Have You Ever Said, “I Tried Meditating, But It Was Too Hard?”

Have You Ever Said, “I Tried Meditating, But It Was Too Hard?” Me too! For several years now, I have shared in 12 step meetings, that Step 11 (in many versions of 12 steps) is my foundation for recovery. Recently, I wondered to myself what that looked like and why I felt it true. Anytime, that I’m invited to share my story at a speaker meeting, I invite others to join me in a short-guided meditation that often goes something like this:

Sit with your feet flat on the floor with your knees about a shoulder width apart.

Place your hands either on your knees or place them near your navel but avoid ‘knitting’ or ‘lacing’ your fingers together (avoids restricting blood flow).

With either your eyes open or eyes closed take a couple of long and slow deep breaths.

Now just allow yourself to breathe in a way that feels comfortable for you without trying to control your breath.

Notice any sounds nearby (traffic outside, HVAC fans, people shifting, others breathing).

Notice the temperature of the room.

Notice these and then return to focus on your breath.

Notice how your feet feel on the floor.

Notice how your how your hands feel.

Notice your butt in the chair / cushion.

Notice your shoulders.

Notice your neck.

Notice your jaw (a place I often feel clinched until I notice it).

Notice the air going down the back of your nostrils.

Notice these and return to focus on your breath.

Because I’m almost always distracted, I often incorporate a mantra and use this to connect to what I feel is a higher power in my life – LOVE.

Breathing in, I am loved.

Breathing out, I love.

Say this quietly or silently to yourself as you like.

Each time you notice, a distracting thought (something harsh my spouse said, a meeting later in the day, a dinner I’m looking forward to, things I need to pick up at the grocery store, a daughter that is struggling, a son and his family that are thriving, a news headline … come back to –

Breathing in, I am loved.

Breathing out, I love.

My goal in meditation is not to avoid distracting thoughts, but rather to notice that I’m distracted and come back to concentrating on the present moment.

I particularly like to include lovingkindness meditation for myself, for those close to me, for those that are suffering, for those that cause me to suffer. I do this by bringing them into meditation by visualizing them and either saying quietly or silently:

May _____ get what they need today.

May _____ be at peace today.

May _____ be free today.

Following this, take a couple of long and slow deep breaths, open your eyes slowly (if closed), and allow yourself to take time to transition from meditation to now (I used to immediately stop meditating and move right to the next extremely important, critically urgent, absolutely essential next thing).

A variation that I’ve often used rather than using a mantra or concentration on my breath is to incorporate a visualization instead. Some have found that focusing on a flame from a candle or the wisps of smoke arising from burning incense is useful. When distracted by thoughts, just gently (by this, I mean smile, don’t judge) bring your attention back to the flame or smoke.

I think, that in part, because I use meditation as a tool to connect with a power greater than myself, and that one of those is water in ponds or lakes, I visualize a leaf floating on the surface of the pond or the lake. As I breathe in, I visualize gentle waves drawing the leaf closer to the shore. As I breathe out, I visualize gentle waves pushing the leaf farther away from the shore.

Just a bit about walking meditation– I love doing this on a path in a forest or a boardwalk in a wetland/marsh. I walk slowly enough so that I don’t push myself – so that the pace and effort does not alter my breathing rate. I focus my eyes just a few feet ahead of my feet so that I can let my mind notice each step in my body. I do this form of meditation the least. Not sure why. I suspect that in part, when I’m walking outside, my attention is focused on my passion to identify birds that I see and hear, mushroom and fungi that invite me to take a closer look, dragonflies and butterflies flying about, and pretty much every plant that happens to blooming at the time. Thirty plus years as an ecologist will do that to you!

My main form of mediating is not, how I was initially taught to meditate. This, typically brief, 3-5 minutes, was nowhere near the necessary 25-30 minutes that I thought one was supposed to do. Also, for goodness sake, I’m sitting in a chair, rather than a zafu on a zabuton – that can’t be right! Also, I’m not in front of my altar, nor in a quiet space. I’m in my office right after I’ve eaten my lunch! This meditation, derived from taking what I needed from several forms was at first, my SOS meditation.

Newly sober, life was crashing in on me and I was imploding. Though, I had once learned a meditation that included all of the above, I could not meditate for more than a minute or two. I was, as many of us say, not comfortable in my own skin. I began to first use short-guided meditations such as those found on Meditation Oasis and Kevin Griffin’s Buddhism and Recovery.

I felt like I meditated so poorly that I gave up frequently. Meditating a couple of days in a row and then not meditating for 3 weeks. I kept coming back. Typically, after I put together several days in a row, rather than just meditating for 3 minutes, I tried meditating for 30 minutes, and would often then give up again. Now, many days, I meditate for about 10 minutes early in the morning, after I’ve fed dogs and cats, made and drank my first cup of tea. I say about because I rarely use a timer anymore just as a personal preference.

It is also common and even a bit comforting for a dog or a cat to be on my lap while meditating. I often meditate for about 5-10 minutes at my desk in my office after lunch. And I sometimes, meditate about 5-10 minutes after snacks, TV, reading, before going to bed (not in bed – I go to sleep when I meditate in bed) as an evening inventory. When I notice a distracting thought coming up frequently before bed, it’s usually resentment, anger, fear, etc. that came up without any clarity during the day. I usually jot this down in a journal for further reflection.

The other goal of meditation, in any of its various forms is that it helps me to be mindfully present throughout my day. This is especially true when I take things personally from another either in conversation, e-mail, text or Facebook post. By meditating, I practice pausing and noticing so that when something or someone comes at me, if you will, I can pause and notice before speaking or writing in a way that can cause harm. I’m more likely to respond with let me think about that, or I don’t know right now, or not responding at all, or sometimes saying ouch, that hurt. Rather than, *&& $# you ALWAYS do this or NEVER do that, how *&$&%(# dare you accuse me of that…

Meditation practice and living mindfully has especially helped me to change my relationship to fear. My somewhat instinctual and largely conditioned response to fear, is to avoid and suppress things that I’m afraid of in my life. I am finding that as I recover, that meditation is a tool for me to sit with fear rather than to sit in fear; to see fear for what it is, regardless of whether it is unfounded or real.

I write and share poetry after I meditate in the morning. I often add journal notes. Because I go to an early morning meeting most days, I frequently include awareness that comes up for me as part of my share in a meeting. I sometimes share awareness that comes up for me with my spouse as we chat for a bit before we leave to start our workdays. This has led to a new and deeper form of intimacy in our relationship.

Before recovery and the awareness that comes from meditation, I shared the surface of me, a me that I was comfortable letting my spouse see, a me that I thought that she wanted to see. As I have become more and more aware of myself, I’ve become more willing to share more and more of myself with those around me. Meditation has been truly transformative in my life and is a practice that has evolved with time and experiences.

I do meditate for longer periods a few times a week and have even gone to a few weekend meditation retreats, but I have found that doing a few relatively short meditations during my day works for me and is truly a foundation of my recovery.

Spare Verse CDXCXXVI

I remember the day after
The day after when
Everything was numb
Reality inescapable
A nightmare we knew
Would never end
But that was then
Today just like all those before
A new day dawns
And amongst the residue of pain
Life emerged anew
What today holds I cannot say
And therein is the grace

Below is a brief excerpt with some of my annotations that I found illustrative and useful from Recovering Joy. It’s An Inside Job using meditation and mindfulness to practice all twelve steps rather than just step 11

Step 1: When I sit down to practice, I see my own ‘powerlessness’ over the arising of thoughts and sense experiences.

Step 2: When I see the effects of meditation, I begin to trust that my practice can have a significantly positive effect on my mind states.

Step 3: When I commit to practice and learn to let go of the results of my time meditating, just accepting what comes up and watching it, I’m practicing Step Three.

Step 4: When all of my stuff comes up —‘the full catastrophe’ —- during meditation, I take a kind of inventory of my own heart/mind.

Step 5: is essentially sharing my inventory. While this cannot be done in the silence of meditation, I can do the other two parts of the step: admit a higher power of my choosing and to myself the ‘exact nature of my stuff’. I can share this with others that I may choose.

Step 6: Just practicing meditation lays the groundwork for letting go of the things that hinder me from being present to myself and others. 

Step 7: My practice transforms me in many ways as I work at it, not through magic but through showing up and making skillful effort.

 Step 8: The list of people that I have harmed and that have harmed me tends to show up in my meditation, especially in forgiveness and loving kindness meditation

Step 9: I can’t make amends to others in silent meditation, though mindfulness and loving kindness certainly help me to make those amends more skillfully. Nonetheless, I consider my meditation practice to be very healing for myself, and thus an amends to me. Living mindfully throughout my day helps me to continue making living/indirect amends.

Step 10: My daily meditation practice helps me to stay current with resentments and conflicts in my life.

Step 11: includes meditation and is the most direct connect connection to Buddhist practice.

Step 12: which starts with a spiritual awakening, is founded in spiritual growth (awareness and clarity), which, for me, is founded in meditation.

Italics are my own annotations.

About the Author

Robert B. is a sober alcoholic in Madison, WI participating in AA and AlAnon at Fitchburg Serenity Club. He has been sober since April 21, 2007. He also began writing and sharing poetry on Facebook during his first year sober as part of his recovery from alcohol dependency, acute anxiety and chronic depression. He has found that creativity expressed primarily through writing poetry and playing various stringed instruments helped him heal and thrive.

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1 year ago

The monkey mind that you so deftly illustrated is such a part of the human condition! Oy! Then throw alcohol onto the pile and whhhaooosh! I started zazen with the Yokoji Zen Mountain Center back in 02′ just prior to getting sober in 03′. The help provided through just sitting has been immeasurable. When I first complained to my Roshi that my mind was way too busy he softly smiled and said, “At least now you know what your mind is doing all of the time!” Well, dang! No the spiritual tidbit I was looking for, but alas, all too… Read more »

Robert B
Robert B
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew

Thank you Andrew. It’s not lost on me that I meditated for a couple of decades before hitting bottom and getting sober. I even considered myself Buddhist lite. When I did decide to make some sort of commitment to participating in AA, I had planned on integrating AA into Buddhist practices. What I found was that I initially integrated Buddhist practices into AA. Step 3 became following an 8-fold path. Step 11 became part of every step. I love the poem you shared. I once wrote a series of connected poems about conversations between Monkey Mind and Beginner Mind. I’ll… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Robert B

That would be a delightful share! Also, I will explore the idea of turning my will and my life over to the eightfold path. WhenI was first sober and studying Zen Buddhism as a non-theistic path I read maybe two books on sobriety and Buddhism. My life was in such tumult at the time (surprise, surprise, surprise!) that I don’t remember them at all! I think maybe I engaged with Zen and AA as two separate paths initially. After more than a decade of sobriety I hold on to what works in my life from both and recognize that both… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew
1 year ago

Robert, thank you for this article. Hands down the best I have read on meditating. Almost enough to make me do it, but I’m set in my ways, lazy, and probably even scared what I will find, and now with limited time to live I think I will just keep being a bum about it. I *know* it would have made my life better if I did it. Pretty much all other sensible advice I have been given along the way in recovery I have taken, and grown as a result, so now that I do nothing all day other… Read more »

Robert N
Robert N
1 year ago
Reply to  life-j

Thank you. You sound pretty aware. Maybe you meditate in ways some might not call meditation. What I wanted to do with the article was to create a window or door to meditation like several teachers have done for me. I don’t practice meditation exactly like any of them do or taught. Thanks for your comments.