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After 50,000 Minutes of Meditation, a Mom of Two Recounts How the Practice Changed Her Life

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

By Caroline Callahan Janson

The conversation usually goes like this: a friend will ask, “You meditate?” with wide eyes.

“Yep. Swear. Every day. Well, almost every day,” I say.

“Wow, I could never meditate.”

It always makes me a little sad when I hear that. But I never say, “Yes, you can, and you should, because it will change your life!” Instead, I’ll usually reply with something like, “If I can meditate, anyone can.” Or, “Can you breathe? Or count?”

Jokes aside, I’ve never detailed the rough-hewn process of how I got started with meditation. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to acknowledge, out loud, that meditation is a part of my life. It has indeed completely changed my life.

I first tried it fourteen years ago — the year my first son was born — as a way to clear my mind and settle my nerves. I’d left full-time work in magazines and felt untethered, to say the least.

“Do you meditate?” a friend of mine asked at the time.

“Meditate?” I said, quizzically. She might as well have asked if I felt like wire-walking between skyscrapers.

“What do you think?” I replied. “No! I could never meditate.”

“I think it would help you,” she said.

Not long after that, during a meeting about a writing project, she gave me my first mala — a string of 108 wooden beads. She explained the concept of a mantra (“man” means “mind” and “tra” means “vehicle” in Sanskrit). Basically, it’s a personal slogan. I just learned, in triple checking the meaning, that Oprah’s is “Everything is always working out for me. Everything is always working out for me.”

I chose short words, six letters, that translated to “truth” and “identity.” It made sense to me; I remember thinking that there’s nothing more true than breath.

I downloaded Deepak. (Deepak and Adam Plack, actually, which I still listen to.) The music soothed me. Still, at first, my mind didn’t settle; it whizzed and ricocheted. (Material for another story.) Trying to work my fingers around the beads of the mala reminded me of reciting the Hail Mary in Sunday School.

I called a yoga teacher named Hari Kaur, author of the phenomenal book A Woman’s Book on Meditation, whom I had been introduced to by the friend who gave me the mala. Kaur learned meditation in the late seventies when she was at medical school at Stanford. Sharing her story, she made it relatable to me. She walked me through alternate nostril breathing, which was the first time I felt that breathwork can really change one’s state of mind. (If you’re not familiar, it’s worth checking out on Healthline.)

Over time, the practice began to feel normal. In February of 2017, I downloaded the Insight Timer to try out its guided meditations. My son, then ten, had trouble sleeping. By that time, I found that meditating before bed really calmed me and, for the first time since he was born, my son fell asleep with ease.

If there’s any advice I could offer, it would be this: Start small. Try a minute. Try two. Less is more — who wants to feel defeated by a practice that is supposed to calm you?!

It’s only within the last year or so that I have begun to accept meditation as an integral part of my life. “I need ten minutes to meditate,” I said to my husband the other day as if I were talking about brushing my teeth. But every time I take those ten minutes, I open my eyes with a more clear mind, and a sense of calm. Like taking a bath or a shower, or going for a swim, I always feel better when I’m done.

The most notable (and unintended) side effect of this “practice” is its effect on the intense — and I do mean intense — flying anxiety I used to have. In the mid-2000s, if you saw me on a plane, you would have seen me stressed to the point of contortion, cracking my neck, my knuckles. Each flight felt worse than the last. And yes, of course, I tried Xanax. And Klonopin. And vodka.

Before a flight to Madrid, I called a friend to ask how much wine can I mix with a .5mg Xanax. He recommended no more than a glass, which I do not recommend. (It worked, but when my parents met me and asked, “How was your flight, honey?” I remember thinking, “No idea. Did I swim?”)

Other times I tried acupuncture, visualization, extensive CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), desensitization. None of it worked. Every time I walked down the jet bridge, the onset of psychic misery hit me like a 747 hitting the ground after engine failure. It felt, as anyone who has dealt with this knows, inexplicably awful. My heart would race, I’d break out in a sweat, and feel an acute knot under my left scapula. Intellectually, I knew that it was “anxiety,” but I felt like I was going to die.

Much to my surprise, meditation has effectively neutralized these fears. I now have zero anxiety on planes. Zero. No meds. No dread. It is gone.

On a semi-recent flight, I turned to my husband before takeoff and said, “Have you ever noticed that I don’t get anxiety on planes anymore?”

“Um, yes,” he said. “I didn’t want to say anything for fear it would come back!”

We laughed.

“So weird, right?” I said. “You know why I don’t get anxiety anymore?”

“No idea, but can we just make sure it doesn’t return?”

“It’s not funny,” I said. “It’s because of meditation.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yes,” I said, shocked at how I’d not made the connection before. “I think that all the practice has actually changed my wiring in some way.” The plane climbed towards 40,000 feet, hitting a few bumps. There was a long passage of time where I would have been counting the minutes for the drink cart.

“Think about it — that’s the only thing that’s changed in all these years,” I said.

I put on my headphones to meditate to a thirteen-minute track that had become part of my flying routine. I don’t remember exactly when I started to do this, and I definitely didn’t make the connection between this practice and what I could probably call the Greatest Psychic Disappearing Act of my life. And yet, I closed my eyes, tuned out the grumbling passengers, I focused — yes, focused! — on the mantra.

DoI meditate correctly? I think so. I meditate before I wake and before I go to sleep. Yes, my mind wanders. I keep breathing. Usually to a mantra, sometimes to a guided meditation, almost always to meditative music. Sometimes I will just count breaths.

If there’s any advice I could offer, it would be this: Start small. Try a minute. Try two. Less is more — who wants to feel defeated by a practice that is supposed to calm you?! And every practice is individual. Three breaths can change your day. Oh, and if measuring by time makes you anxious, measure breaths. One, inhale, two, exhale. Do that three times. Too long? Do it once. Try once more. I did three this morning in the airport line and swear it shifted my annoyance — note, not anxiety! — level down to third gear from fifth.

Resources to Get You Started

If I’ve meditated for roughly 42,000 minutes — not counting those not logged by Insight Timer — I’ve probably spent a similar amount looking for meditations (and devices, and cushions, and eye pillows, and oils) I might like. I would advise against all the material accouterments (most of mine have ended up in storage); I’ve found these to be the most user-friendly.


Caroline Callahan Janson is a freelance writer based in Miami, Florida. She is a former staffer at GQ Magazine and Departures, and has written for Condé Nast Traveler, New York Magazine, and the Palm Beach Daily News, among others. She is currently at work on a début middle-grade novel.