Why I Meditate
I don’t know what I’d do without a meditation practice.
These days, after many years, it’s a regular habit. But it wasn’t always that way. For years I tried to cultivate a regular practice, but I found it hard to stick to a routine. It was easier to hit snooze, or get up off my cushion before the timer went off, or skip the weekly gathering at the Zendo.
But I had an incentive: I was a hot mess. I was in my mid-twenties and struggled with mood swings and anxiety. I was working with at-risk young people and grappled with the secondary trauma of their challenging lives. I was also in therapy processing my own family trauma. I had one failed romantic relationship after another. I constantly worried what everyone thought about me. And I partied… a lot.
Every time I meditated, I could feel its benefits. This was before the wave of research proving just how good it is for us. I figured it out from direct experience. After each meditation, I felt a little more grounded, a little more spacious.
I needed a lot of grounding and spaciousness in those days. I didn’t want to feel my sadness and fear. I knew they were there, and many times (especially when I was alone) I would even wallow in them. But wallowing didn’t mean I understood them. Almost everything I did was an attempt to get rid of those feelings, to not feel them. I was always busy: trying to improve myself or fight the system or have as much fun as possible. Most of it was an attempt to get away from how I felt inside.
Talk therapy was immensely helpful, but it was the meditation cushion where I learned how to be with my experience in a different way. I wasn’t analyzing my problems or lamenting the world’s ills or coming up with strategies and actions to fix things. I wasn’t trying to numb my deep sadness with alcohol or fun times. I was learning how to simply witness what was happening, moment to moment. Just being with my experience.
The practice is simple. Be with this breath. And now this one.
But simple does not mean easy.
Even though I was experiencing the benefits of meditation, I could not sit still. And my mind was all over the place. My emotions made me feel super uncomfortable – hence quitting early or not sitting at all. That’s where practicing with a community helped. When I showed up at 10am on Saturday morning at the Zendo, I had to be all in for the next two hours. Even if my mind was racing or I silently sobbed through a sitting, being in a group helped me stay with it. Once I started going regularly, I felt a connection to the teacher and the other students, and that kept me going back.
But mostly I returned every week because, through meditation, I learned to observe my feelings rather than distract myself from them or get carried away by them. I learned to bring awareness to my breath, my thoughts and my emotions. I didn’t need to change anything about them. And when I was mindful like this, I discovered gaps in between my constant worry and doubt.
It wasn’t always pleasant to witness my tension and distress, but, slowly, I found that I could be with my difficult experiences with some ease. If I could stay grounded, in between the tears and sorrow, there was some peace. That was a revelation. I didn’t need to push these feelings away. With awareness, I could find freedom regardless of what was happening.
Over the next few years, I learned how to bring the awareness I had in meditation into the rest of my life. I began to bring more awareness to being with friends, being at work or being in stressful moments throughout my day. I spent less time at a party worried about what everyone thought about me (side note: they didn’t care), and more time enjoying myself.
I’m thankful I started meditating early. I had ten years under my belt when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 34. I had two more bouts with cancer (both Stage 4) over the next 10 years. I don’t know what I would have done without my meditation practice. Meditation didn’t make those experiences easy, but it did allow me to bring more ease to extremely challenging circumstances. Simply checking in with my breath and body during acute moments of stress provided some needed calm.
And now that I’m healthy and well, I still practice so that I can stay grounded and find spaciousness in any moment. Meditation reminds me that freedom is possible, whatever is happening.
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and raised in Washington, D.C., Seb has now survived breast cancer three times and is a meditation teacher, transformational coach, and community advocate in New York City. She is the author of You Belong: A Call For Connection.