A few weeks back, I took advantage of some splendid summer weather at one of my all-time favorite places (Higgins Lake in Michigan) by sharing a long walk with two dear friends. As we walked, the conversation naturally turned to the events in our lives. Turns out we were all a bit stressed. One friend is facing some tough personal transitions and is reluctantly embarking on a new course; the other faces a challenging situation at work that’s interfering with her sleep. Compared to their issues, I was a little embarrassed to share my “stress:” A couple of juicy new projects appeared at the same time and my fall schedule seems to be brimming to the point of nearly overwhelming. I was feeling anxious about getting it all done.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore my work and relish a challenge. But in transitional times, even the best of circumstances breeds anxiety. Ask anyone who is planning a wedding, moving into a better place, starting a new job, or having a baby whether they are feeling any pressure or stress. We humans prefer homeostasis, even when we’re tired of being single, having no closet space, or languishing in a windowless cubicle.
Now if you’ve ever had a conversation with me about stress, you’ll not be surprised to hear that eventually this particular gabfest came around to meditation. Which it did. For my money, there simply isn’t a better calming, clearing practice, with the possible exception of prayer for people of faith. But my two friends weren’t convinced. One had tried meditation and reported that she had “failed.” The other felt certain she couldn’t do it. “The last thing I feel capable of doing right now is sitting quietly,” she said. “Yeah, I don’t get that, either,” said the other. “I kept sitting there thinking I should get up and do something.” I surprised them by agreeing.
Meditation is not about sitting still, mind control, or stopping the thought parade that’s marching through your head at any given time. It’s a transformational process of self-reflection, part of what the yogis call dhyana. You might translate this Sanskrit word to mean a detached awareness. It’s also a kind of witness consciousness. You become both the observer and the observed of your mind. You are aware of the thoughts and emotions, but you practice not getting dragged into them. It’s a way to observe your thoughts and actions and to become aware that you have choices in how to proceed. We might say this is a training in freeing yourself from your story. But sitting still in a darkened room is not the only way into the practice.
How did my friends and I proceed? I suggested we take our walk in a new direction: silence. Sometimes a little movement is what is needed to rein in your energy and attention. A beautiful blue sky and delicious breeze don’t hurt either. I gave them some quick instructions on how to do a walking meditation, choosing from an array of lovely scents, sites and sounds as either a fixed or rotating point of focus, and we started walking again, silently this time. (You can find more detail on that here.)
As we rounded the corner onto Route 200, I was acutely aware of the various project bubbles percolating in my head. At that very moment, I glanced ahead and staring back at me was the sign you see here, a perfect strategy for getting through stressful times: One mindful step at a time, reduce speed as needed, eyes on the road. Funny how many teachers are right in front of us if we just open our eyes! My friends and I heeded the sign and slowed our pace. A mile later we were calm, refreshed, drinking iced tea, and breathing easy.