Meditation for the “Good Student”

A couple posts ago, I mentioned a Ted Talk that had a big influence on my desire to change my life: Shawn Achor’s “The Happiness Advantage.” Not only is Achor hilarious and adorable, but he makes a compelling point that happiness is not a matter of luck or resources but that you can control it to an extent–conjure it, if you will–by engaging in various behaviors. One behavior Achor mentions is meditation.

If you’re like me, the idea of meditation evokes the smell of patchouli, the sound of small gongs, and the image of people twisted in impossible cross-legged poses saying “ohm.” And if you’re like me–a person who scoffs at anything that makes her emotionally uncomfortable–then you’ve likely dismissed meditation as something that might be fine for “those” people but that would never have an impact on you.

But as I mentioned in that earlier post, I no longer feel I have the luxury to scoff. My stress level is through the roof, I’m routinely anxious and depressed, and something’s gotta give. So, I am giving this meditation thing a try. I’m not here to pronounce any earth-shattering changes. I simply wanted to tell you about how I’m doing it and what I do see as positive potential.

Going to bed has always been difficult for me. Surely, there’s one more thing I could do. Some nights, I read, highlighter in hand, until I fall asleep (dangerous: more than once I’ve woken up to fluorescent pink stains on my pillow and face). Other nights, when I can’t bear to read another word, I’ll watch some crappy television show on my laptop, usually true crime (which explains all the nightmares).

Purposely setting out to sleep seems too self-indulgent. How messed up is that? And it’s self-defeating, too. I tell myself I can’t go to sleep because I didn’t get enough done, and then I sleep poorly, which means I’m groggy/cranky in the morning and can’t get going until mid-day. Kind of defeats the purpose of trying to be more productive.

In the past week, I’ve tried to change this habit. At night, I listen to guided meditation geared to help you sleep. There are TONS of these videos available for free on YouTube. I’ve been using this one only because the person who posted it wants to improve her “audio skills” and is looking for feedback. You can tell, too, as you listen, that she’s still working at it and that makes the process feel more authentic. It’s like we’re kindred spirits.

For my personality, guided meditation is perfect. Were I told to listen to the sounds of the rainforest or the roar of the ocean and just let myself drift off to sleep, I would no doubt use the time to construct lesson plans or draft introductions to essays in my head. But having someone tell me to relax is perfect for someone like me who has been trained by years of schooling to be a good little student. I listen to direction and do as I’m told. I aim to please. So, when someone tells me to relax each individual toe, I will try like hell to do it.

A little sad, maybe: it’s like there’s some small middle-schooler in me still striving for that “A” or a wee softball player hoping the coach will tell me “good job.” Yeah, I wish it weren’t so, but for now I’m going to work with who I am. I strive to please–okay. Let me use that personality trait to produce something good for myself.

So far, it’s working. Next step: five- or ten-minute daytime sessions first thing in the morning.


8 thoughts on “Meditation for the “Good Student”

  1. I remember lessons in 9th grade health class that taught the same sort of meditation. We were told to categorically unclench every toe and feel our skin loosening and relaxing all the way up to our ears, all whilst picturing some fantasy place. This was during my “seeking religion” period, so I had a cathedral built by interlocking branches and leaves in a forest clearing. And my dog was with me, running around with me in my head until I was exhausted and we fell asleep in the gentle sunlight breaking through the canopy. In my head that sunlight was on a dimmer switch and I could easily turn it to moonlight levels.

    So yeah, you know I have insomnia, too. It’s like a part of my personality, the same as your dislike of people. If I slept well on a regular basis, I wouldn’t feel like me, and that’s a bit messed up. I rationalize it, saying that I prefer the quiet night and that going to sleep IS LITERALLY a surrender of conscious thought. Ever since my teenage years I’ve struggled with that idea and “unlearned” sleep habits that come naturally. Darn puberty.

    Your guided meditation tape is interesting, but I’m still a rebellious teen in my head and I grow stubborn about following directions. I’ve listened to whispered audio books before. There are Youtubers who read stories in a whisper, and that makes me focus so much that I lull myself into sleep. Usually it’s a story I’ve read many times before, so I’m not paying attention to the plot. Listening to music often keeps me awake, but a susurrus of words is so rhythmically calming. I told this to a roommate once and they told me instantly that hearing a whispered voice in the dark would scare the shit out of them.

    PS – For meditative words, there are none better to my mind than “susurrus” or “murmurous”. They’re onomatopoeia, really. If I ever meditate, going to be a stubborn male and say those words instead of “ohm,” which is, after all, a word for god. It’s like allah.

    1. I love how you mentioned that insomnia if part of your identity. I think that’s true of me, too. I wonder how many of us feel like we have to be struggling in some sort of way in order to be “authentic” or something.

      1. I don’t think about it in terms of authenticity. I think that we all accept our struggles and failings as part of who we are, so obviously we’re attached to that idea of ourselves, and there are advantages to insomnia or seeking approval. Psychology isn’t black and white, “bad” things can be positive. Those who have trouble falling asleep but just lie there in the darkness tossing and telling themselves, “It’s 3 am, if I fall asleep now I’ll only get 3 hours,” those people aren’t doing anything healthy either. They’re stressing themselves out rather than productively reading a book that may calm them down and get them closer to sleep in 20 pages than an hour of trying to clear their head would do.

  2. I’m glad to hear you’ve found a comfort in meditation. It sounds to me like Achor is, in some ways, a modern day Aristotle. I know that for me personally, a combination of philosophy and meditation have very much turned my attitude in life toward positive behaviors and habits.

    Philosophy helped me in that Aristotle defines happiness as Eudaimonia, which is often translated as “flourishing” instead of “happiness.” The reason for this is that Aristotle admits that “happiness,” as modern times define it, is a more fleeting emotion. Eudiamonia is a measure of what you’ve accomplished in a lifetime. Therefore, you can’t really achieve it until after your death.

    When I meditate, I remind myself of this: that happiness is a fleeting emotion–you can’t always have it–but you can do your best to control it like Achor and Aristotle say. You can have a positive outlook on life. If I feel this suffering and discontent you talk about in your post, I try to remind myself of a couple of things. The first is that I’m a fortunate person. Ukraine is on the verge of civil war, people are starving other places, and knowing this doesn’t mean my problems are petty–it just means they are my own problems, and I’m very fortunate to be worrying about grading papers or getting a poem finished before workshop tomorrow. The second thing I try to remember is that suffering is a part of life and it’s just something we feel, and that’s okay. We’re allowed to be sad, it’s okay to feel like a human. One other thing that helps me is though I’m not a particularly religious person, I do believe animals (and probably even grass, trees), all have something we might consider a soul. I imagine they’ve all felt suffering as well. Its comforting to me to know I’m a part of something bigger than myself.

    Anyway, I apologize for such a long response. Your blog got me thinking a lot since I have suffered the same problems as well–with sleep, depression, etc.–and I hope you find your way through the rough patch, whatever way that is. It sounds like you’re doing well, though, and taking positive steps.

    1. Bryan, this is FABULOUS. I love the point about happiness being fleeting, and you are absolutely right that gratitude for what’s there rather than what’s not is key. But my favorite thing about what you said is that “suffering is a part of life” and not a sign of failure or something being wrong. That really made sense to me, and I think I need to think about that a lot more. Thanks SO much for taking the time to write.

      1. I agree with Bryan, and I can reference a Buddhist belief about fleeting happiness that seems appropriate to the conversation.

        Think of a favorite object, maybe a mug. Now, being of a scientific mind, you can easily picture that this mug will, in the course of time, break and crumble. Whether you’re picturing this destruction as a bit of time lapse photography, over which decades pass and spider webs form on the mug until it just turns to dust, or whether you picture Izzy just swatting this mug off the counter in a fit of hauteur, well, I’ll let you do the statistics on which one is more likely to happen first. If you accept that the mug will be destroyed, then that acceptance is as good as acknowledging that the mug is already destroyed. This is all subjective philosophical musing, remember. This acceptance means you’ll value the mug more each day and not take it for granted, but then when Izzy does shatter it, you won’t be distraught. This same principle of mug acceptance can be transplanted to your feelings for ambitions and loved ones. (Listen, I know this sounds a bit depressing, but it works for me–it takes some of the pressure off of self expectations.)

        I think this all fits in snugly with the “suffering as part of life” realization. And it sounds like I’ll have to listen to the Achor talk.

        PS – Because it seems pertinent, here’s a book on the psychology and benefits of meditation/spirituality from a non-religious viewpoint. It’s written by scholar Sam Harris and I’m definitely planning to read it. Worth a look-see:

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