When the Body+Soul team and I discussed my whole-living makeover, I was excited about the diet and fitness parts of the plan. Practicing yoga, learning about superfoods and healthy supplements -- these things were right up my alley. But the thought of starting a meditation practice -- an important part of the program, the team insisted -- terrified me.
How on earth would I find time to meditate? I'd been working 12-hour days since starting my job here; just maintaining my exercise routine has been a struggle. And as a classic Type A personality, I've always had a hard time slowing down. I voiced these concerns to the makeover team, who smiled knowingly. Believe it or not, they said, taking time to meditate can actually make you more efficient -- not to mention mindful, centered, and less stressed. It's people like me, apparently, who need meditation the most.
To kick off my practice, I met with Dr. Tracy Gaudet, director of the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. She was warm and encouraging and made me feel instantly comfortable. I left Duke with an arsenal of meditation CDs and breathing techniques to use as "minimeditations" during stressful situations.
I found excuses to avoid listening to the CDs for a few days and then finally settled down with one at 11 p.m. one night. I'd had a nonstop busy day. Midway through the CD instructions, my head started drooping and I crawled into bed, vowing to try again the next day. For the next two weeks, though, every time I sat down to meditate, I couldn't seem to clear my head of thoughts: the business calls I didn't get to, what I should cover on my next radio show -- you name it. Within a few minutes I'd lose focus and give up.
"I'm not cut out for this," I told my editor when she called to check on my progress. "It's excruciating." She laughed and said she thought I was running away from meditation. That gave me a great visual: sprinting away from a meditation cushion, leaving it in the dust. She was right, though -- I was resisting the whole concept.
The next week I was stuck in a tortuously slow-moving line at the Los Angeles airport. It seemed that no one in front of me had ever used a self-service kiosk. I grew increasingly frustrated as my flight time neared. I thought about the breathing techniques I'd learned at Duke. Right there in the airport, I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. When I opened them, the stress seemed to have evaporated from my body. When I boarded the plane, I was relaxed.
The following week I took a two hour seminar with Sharon Salzberg, a renowned meditation teacher. No matter how long you've been practicing, she said, thoughts will come and go; you just need to accept them, let them go, and start over. This was a revelation for me. I'd been focusing on the goal of meditation -- clearing the mind -- not the process.
"I wish I could meditate lying down," I told Sharon during a one-on-one session a few days later. She said I could. I was shocked. There are several ways to meditate, she said: sitting, standing, lying down, or even walking. This got us talking about my experience as a competitive swimmer. Every week, the coach would guide the team through a visualization exercise. After having us lie down on a towel, he would take us slowly through all our muscles, head to toe, and then have us see the upcoming race in our mind's eye.
"In a way," I told Sharon, "we were doing a kind of meditation." She nodded and explained that we were doing what's called a body sweep -- a technique that makes you aware of the sensations your body is feeling during meditation. "See," she said, "you know more than you think you do."
That night I sat up in bed and did a few minutes of meditation, focusing on my breath. Thoughts entered my mind, but instead of getting frustrated, I cleared my mind and started over. Then I did a body sweep, starting with the top of my head and ending with my toes. I fell into one of the best night's sleep I'd had in months.
I'll certainly never be a meditation master, and a silent retreat still sounds like a terrible form of torture. But I now realize that even a few minutes here and there -- at bedtime, at the supermarket checkout, before meetings -- can help me wind down and clear my head. When it feels like nothing is happening, I remind myself that at least I'm practicing mindfulness.
Did that just come out of my mouth -- "mindfulness"? I must be learning something.
Text by Dawna Stone, winner of "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart"; photograph by Troy House