Meditation and a Type-A Mom
By Jennifer Hughes
Web Exclusive, August 28, 2007
Many years ago I bought Steinway—your average goldfish—in an attempt to tame my Type-A personality.
My plan? I would meditate while I fed him every morning. I would observe him and think about nothingness. I'd be calmer, more at peace. I would stop biting my nails and swearing at cab drivers. The first morning, Steinway swam and I tried to detach from worldly thoughts, including my unpaid bills, my unscrubbed bathtub, my fiercely competitive job as a newspaper reporter.
Surprisingly, it seemed to be working.
But the next morning, Steinway didn't look so good. He was listing to one side, fins drooping. The third morning, Steinway was given a dignified burial at sea via the New York City sewer system.
That was about ten years ago and it hasn't gotten much better.
My attempt to read the "Tao Te Ching," ended badly. "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." Huh? I got frustrated because I couldn't figure it out, as though it were a math problem with a simple solution.
Once I tried a tai chi video and wound up hitting fast-forward to find out what happened next, as if it was the latest Hollywood release. During a pre-natal yoga class I ended up comparing my downward dog to everybody else's. Feeling out of shape drew my attention away from my breathing. Then I felt guilty for being so competitive. Then I felt guilty for feeling guilty. Then I wanted ice cream.
It wasn't always like this.
When I was about 10, I took a bio-feedback class. Hooked up to machines that measured my heart rate, muscle tension and breathing rate, I learned to soothe myself into a state of complete relaxation. Well into my teen years I meditated before tests, or when I couldn't sleep. But as I got older, something changed and the balance tilted.
I could blame my years working as a reporter for lodging my stress setpoint at an abnormally high level. Now that I'm a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer I can pack that same level of intensity into my current position. I can make a routine trip to the park as complicated as the D-Day invasion.
Besides, I come by it honestly. My Dad handed down his obsessive streak. (We are both such compulsive list-makers that we add things to our "to do" list even if we've already done them just to have the satisfaction of crossing them off.) Mom gave me her competitive drive, which has prompted games of Trivial Pursuit that could rival the Olympics.
Despite their intensity, my mother meditates and together my parents have dabbled in rune readings and Native American sweat lodges. On their 15 acres in rural Michigan they keep a labyrinth for spiritual contemplation.
Meanwhile, I was treated for an ulcer and migraines before age 30, drink enough caffeinated beverages to kill a lab rat—and I still bite my nails and swear at cabbies.
I was starting to think I was a lost cause. But not long ago I realized that I am meditating after all and I have our daughter to thank.
Vivian, now three, and I were coloring one day and as we created violet flowers and forest green trees, I realized I wasn't thinking about my looming deadlines or my rug flecked with cat hair. I realized I wasn't thinking about anything. Not even trying to think about nothing, by analyzing nothingness. As we drew, my only thoughts were of periwinkle skies touched by rays of goldenrod sun, indigo seas lapping on shores of raw sienna. Could this be meditation?
Then, it happened again one day as I was making muffins. Before I had a child, I thought baking was beyond my level of patience and precision but desperate for a healthy snack, I got out my cookbooks. The concentration it takes to measure, pour and stir is enough to blot out the thought of unpaid bills, if only for a moment.
I noticed it again as we were walking home from pre-school. My pace was brisk and Vivian's chattering joined the rumble of the cars and the light ache in my muscles. It all blended into a pleasant hum that drowned out my anxiety over the class bully.
While I was frustrated by tai chi, I can be now be spirited away from the crushing weight of worldly concerns by making a cup of tea. A quick walk around the block can clear my head. A few pages of coloring does more for my sanity than a week's worth of half-hearted yoga.
On most days, my mind is like a vast ocean of needs and wants, crushing responsibilities and routine banalities, each one surging like a wave, all crashing and rolling into one another. But with a kitchen knife—or a periwinkle blue crayon—in my hand, all of that noise starts to fade away, like the way a fire truck's siren grows fainter and fainter as it speeds into the distance. I'm learning that this is the heart of meditation.
I recently stumbled across this little gem of a quote: "Anytime we are concentrating on something other than our thoughts, we are meditating." Inspired, I re-read the Tao and was struck by this, on the first page: "Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations."
I'm still not sure how attending to simple, everyday things can bring a touch of meditation to a stress junkie like me. When I'm walking, maybe it's how the sound of my footsteps on the pavement echoes like an "ohm." In the kitchen, maybe it's how the alchemy of such humble things—flour, sugar, eggs, oats— can make something as miraculous as a hot muffin on a cold afternoon.
I know there is a perfect symbolism in the way that caring for my daughter is teaching me how to care for myself. And maybe, just maybe, there's hope for a stressed-out Type-A after all.
Jennifer Hughes is a freelance writer based in Jersey City, New Jersey. She recently got another shot at "fish meditation," after her daughter, Vivian got a goldfish, Miss Fishie, for Christmas..