September 18, 2013

#2 of My Big Three: Meditation

I've been an avid reader of self-help books since 1978, when I joined Alcoholics Anonymous and discovered M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled. That book about the paths to spiritual growth became a New York Times best-seller only five years later . . . and stayed on the list for the next 13 years.

The book became a bible for me -- and many others in my AA meetings -- long before it became a national sensation. We learned about it early, thanks to the Washington Post's Phyllis Theroux, who had discovered an advance copy in book review editor's office. She took it home, returned two days later, and demanded to review it. She later said she spent two weeks writing a piece "that would force people to buy the book."

After becoming a popular lecturer, Peck would ask his audiences if they'd been in therapy . . . in a twelve-step program or with a trained therapist. Most of his listeners -- like me -- raised their hands.

The Road Less Traveled was just the beginning. I still have an entire shelf of self-help books here, and many others I bought ended up in used book stores all around Washington. 

Mindfulness Meditation
I didn't just read books; I occasionally attended spiritual retreats. I fondly recall a week-long session in Key West, Florida -- perhaps a bizarre place for a gay man to consider matters spiritual. That gathering was led by Thich Nhất Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who really brought mindfulness meditation to the attention of the western world. Jon Kabat-Zinn -- Ph.D. from MIT in molecular biology -- attended one of the monk's retreats and recognized the potential for meditation in treating chronic medical conditions. 

Kabat-Zinn -- the founder and former director of the renowned Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts' Medical School -- used Nhất Hạnh's teachings to create a popular eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. He has also published other books I found helpful, including Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life and Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. 

Meditation and Me
In light of my decades-long interest, you might think I'd have become a world-class meditator by now. You'd be wrong.

Over the years, I experimented with various meditation techniques. I tried new methods touted by the latest meditation gurus. I attended local meditation classes. I followed Kabat-Zinn's instructions. Doing it someone else's way just didn't work for me. There was one exception involving sleep, which I'll discuss tomorrow.

Then, several years ago, I stumbled into a ritual that finally works for me (perhaps I should have ranked it #1, ahead of exercise). This ritual enhances my quality of life as much as exercise, and -- unlike exercise -- I enjoy doing it. Since I'm always up at 4 or 5 o'clock each morning anyway for a bathroom break, I decided to try meditating at that time. At first, I tried an "insomnia-cure meditation" but got bored with it. So I decided to just sit.

What began as a ten-minute exercise now usually lasts an hour. The early-morning ritual has become my favorite time of day. I follow Frank Sinatra's advice and "do it my way," which is changing and evolving. At the start, it resembled traditional meditation: I'd keep my eyes closed, use the hokey secret handshake, and focus on my breathing. Now, the process is completely free-form.

Straight-Backed Chairs and Inspiration
In warm weather, I sit on the back porch, listen to the waterfall, and watch the day begin. At other times, I sit in the living room with the picture window drapes pulled back. I always use a straight-backed chair; it's the one time during the day when I really maintain good posture. Sometimes I do some progressive muscle relaxation exercises or a few stomach crunches for core strength. I might do some seated Kegel exercises for incontinence, or perhaps a few hand and finger exercises for my Parkinson's. 

But most of the time I just sit. It's my "joy of quiet" hour and my most creative time. Surprising new thoughts pop up like . . .  "Why not take the family to Iceland?" or "Maybe my son would like to see the end of the Tour de France in Paris." Mostly, I find answers to everyday issues rattling around in my mind. 

Most importantly, it's 100% MY WAY and MY TIME.

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