Try to slow those pin-balling thoughts down, while shovelling cereal down your throat. Read the news and depress yourself early. Feel guilty about not ringing your mum back. Google every single thought. Today your left armpit is sore.
It’s the end of the world.
It’s 7 a.m.
Thoughts and anxieties move under your skin like tiny electric currents. It’s like when you were a child lying on the trampoline and rubbing your arms along the black fabric making your arm hair stand on its end.
Ripples of static, waiting to burst through your fingertips at any moment.
You have two cherry-shaped amygdalas in your brain. They help with memory, emotional responses and deciding what to cook for dinner.
Us anxious folks’ amygdalas work too well, causing them to want to go all Fight Club and attack, or flee at the speed of lightning. It’s like living in an Escape Room challenge, except not fun.
How you might like to calm an overactive amygdala
- Listen to ‘101 Greatest Hits of Rain’ on Spotify
- Cry in the shower
- Your therapy of choice
Meditation seems like the opposite to anxiety—a balm to this restlessness of the spirit, a cure for everything.
I sign up to a 6-week mindfulness meditation course held on Thursday nights in the city.
‘Prepare for a calm and Zen Shannon,’ I say to my family, boyfriend, workmates. To anyone who will listen.
They smile back. I’ve just finished a 6-week short course in creative writing, volunteered with kids at camp, badly learnt rope bondage in a community class, and attended literary, comedy and brain-bending talks about death, depression and bad hot takes. I’m doing Premier’s Active April and have clocked up over 20 hours of exercise because I want to beat Brendan at work. Who can keep up?
Week 1: What is meditation?
I never find out because I miss the first class. Instead I’m on the 4-hour V/Line train home to Albury.
The seats are dirty. Passengers have slung their grimy sneakers and boots on the faded covers, so I feel like I must do the same. The night is ink blue and my office-white face glares back at me from the reflections on the windows.
I wonder what they are learning in the first meditation class. What gems of wisdom am I missing?
I once attended a drop-in meditation class at the Abbotsford Convent. It was an hour of silence with a smiling Buddhist monk and five other calm meditators. We just sat there. I hated everyone and everything. Anxiety dug its claws into my lower back. Blood throbbed in my ears to the tempo of Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’.
I am also acutely aware that I am another white girl who wears $110 Lorna Jane tights just ‘dropping in’ and appropriating the thousand-year-old Eastern philosophy to suit my consumer-based spirituality needs.
I have mixed feelings about the 6-week mindfulness meditation classes.
You don’t want to be alone
A study by American psychologist Timothy Wilson showed people preferred receiving an electric shock to spending 15 minutes alone with their thoughts in an empty room.
Week 2: Thinking and sensing
The meditation teacher Peter looks like a Play School host. He wears a purple buttoned up shirt, rolled at the sleeves to show his brown arms, and sits at the front of the classroom. An old heater whirls overhead, a harmonicist plays badly in the street.
I take a seat in the horseshoe with fifteen others. I wonder if, like me, their skin often feels like static, or their thoughts runintoeachotherandneverseemtoend.
I am sitting next to a balding middle-aged Scottish man, who I dub Braveheart.
The class starts with a fun preschool throw-back: we peel ourselves off the hard plastic seats and shake our bodies out like pieces of spaghetti.
‘Lift your right leg up,’ Peter instructs, ‘then put it down and lift your left leg up.’
Any hopes of the meditation class transforming to do the Hokey Pokey are lost when Peter moves towards the whiteboard, marker in hand.
‘Alright’ he says. ‘Firstly, tell me: what do your thoughts feel like, mid-week?’
‘I run my own business, I know what I’m doing always,’ Braveheart booms.
‘Right, okay. That’s great. Really, great. Any other suggestions from the class?’ Peter asks.
We share our answers:
Peter explains the difference between brain waves by drawing zig-zag shapes to replicate the electricity happening within our skulls.
He draws beta waves, sharp and jagged lines which look like teeth. Peter tells us that when we are agitated or anxious we omit beta waves in these high frequencies.
‘Hah! That’s my brain all the time!’ I say.
Nobody laughs. I fear I’ve become the class tool.
Ideally, through meditation we calm the brain and replace the frantic activity with slower and longer alpha waves associated with inner peace.
‘But why do we get stressed?’ Peter asks. ‘What is causing these patterns?’
- Culture (I mutter ‘capitalism’)
- Don’t know any different/think it’s normal.
Peter sits back into his chair, his face relaxed.
‘So, what’s the deal with culture? How does it impact the way we think?’
A lady wearing a floral scarf answers that our culture tells us we need to work harder and that stress can be a sign of success.
‘However,’ an American woman with grey frizzy hair clicks her tongue, ‘the Aussie culture is pretty laidback.’
‘Actually,’ I start, the know-it-all in me kicking in, ‘research shows this belief isn’t actually true, especially in the workplace. We like to think of ourselves as laidback, but the reality is that Australians do an incredible amount of overtime and often don’t take holidays.’
A middle-aged lady strongly disagrees with my statement.
‘I strongly disagree,’ she begins, her voice rising.
She goes on a long tangent about the rude and aggressive French people in her office and how ‘they’ are different to ‘us.’ I feel my jaw clenching and I prepare to respond based on real statistics rather than just emotional judgements. The tension in the class is building and it seems like it won’t break, until Braveheart interjects.
‘Well, there’s 1.3 billion Indians and we just can’t generalise them, can we?’ he yells.
My body is prickling with static. My scalp is hot. I’m experiencing all the symptoms Peter mentioned earlier as stress. How can we short-circuit this stress?
We do a 20-minute senses meditation. Scan the ugly grey room and notice the fluorescent light throbbing through its cracked plastic shell. Feel the blood rush through your feet, your hands. Taste saliva.
I forget about the others and drift out the class feeling stoned, riding the long alpha waves home.
I was 17 when I saw my first psychologist. I went with my mum and all I remember is a box of home brand tissues placed squarely in the middle of the coffee table.
At 20, my second psychologist told me that when I had unhelpful thoughts I should think of a stop sign and apply positive affirmations to my life.
‘Stand in front of the mirror and say, “I can do this!”’
‘Okay?’ I replied.
I saw my third psychologist on and off for years. She told me that if I dropped out of university I would end up on the disability pension and never amount to anything.
The fourth psychologist told me to think of thoughts like a tomato plant and each thought as a growing, ripening tomato:
‘You reap what you sow, Shannon.’
‘But wouldn’t the tomatoes be rotten? I don’t think my thoughts can actually grow anything living? Could it be a zombie tomato plant, maybe?’ I said.
My fifth and current psychologist is my favourite. I don’t see her often now but I like to think I’m her favourite too. Rather than telling me what to think or do, she just listens. Plus she laughs at my jokes.
I start to notice things closer, more carefully. As well as in the class, I meditate for 15 minutes on the tram each morning and I’m reading a book about 5-minute meditations.
I’m dedicated to this calm business. My new obsession.
I start to notice the intricate patterns on the neon green traffic lights. A lush explosion of rooftop gardens. The cold wind whipping through my ears when I cycle at night. The smell of winter approaching, the feeling of hard china on my fingertips when I put away dishes. A girl in Box Hill wearing a hoodie that says, ‘Punch me in the face so I can feel something.’
But the static is still there, shifting and restless underneath it all.
Week 3: How to meditate
This week Peter is dressed like a model from a Kathmandu catalogue and I notice he has grown a Shannon Noll goatee.
‘Does anyone want to share how they went this week?’ he asks.
Suit man does.
‘I really want to learn how to not be so angry and reactive,’ he says.
We all nod slowly, agreeing. We’re here for you man.
Sometimes the meditation classes feel like how I imagine AA or NA meetings would be: sitting in a circle, supportive. And all with our own reasons for attending. A strong sense of guilt lingering in the air.
Suit man tells us the other day he had an itch on his leg in the shower and decided not to scratch it.
‘I just let it be there. I was curious about it. But I didn’t scratch it.’
‘And it was amazing,’ he continues. ‘The itch, it just went away.’
From what I’ve seen from AA meetings in movies or on TV, I feel like this is when we would stand up and clap. Instead Peter offers him a smile and some words of praise. I’m not sure if it’s a metaphor, but it is an encouraging story that we can allow itches to pass.
I can’t wait to try this technique during summer mozzie season.
How to meditate (a summary)
‘When do we reach Nirvana?’ I ask.
The agitators from the previous class are not here this week and when we do a 20-minute meditation I am so calm I almost fall asleep.
I wander out of meditation but have forgotten where the lifts are. I get lost in the building for 10 minutes.
Where am I?
It doesn’t matter.
Sometimes I cry in yoga class. I don’t know if it’s because the teacher with buff arms is telling me to love myself and I don’t know how to, or because my chosen expression of spirituality still means that I may end up in the fiery pits of Hell according to religious zealots who yell at me on the corner of Flinders Street.
I guess it will be like Bikram?
I bloody hate Bikram.
I don’t want to slow down. For me, it’s not always like the Beyondblue anxiety posters taped to the back of toilet cubicle doors with the sad model staring back at you.
I ride these anxious highs. I meditate and then listen to electronic music before 8 a.m. I go from zen to 10 in a matter of minutes. I dance in the emergency stairwells. I hit deadlines, always. I’m persistent and don’t give up on friendships, on cramming more into my schedule, on finding the research to win an argument.
Everything is important and can’t wait. My focus is brilliant. I have a hundred tabs open on my computer but I know where everything is.
Nothing else is as strong, or as addictive, as this bubble of energy, that static bursting within.
I skip. I cry. I laugh. I’m fine.
Week 4: Relaxation is a process
‘This is the part where you find out you’ve joined a cult,’ Peter smiles slowly.
This week he looks like outdoor Ken doll. Thankfully, his goatee has disappeared.
Cult leader Ken?
‘Just joking! Nothing weird here, sorry.’ He laughs, ‘But generally week four is where they get you. Just in case you need to know.’
I make a mental note.
We pull yoga mats and blankets from the cupboard and do an hour and a half of meditation. It feels like a sleepover party surrounded by strangers who all want to calm the beasts that claw at them from within. Each breath is like a shared secret and understanding of trying to manage this weird thing called life.
A healer tells me Jesus loves me and I’m a creative soul who wears a lemon hat.
A bush essence therapist rolls a dice and sprays lemon myrtle in my face.
‘Anxiety and excitement are similar feelings. Shift the anxiety into a positive thing. Be excited.’
A man on a tram tells me not to worry about money.
A naturopath asks me intimate questions about my bowel habits and sells me hundreds of dollars worth of vitamins and homeopathic concoctions that make me dizzy.
Countless men tell me to not worry. To smile.
Week 5: Meditation and emotions
Peter is wearing a blue silk shirt. This week we’re learning about emotions and how to manage them through the breath.
I have strong emotions about the silk shirt, so spend the next 20 minutes focusing on it and breathing through the emotion.
We chat about how we would prefer to ignore emotions, except the good ones that bubble away like lemonade or a warm spa bath. A woman with long red hair who used to work in the police force says she can’t touch her emotions.
‘There’s a barrier around me. Whenever I try to look in, something pushes me away, like, “no, you can’t go there.”’
I wonder what it would be like to not feel emotions. I imagine it would be like dipping your fingers into melted wax, where everything you then touch becomes hard and distant.
The happiest man in the world is a 72-year-old French Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard. He meditates for entire days without feeling bored. According to scientists, Ricard has excessive left-brain activity and the highest level of gamma waves ever measured in a person, traits apparently associated with happiness.
I’m no Ricard, but I’m concentrating better, sleeping better. I’m googling less. I read most of the news when I pick up the newspapers at work, staining my fingers.
The static of anxiety is a low buzzing hum rather than a loud one in my ears.
Week 6: Where to next?
I’ve missed my usual session, so I drive to Camberwell for the final class.
The class is in a Pilates and yoga studio.I sit next to a man with a snaggletooth. It’s 8 p.m. and everyone is in their trackies and puffer jackets. Peter is wearing the same ugly blue silk shirt.
Has he been home since last week? I worry about him sometimes.
In this final class we are revising everything we have learnt, but first we do 20 minutes of meditation with no instruction or guidance. We drop our eyelids. It’s silent here and for the first few minutes I am overwhelmed with gripping anxiety. I breathe, touch the floor to reground myself. I exhale slowly even though I want to vomit.
I think about my neighbour that looks like Jack Black. Taste toothpaste in my mouth. Feel my jumper hugging me.
For the rest of the class we discuss managing pain through breath, spot meditations and how to use toilets to meditate.
We all rate our meditations. Snaggletooth rates his as a 7. “I’m a perfectionist though,” He sighs.
‘Shannon?’ Peter asks.
I rate my meditation as a 10, just to annoy Snaggletooth.
For the rest of the class we discuss managing pain through breath, spot meditations and on how to use toilets to meditate.
Somehow I’ve become a bit of a class pet and share my meditation practice with everyone, how I sit on the tram every day and have made it a habit. How gamification tricks my brain into feeling rewarded through the app I use.
‘Gamification,’ Peter chuckles, ‘I like that.’
And then it’s the end.
We pack up our chairs and say our farewells to Peter. It feels strange, sad even, when someone has been a regular fixture to your week. I have grown attached to his wardrobe, to his small eyes and calm voice, to sharing with him and the others the way my thoughts feel.
I hate saying goodbye to anyone, ever.
‘Thanks!’ I say instead, beanie on my head, ready for the cold winter air to hit my face.
Peter warned us that meditation habits are extremely hard to maintain. Without the structure and a significant investment in time and coin, meditation is just another thing on one’s to do list. Life goes on. Habits are hard to break.
Months pass and as my commitment to a formal practice relax, my shoulders and breath start to tighten. I grip onto the world, searching.
But I continue to learn, and start again.
On a tram to the city, I scroll through my phone and find my favourite meditation app. It is summer and the old tram’s windows are open. Hot air blows on my face like a hairdryer switched on full blast. Commuters are reading, texting, swearing. A baby in a pram is eating an overripe banana. The tram smells like the sweet banana, sweat and people’s attempts to cover up their body odour with cheap deodorant.
Headphones over ears, hands on lap, I meditate.
The meditator on the app has a nurturing voice. I like him. This man in my pocket who can soothe and reminds me of the pause between thoughts. I imagine he has a goatee and dresses in Kathmandu outdoor wear.
The meditation finishes by saying, ‘You’re better at this than you know.’
And maybe I am.
Words by Shannon McKeogh and illustrations by Shannon Mary.