For many years I’ve had anxiety. Some years it’s been crippling: hypochondria, regular panic attacks; the full nine yards. I won’t bore you with the details beyond saying the bad years were very bad; anyone who’s had a dance with panic disorder can empathize.

Out of any experience that bad inevitably comes some good. One of these merciful silver linings was that it drove me to learn how to meditate. Somehow I’d come across mindfulness-based stress reduction, a secular program developed by a doc (Jon Kabat-Zinn) and now used in many hospitals. I’ve written about some of the studies that document its benefits before.

Meditation really isn’t some woo-woo thing, at least for me. It’s more or less just shutting the fuck up for a short while and seeing what floats to the top. During this process of mental relaxation your body physically relaxes in a very pleasant way. The sensation of discovering tension in your musculature that you were previously unaware of, then feeling it recede is hard to overstate. I feel my circulation open up - my hands and arms, often cold and tight, become warm and comfortably heavy.

There are many analogues, especially for programmers, to meditation:

  • it’s like running top on your mind. It occurs to you what you’re really thinking about, what’s really important. A few times (and this is not the primary feature or purpose of meditation, far from it), I’ve started to meditate and then realized some very important task that I’d forgotten about up until then.

  • it’s like defragging your mind: it gives your subconscious a chance to chew through a backlog of thoughts and the accumulated cake of emotion that builds throughout the day. This queued processing otherwise would have to wait until the night’s sleep to run. I suspect this is why meditating in the middle of the day helps me to recover some focus (when I actually do it).

  • it’s basically just a way of spending quality time with yourself. I know this sounds benign or almost meaningless, but the time that you actually get to spend in your own head without being harangued by podcasts, music, other people, visual stimulation, food, etc. is profoundly rare. When’s the last time you were legitimately alone with yourself?

    It’s a wonderfully comforting thing to spend that kind of conscious time with your own mind - no matter what your physical circumstances, you can feel at home, at ease, safe. I can’t tell if this sensation comes immediately, even on a first meditation, or if it’s a learned response that results from the practice of meditation. In any case, it’s one of my favorite parts.

To say that I meditate regularly these days would be an overstatement. I do it sometimes, and I want to do it a whole lot more than I am. But when I do make time for it, it’s so worthwhile. Oftentimes when I finish a 15 or 20 minute meditation - nothing more than sitting and focusing on the movement of my belly with each breath - I feel like I’ve just returned from a week of vacation.

Some forms of meditation haven’t worked well for me; my initial foray into this kind of thing was after a coworker gave me a book that taught me a form of meditation based on mentally reciting a mantra or prayer over and over. I tried this pretty doggedly for a while but didn’t get much out of it. I find this MBSR approach simpler and a little more grounded, but of course mileage may vary.

All told, it’s one of the most rewarding skills I’ve picked up; if you have any interest I’d encourage you to give it a shot. I’ve noticed that even when I’m not meditating regularly, I have a kind of regular awareness throughout the day of the tension in my body. I don’t think this was a sense I had before I did the MBSR routine for a few weeks.

If you want to get a sense of this kind of meditation right now, take 17 minutes to go somewhere private and listen to these body scan instructions.

Then if you’re still interested you can go give these a look: