Clearly, we needed some zen.
I didn't actually see any of this coming (aside from the incoming tweens) when I first asked my husband Jonathan if he'd set aside a few minutes a day to sit quietly with me and lose ourselves in meditation. I just thought it would be good for our mental health. He was diagnosed in his early 20s with depression and anxiety, while I was diagnosed in my teens with depression. We both take medication and see doctors regularly to maintain a balance, but we each suffer from symptoms the medicines never quite touch. He still avoids crowds whenever possible to avoid triggering his anxiety, and I have a tendency to make mountains out of molehills. And we both find it hard to shake off everyday stress. I wondered if adding meditation to the mix would help.
Rooted in Eastern medicine, meditation has become increasingly popular in the West, with science to back both its stress-relieving and pain-relieving properties. One Johns Hopkins study even posits that—for some people—meditation could offer as much relief from anxiety and depression as antidepressants.
I've been doing yoga on and off (OK, mostly off) for two years now, and my favourite moments are those when we're calm. Still. The path from downward dog to warrior one may be what helps me burn calories, but it's sitting with my legs in what I've come to call a pretzel and focusing on my breathing that truly centers me. When I focus on my breathing, the stress over bills and how to give our tweenager what she needs tends to go away … if only for a few minutes.
It's not enough to replace my medication, but it does give me a much-needed boost when I'm feeling particularly worn down. That's what I had in mind when I asked my husband if he'd join me in daily meditation.
Jonathan was skeptical. He's done therapy. He's on medicine. Adding another layer, he told me, hardly seemed like it would help any more than what he'd tried already.
Still, I persisted. Just 10 minutes a day, I promised. I didn't need him to sacrifice an afternoon, just as much time as he'd give to taking a shower. I suggested we try "concentration" focused meditation, in which you sit quietly and focus on your breathing. I'd read it was one of the easiest kinds of meditation, and it seemed likely it could only help us de-stress; when you concentrate on your breathing, you're supposed to let go of whatever thoughts that are running through your head. We'd close our eyes, sit with our backs straight, and breathe carefully and slowly. Simple.
I proposed trying it for a week. If he hated it, he could bow out for good after that, but I wanted him to see what it was I got out of that quiet time at yoga.
With the parameters clearly outlined, he said yes. Still, I almost lost him right out of the starting gate.
Days one and two
I made the mistake of suggesting we sit in our living room, where we'd both be comfortable, on day one—a few hours before our daughter's sleepover was set to begin. I set my iPhone timer for just five minutes, settled down onto my sit bones (the bony protrusions beneath the flesh of your buttocks) and began to breathe. I could hear him breathing too, in and out, slowly, and then "Get down! No! Stop!" Our puppy, Hermione, had woken from her nap, and she was licking his face. He was annoyed. I was giggling.
Note to self: Any and all meditation should occur behind closed doors.
With a group of very loud tweens still in our house and a cold settling in my chest, I was feeling more stressed than usual, so I begged him to try again the next day. This time I suggested moving to our bedroom with the door closed, where we could both sit in the comfort of the air conditioning (it was 30 degrees outside) without risking a tongue bath.
Once again we settled in. I set the timer for 10 minutes this time, closed my eyes and started to breathe. In. Out.
Then a coughing fit hit. I opened my eyes, only to find my husband sitting like a pretzel with his eyes open, looking intensely bored. It threw me off balance, but I stayed mum. I closed them again and focused on filling my diaphragm up with air. I lasted the rest of the 10 minutes before the timer went off. I was still coughing, but my head had stopped pounding. I asked Jonathan what he thought, wondering if he'd noticed me looking at him when I opened my eyes mid-meditation. He didn't mention it … or my coughing fit for that matter. He said it was just nice to sit in a cool room for a few minutes.
It was not exactly a ringing endorsement, but I was taking it as a win.
Days three and four
Then the next day when I asked Jonathan if he'd join me, he declined, saying he wasn't in the mood. I got the same answer the next day. I was annoyed. This was supposed to be something for the two of us to do together.
As irritated as I was getting, I didn't want to start a fight. The whole point of this experiment was to put me (and him) in a better mood, not a worse one. So I went to the bedroom alone, and pushed my timer just a little bit longer. On day four, I managed to get in 15 minutes of eyes closed, steady breathing without once checking my phone to see how much time I had left. I was proud of myself.
Jonathan had developed a rash on his thigh a few days ago, and it was spreading. Today he also experienced a deep, stabbing pain, which finally sent him to the doctor. Diagnosis: shingles.
Suddenly his "not being in the mood" was less "he's just not that into it" and more "the poor guy's in misery."
I felt bad, but I thought it was worth pointing out that meditation is supposed to be a pain reliever. Did I prey on his current situation? OK, a little bit. But in my defense, I really thought this was something that could help him.
We returned to our bedroom, but instead of sitting, I suggested we both lie on our backs with our legs stretched out, our arms out slightly from our bodies and our hands open toward the ceiling. In yoga it's called corpse pose or savasana, typically done at the very end of practice, when you can spend anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes (or more) breathing and relaxing.
I told my husband this was an accommodation for his rash-covered thigh, which made sitting cross-legged extremely uncomfortable, but the truth is I've always found it easier to empty my mind during savasana than during the early yoga meditation when you're traditionally sitting up.
Twenty minutes later, he was asleep. I was wide awake and felt more energetic than I had 20 minutes prior, when I'd let my whole body sink into the floor. This wasn't technically what I'd planned for when I suggested we meditate, but sleeping was about as relaxed as he could get, and I was happy to have gotten a mood boost.
Impressed by our "success" the day before, I asked Jonathan if he'd try again. He said yes, but only if we did the "lying down thing." This time, he stayed awake, and sometime around the 10-minute mark (I was trying to focus on my breathing, but couldn't help opening my eyes and glancing at my phone when I heard him stand up), he left the room. I tried to settle back in, but gave up myself five minutes later. I was distracted … and trying not to be annoyed that this whole experiment had gone awry. When I asked Jonathan why he left, he said he just couldn't shut off the pain in his leg, no matter how hard he tried to focus on his breathing. Considering shingles is characterised by nerve pain that can make you feel like a portion of your body is on fire, I couldn't argue with his reasoning.
With the week nearing a close, I asked my husband to give it one more try. I got a yes, followed by "But then we're done, right?" He looked about as thrilled as if I'd asked him to sit in our bedroom and sniff Hermione's farts for 10 minutes.
I was annoyed. Of course I was. He'd bailed on me three different times, and he couldn't give me 10 more minutes? I realised then and there that I'd gotten about as much "mediation" out of him as I'd ever get. I told him he was getting a free pass to skip the last day and consider the "meditating together" experiment a big, fat failure.
The truth is, it's just the "doing it together" part that I'm considering a failure. Because I'm still at it several weeks later. I haven't asked him again to join me (nor is he offering, ahem), but I'm trying to fit it into my schedule at least a few times a week.
For me, it's worth it. And since I decided to go solo, I'm getting a lot more out of it, because I know I won't open my eyes to find a cranky husband sitting beside me, silently begging for it all to be over. Jonathan's dislike of the whole process, I realised, had been adding to my stress. When I mentioned it to him the other day, he said the same was true for him: He was more stressed out feeling like he had to do this for me when he wasn't enjoying himself. He didn't want to disappoint me, but he really, really, really didn't want to sit through another session of "pointless heavy breathing" (his words).
I'm not a doctor or a researcher, but I can't help but wonder if meditation is something you have to believe will work in order for it to have an effect. Jonathan said he just didn't believe it would do anything, and for him it didn't. Personally, I view meditation as a real and valid option for de-stressing, and for me, it's working.
It's not a cure-all, and I don't see myself ditching depression drugs anytime soon, if ever. But the next time a screaming horde of tweens descends on my house, you can guess where I'll be.