I clearly—though unwillingly—recall my first-ever meditation. I was 23, headed for Japan, and I'd purchased a slim volume on Zen Buddhism. Back then I thought meditation seemed a little weird, but you know, when in Tokyo.... So I faced a wall, read and reread the instructions (basically, "just sit there"), and began. But as I tried to let go of all thought, I realized what my constant thinking had been doing for me—namely, holding at bay all the fatigue, anxiety, sadness, and physical stress I'd accrued in my 20-plus years on earth. Within five minutes I was feverish with panic. I decided my meditation career was over.

For the next decade or so, it was. In that time, I acquired second and third Harvard degrees and three children, became an assistant professor, and started my writing career. But I also withered into a bundle of maladies: insomnia, depression, panic attacks, the agony of fibromyalgia. Whenever I had to be still, waiting in a doctor's office or lying awake, I felt overwhelmed with fear and suffering. My solution was to stay in constant motion.

Eventually, though, I got too sick to keep moving. By my early 30s, I was spending almost all my time in bed. It was excruciating to sit, stand, walk, or even use my hands, which wasn't doing much for my depression. One day as I was whimpering, I found myself thinking, I might as well try meditating again. Can't be much worse than this.

By that time, scientists were taking the whole meditation thing seriously, investigating claims that it could help treat all kinds of physical and emotional problems. I'd read the research, and I wanted a piece of that. So I began seeking out meditation guides, Asian philosophy, medical journals. With pain as my highly motivating guru, I hurtled myself into the business of doing nothing.

There's a Buddhist term for the mental chatter that ensues when we try to get still: monkey mind. Our primate brains bop and boing around, clutching ideas, arguments, and plans like chimps fighting to keep bananas. Well, I didn't have monkey mind. I had King Kong-on-crack mind. And the itching! The logjammed, brother-mucking itching! Oh, and did I mention I also have ADD?

Nevertheless, I'm a diligent student, especially when immobilized. I kept at it 20 minutes a day, first grimly, then with growing curiosity. Because despite the chaos, I could feel meditation turning into a haven. My thoughts were all over the place—but they were always all over the place. Meditation let me watch them zing around without doing anything about them. I could just relax into being the way nature made me.

A year later, I increased my daily practice to 30 minutes. I felt much more centered, and my health improved by leaps and bounds. These positive effects disappeared whenever I started backsliding: "Yeah, I meditate 20 or, uh, 10-ish...at least a couple of minutes a day. In the car. Listening to classic rock. That's a really zen place for me." This is like having a sandwich at the gym and calling it a workout. I came to realize that my King Kong mind responds only to the essential, ancient instructions: Sit, focus on breath or nothing, sustain, repeat.

Twenty years in, I developed a craving for meditation, sitting for an hour at a time. And then one day it happened: My mind slipped into a place of absolute stillness. Radiant, soothing, infinitely loving. It was as if I'd been dragging myself through a desert and stumbled into a pool of clear, cool, life-giving water. I sat for hours, drinking it, swimming in it. Healing. I'd found the doorway to a secret, infinite sanctuary located in my very center.

That didn't happen the next time I meditated, but sitting through so much dag-blasted itching had made me patient. I knew the door was there, always, and that it would open again. All I had to do was be still

People say, "Don't just sit there—do something!" As if sitting there is easy. Gentle reader, it may be the hardest thing I've ever done. But I do it daily, because Blaise Pascal (everybody's favorite 17th-century mathematician) was right when he said, "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." Nowadays I can uproot most misery as it sprouts. When pain arises, I see it, welcome it, and then watch it go. This process has turned King Kong into the mellow creature all big apes really are at heart.

I suspect you too could use a little more peace, better health, a haven no one can ever take from you. You may be in for the worst time you've ever had, but it'll also be the best. So come on, don't just do something! Sit there.


Next Story