-school programs and a children’s museum, then in a retirement facility, and finally, in public high schools in New York City.

But she had another job this whole time as well, as a rescuer of various animals, usually off the street and often on our own block. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that this was unpaid. My mom doesn’t just see a homeless animal, feel bad, and move on. She scoops it up, feeds and cares for it, and finds it a new home. And she’s done it despite a very small apartment, two kids, a reluctant husband, and limited funds. I’ve always shared a passion for animal welfare with my mom, and have also done years of volunteer work in that field. I didn’t think about it much growing up, but as an adult I can she that she has been the inspiration for all of it. I wanted to know more about her career as a rescuer, the role animals had played in her life, and how she managed this incredibly meaningful yet taxing commitment. Here is what she had to say.

(read more…)

On Ego and Your Work Identity

Self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe

A few weeks ago, I facilitated our most recent career group session on the topic of career identity.

My particular interest in career identity came from my meeting with David, the life coach, back in 2010. At the time, I was struggling with whether to stay at my job or leave to make a big career change. One thing that came up in our session was that the pleasure I took in writing when I was a child has stayed with me through adulthood. David suggested that because I considered writing essential to my interests, it was appropriate to self-identify as a writer to others. I understood his point in theory, but it was too uncomfortable in practice. I didn’t write enough qualify. In my mind, writers can’t just enjoy writing occasionally in their free time – they have written actual books, they are journalists or poets or fiction writers. Calling myself a writer felt preposterous. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. (read more…)