We all get overwhelmed. It’s an unavoidable facet of modern life—our priorities get out of balance.
Recently, it’s felt like I’m doomed to stay overwhelmed all the time, when it used to be the occasional exception to longer periods of calm.
Being this overwhelmed doesn’t feel like a healthy or happy way to live.
I used to meditate. I used the Headspace app, and started small—it lets you do five, or even two or three minute sessions to start with. But I remember how much it helped me find a sense of place, and breath, and feel my feet under me again.
For anyone out there, and I know you’re out there, who hates meditation, I hate to break it to you: it really does, nearly invariably, change your life. Article after article espouses its virtues and benefits for both physical and mental health. You’ll find infinite testimonials by people from all walks of life.
After doing it for a long time, feeling good about it, and then somehow letting it fall by the wayside, I’m back on the wagon. And I’m breathing deeper. But the most beautiful discovery is how it’s helped me in my day-to-day life—not just at work.
Finding calm in your personal life
Last week, I had a date. I was nervous as hell. More than usual, for some reason.
All day, and I mean all day for multiple days, I was nervous. It got in the way of feeling calm or at ease with other work. To my detriment, I kept myself buzzing at a high gear that whole time, inputs just constantly whizzing past my ear. Driving in Los Angeles, a loud din of ambient noise, a louder brain. Always had a podcast going. Text messages coming in, ding ding ding. It was as if, even if I in a physically quiet place, my mind would make it feel like it wasn’t.
I knew I couldn’t be relaxed like this. So as a last ditch effort to make my brain shut up, I decided to turn to meditation.
I got to the date early, and just sat in the car with the ignition off. I could feel and hear my heart jumping out of my chest. I sat in that car, and I focused on my breath. It was the only thing I could remember from the Headspace guided sessions, so I went with it. I found myself trying to control my airflow—that made me think back to a random meditation where they said “don’t control your breath, just observe it.” So I did that. If i wanted to breathe a little faster or thinner, I did that. I just followed my body and observed.
I instantly—and I mean instantly—felt my heart rate go down. I could feel it happen in real time. It kept going down until it was a gentle pump. The calmness was so overwhelming after a while that it felt like I was a few slow heartbeats from being asleep. From deathly anxious to nearly asleep sitting up in four minutes, can you believe it?
And then, “waking up,” opening my eyes, I saw the world more clearly and evenly and not like this jungle that was gonna ambush me with an intimidating person or an embarrassing situation. It was just the world. Something I could handle. Something I was comfortable with.
Date went well, by the way. Thanks for asking.
Opening yourself up to creativity and discovery
I did something a little out of the ordinary for me this week: I went to an acting class.
It’s been years since I’ve been to an acting class. Really, the last time I ever focused on acting in even a semi-serious way was in high school
In those classes, we warmed up for the day by playing a game. Usually it was an energetic or frantic game, sometimes a game called Zip Zap Zop [link], designed to loosen you up and get you out of your head and into your body. “You won’t be afraid of trying new things and being vulnerable and silly in a scene if you just spent five minutes going ‘WOOP’ and ‘BOOP,’” I always imagined the pitch going. And it made sense.
But this class was different—this was an adult class, for legitimate working actors, focused on a deepening of an enduring and nuanced craft, where the process of deepening could extend nearly to infinity. To put it simply: for these people, this was serious business.
And so I was surprised to see that our warmup consisted of sitting comfortably, closing our eyes, and watching our breath—in other words, meditating.
I realized something: these people needed the opposite of a body loosening energizing workout. They needed to clear everything out to make space for higher aspirations. To shake off the stresses and distractions of the day. To open their eyes and be in this newfound place of openness, ready to receive and engage with nebulous concepts like creativity and vulnerability and to welcome them into their process.
It’s heady stuff, creativity. Best to clear your head before you try to engage.
A healthy relationship with (and distance from) your work
Lastly, and maybe the most obvious and standard deployment of a tool like this: the workplace.
I’ve been overwhelmed lately by the amount of work I have to do. My brain keeps spinning around the same worries—the time every individual task will take, the variance between the categories and sections of my life those tasks fall in, the delta between little busy errands and massive longterm unwieldy projects—it’s all rumination that I’ve found is summarily unhelpful. Overthinking is the opposite of doing.
But the size of the pile makes it so that I don’t know how or where to start. All I can do is sit and stare at it, make little to-do lists to try and wrap my head around it but then…not do any of the tasks on the list.
But if I can find it in myself to pause at my desk and meditate, even if it’s just for a couple minutes, if I can regulate my breathing, I’ll be able to do one thing: narrow my focus. If I can narrow my focus enough, I can get to where I can only see one thing at a time. And I can calmly just pluck one thing off the top of that pile, and work on it. Then, if I’m lucky, I can repeat that process.
Lessening the panic, and enabling a mono-tasking focus—that’s a more than helpful contribution in the pursuit of calm productivity. That’s something I can work with.
Take a step back, and a deep breath. Consider how meditation might help you, open your eyes, calm you down, or make you more productive. Can’t hurt to try, right? (Spoiler: it really can’t. Meditation may be the only activity on earth with no possible negative effects!)