Making Meditation Work for Me

About 10 years ago, a therapist told me meditation might be helpful for my depression. I have tried it off and on during graduate school, as a chaplain, at periods of life when I hoped it would add to my prayers, but I found that I couldn’t sit for more than a minute before I was anxious and miserable. At one point, he suggested that I just try to sit and listen for 20 minutes to a favorite music album. Determined to be the “good” patient, I did this. I shook and cried and felt generally miserable the whole time. That was my last time meditating.

Photo by wilsan u on Unsplash
[small Buddha statue sitting with his knee up and head resting on knee]

When a severe depressive episode happened (I am only now feeling brave enough to call it what it plainly was, a mental breakdown) a couple years ago, I began building a toolkit, i.e. finding all the skills and tools I could to manage this mental illness beyond medication and therapy.

Over and over again, I read about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. While I wanted to check that off my list as having not worked for me, I thought I should try again. I asked Exponent current and former perma bloggers about their favorite meditation guides, The Exponent blog founding mother, Deborah Kris, recommended the University of California at Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC). The five minute breathing meditation here,https://www.uclahealth.org/marc/mindful-meditations, was the only meditation I did for a year and a half. Good days, bad days, I didn’t notice much of a change other than some ease in my mind during and often after those five minutes.

I’ve added other tools to help me better master meditation and mindfulness along that way. I realized that my continual need to keep busy, to volunteer for too much, to try to help anyone…these were ways I could avoid being by myself. I didn’t think I was a good person, a kind person, a person worthy of existing, unless I kept busy serving others and making the world a better place (Seriously, I remember reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, and knowing I was a failure because I wasn’t “as good” a person as he was).

In the beginning, my mindfulness and meditation tools were largely secular, but in the past six months, I have found such comfort in understanding the background of these tools that can be found in Buddhism. Sometimes, I kick myself that I didn’t study Buddhism more closely in college and grad school or even when I first got so sick. Still, it makes sense; I was so scared of losing the religious tradition I loved and dedicated so much of my life to…I just couldn’t see how I could well, to oversimplify, be faithful to Jesus while learning about Buddha.

The books and links I offer below are all free or were checked out of the library. I have looked at others and paid for classes and other tools, so I was surprised to realize that the most effective materials for me (beyond UCLA MARC’s Intensive Practice Program, which is worth every penny) have been free.

Meditation for Beginners I got this book free years ago through Audible. The writing is simple, the exercises accessible, and it really does provide all the basics.

The Mindful Way Through Depression I wish I had had this book when my depression was first starting to take over my life. I use these guided meditations when I feel like I am starting to slide.

Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself Sara McPhee Lafkas did a workshop on This book literally changed my life. It was my first introduction to mindfulness, and I learned about it at an Exponent retreat a couple years ago when Sara Lafkas did a presentation on it.

FREE https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/ (The 5 minute Self-Compassion Break has been a lifesaver for me. Sometimes, I just step out of the environment I am in and play this meditation on my phone.)

Buddhist

Peace in Every Step This book touched my heart and is such a kind approach to incorporating these practices. I love/hate the smile meditation he talks about.

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of the Buddha I’m reading this right now because so many people in my UCLA seminar recommended it. I love it.

App

Insight Timer This app feels overwhelming, but I like to scroll through different guided meditations, listen for like 30 seconds, if it feels right, I do the whole meditation. If not, I scroll to the next one. Kirsten Neff and UCLA MARC have their meditations on there. I have also discovered a few people I love by the method I talked about above: Sharon Salzberg, Tara Branch, and Jason McGrice.

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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11 Responses

  1. violadiva says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey and your resources with us. We love you!

  2. Chiaroscuro says:

    I have been wanting to do better with meditation. Thanks for the sharing and suggesting resources

  3. Wendy says:

    Yes, thanks for this, Emily. What a great list of resources.

  4. Clay Cook says:

    May I also suggest “A Path With Heart” by Jack Kornfield .

  5. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for this. The resources you list are great. I’ve found over the past few years that meditation does wonders for helping me manage my meditation. Others’ mileage may vary, as your early experience suggests.

    Elsewhere I commented that meditation needs to have a Franciscan bent, seeking grounding for action in the world. Reading this, I can see how that might not always work with your temperament. I love the idea that meditation can only be practiced, but never mastered. Letting go of the idea that I’ll ever be good at it (again and again) has been marvelous.

  6. Marianne Wardle says:

    I’d also recommend Full Catastrophe Living for a fuller understanding of how we get ourselves to that place of urgent busyness and mindfulness as a technique to help stop.

  7. Heather says:

    Thank you for the honesty and the resource guide. I like that what didn’t work for you at one point ended up helping you later on. That’s hopeful. And humbling. Because we have to try again and acknowledge our “rightness” is not and should not be static.

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