“Sometimes all we need is a small reminder to cherish the here and now. Each day is filled with meaningful moments, and when you start to acknowledge each experience–no matter how small–as special and significant, it will dramatically transform your mindset.”
Meditate to become fully present
I recently became a mother. Before that, I was busy writing a book and articles, working full-time at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, volunteering up to 20 hours a week teaching yoga-based breathing to veterans with trauma, and spending hours reading, practicing yoga and time with friends. Above all, I loved creating – letting inspiration alight and sitting down to bring my thoughts to life on paper. And then little Michael came along. My heart was full of love and gratitude. I cried tears of joy daily.
Yet I noticed my productivity decreased by 95 percent. I was keeping a baby alive, warm, fed and rested, of course. But nothing else was getting accomplished. I was lucky if I got a shower and a short meditation. Hours upon hours were spent breast-feeding and taking care of an adorable and highly vulnerable little man. My heart felt full, but my mind was going crazy. I was so used to getting things done. I would have writing ideas come to my mind, things that I needed or wanted to do. Yet I simply, realistically could not do them. The experience of spending a whole day without any end product was unbearable. At least at first.
Slowly, as the months went by, I started to realize something else; the countless hours spent sitting with Michael, watching him play and entertaining him were precious. Not only because they would never come again and time was moving so fast, but also because they were an opportunity to rest deeply – and in so doing, take a vacation from my own mind.
My mother shared something very beautiful with me during my early motherhood: “The greatest thing a mother can do for her child is to rest within herself.” I would go further and say that the greatest thing we can do for anyone, and most of all ourselves, is to learn to rest within ourselves. To disconnect from the franticness of trying to get things done, of the worries and the what ifs, which after all are only figments of our imagination. To disconnect from the need to do. So we can be. This is not a new idea; it’s one we’ve heard before, yet in our über-productive society, being has become harder than ever.
When we think of taking a vacation, we think of heading to the beach or the countryside. There’s this idea that if we could just get away, then everything would be okay. And yet, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” You could be basking in the sun with nothing to do, yet be caught up in a stream of anxious or angry thoughts. Simply put, the state of our mind determines the state of our life – whether we’re in the middle of a traffic jam on the commute to work, or on a boat in the Mediterranean; if our mind is okay, everything is okay. The only real vacation is when your mind is at peace.
There is a sense of abundance and gratitude that naturally spills over into generosity and kindness to others. When our mind is in this place, we feel at our best.
So how do we do we learn to vacation our mind? Countless meditation teachers have told us, “Be here now;” “Enter the state of no-thoughts;” or “Be present.” Well, that’s hard to do, as anyone who has tried meditation will tell you.
In my 20s, I lived in Shanghai for two years, renting a room from an elderly Chinese gentleman. He was extremely erudite, a well-known biochemistry professor and inventor. He was also the happiest man I’d ever met. Despite the tragedy of his personal history – including the death of his wife during the Chinese Cultural Revolution – he bubbled over with happiness, humor and childlike joy. He also exuded a deep sense of peace.
I was 22 and prone to stress stomachaches. During one of these episodes, he told me, “Why don’t you just sit there, on the sofa, and look outside at the bamboo. Just relax.” I realize now that he was teaching me to meditate, though it didn’t look like the formal meditation practice we think of today – sitting with eyes closed, a straight spine, preferably in lotus. But what he was telling me was to rest within myself, as he seemed to be doing every blissful moment of his days.
What I have found, through motherhood, is that simply being present without a goal is infinitely nourishing. By allowing my mind to rest without accomplishing, accepting that I could do nothing else, and in a state of complete surrender, I started to feel a deep sense of peace. I also realized that this sense of peace, letting go, simply being, with no goal, was the state my meditation teachers had spoken about. It was the point of those weeklong meditation retreats I had attended.
It’s not so much meditation that’s the goal, I realized, but the state of mind that emerges from it. Eventually, when I resumed working outside the home, I was surprised to find myself more productive with this new state of focus and ability to be fully present.
“Rest Within Yourself” by Emma Seppälä, PhD was originally published on Spirituality & Health.