A woman has lived with undiagnosed immune disorder for over 20 years. She went on looking for cure from several doctors, trial and error different medications, acupuncturists, holistic doctors with no end in sight.
The journey ends when one of her doctors found the treatment that seems to work well. She receives the injection once a month and everything is under control.
Then she decided to venture to a five-day silent meditation retreat in Big Sur, California. After that she finally found herself happier than she ever been.
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Until I set out to meditate every day for a month, my personal mantra came from a greeting card. I bought it without the envelope because I never planned on giving it to anyone. It read: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
The card has sat on various surfaces in my bedroom for five years and I look at it every day. I have lived with an undiagnosed and baffling immune disorder for nearly all of my 20s. I have seen over 12 different doctors, not including the acupuncturists, nutritionists and holistic doctors. At one point we discussed traveling outside of the U.S. to seek treatment or trying to get into the famed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. It’s an elimination game, and after crossing off every autoimmune disease on the list, even my doctors scratched their heads at the welts all over my body, my fatigue and the clumps of hair I would sometimes find in the shower.
Some months I let slip away in a daze as we tried combinations of drugs or I tried to just cope by putting one foot in front of the other so that I could keep my job, my relationships and my life in some form of order.
So on some days, those 15 words — “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end” — were the only thing that could make me feel better. That mantra brought calm into a body that was sometimes raging out of control.
After years of trial and error with different medications, very recently my doctor found a treatment that seems to be working for me. I get shots once a month and have been able to taper off all the other medications I was on, which at one point, was eight different drugs. This is the healthiest I have been in many years. But as I have felt my body start to return to a state of normalcy, my mind has felt like it’s been running a marathon; a long loop that’s left me feeling impatient, angry and oftentimes deeply sad.
In January, after an especially difficult year, and before we could tell if my immune injections were working, I decided to spend New Year’s and my 29th birthday alone at a five-day silent meditation retreat in Big Sur, California. It was there that I first learned to meditate and I felt more peace and calm than I had in many years. I drove back to L.A. along Highway 1 with a lightness in me; an amazing smile on my face.
But back at home, I didn’t meditate at all. It was too hard without a teacher or without the other people in our class, and honestly, I didn’t really remember how to do it.
Aching to find something meaningful to do in the last several months before I turned 30, and knowing how good I felt in Big Sur, I decided to sign up for a meditation challenge at a new studio called Unplug Meditation in Los Angeles. The goal was 20 meditations in the span of 30 days.
I had access to all classes and all teachers. Like a yoga studio, I could try different types of meditation and see what I liked the most. On day five I decided to try a mantra meditation class because I didn’t know what that meant and I thought it sounded sexy.
The teacher told us that it was perfectly okay to let our minds wander. There is no such thing as a distraction. We were going to repeat a generic mantra inside our heads and whenever we noticed ourselves getting lost in thought, or going on “mental excursions” as he called them, we would very casually, almost nonchalantly come back to the mantra.
Very little effort was required. It was okay if we forgot the mantra or even forgot what it was we were doing. If we found ourselves falling asleep, “this is also correct,” the teacher said. This was fatigue unwinding from the body.
He then said the mantra out loud — a meaningless word — which he repeated a few times. No sound can be uttered that doesn’t mean something in some language, but we were told that this word had no intended meaning.
When I first heard the mantra, it felt like something carbonated had leaked inside my body and I had to stop myself from bursting into laughter or bursting into tears at the same exact moment. I had a wide grin on my face for the first several minutes of meditation and I had no idea why.
We continued with our eyes closed, repeating the mantra for about 20 minutes. When I opened my eyes at the end, it felt like I was on a drug. It was so different from every other time I had meditated.
The next morning I decided to sign up for a Vedic meditation (a version of mantra meditation) workshop that my teacher was leading. We met for four days and learned the intricacies of the practice. I was given a personalized mantra that I now use when I meditate. I don’t know the meaning of the mantra or how it’s spelled, and some days I like the sound of it and some days I don’t.
We were encouraged to start practicing twice a day for 20 minutes, once in the morning before breakfast and then again sometime before dinner. I took the schedule to heart and by the end of July, between my Vedic practice and my studio commitment, I had sat down to meditate over 50 times.
I had many questions throughout the month, but the one that nagged at me and just wouldn’t go away was this: If there’s no such thing as a distraction, and if we are allowed to let our minds wander, then how is this different than just sitting down for 20 minutes and thinking?
Each teacher had a different response. But what it comes down to, really, is the intention. When I meditate, I have the intention to sit down and practice. To sit down and repeat the mantra. And this simple intention actually becomes a bigger intention to let go of all expectations about what my meditation should be.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have dozens upon dozens of thoughts. And that also doesn’t mean that I’m meditating unsuccessfully. But when I notice that I’m off thinking about something else, I drift back to the mantra, and that process allows my mind to settle. There are many different kinds of meditation in the world and I can only talk about the kind that I have learned.
We have anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day. Sitting down for 20 minutes with our eyes closed is not going to stop us from thinking. Hearing this was a relief for me, because I let my mind wander often. All the time. Some metaphors that teachers used to describe our brains during meditation go something like this: our brain is like a train station and all of our thoughts coming and going are like trains passing through. We can choose to get on the first train that comes by, or not. We can sit and watch the trains come and go, observing our thoughts, noticing that we are having thoughts.
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