A few years ago, I went on a five-day meditation retreat called the Art of Silence. The retreat took place in the middle of my school year, and I had to skip class to attend it. I had been stressed and overwhelmed, and I was constantly falling ill as a result. But I realized that instead of overworking myself, I needed to take a break. For the five days that I was at the retreat, I would start my day with yoga at dawn outside, meditate for about 10 hours, and then do seva, or service. For the entire duration of the retreat, I stayed silent — hence the name of the course. If I needed anything, I would write my request down and hand it to the course teacher, but otherwise, I maintained my silence and shifted my focus inward.
By the end of the retreat I was completely at peace — I was euphoric, even. When I had first gotten to the motel at which I was to stay, I had been very upset. My mind, as always, was obsessing over every tiny thing that had gone wrong or could potentially go wrong. And to make it worse, there were lizards all over my room, given that this was a roadside motel on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. But meditation managed to quiet my worries and quell my negative thoughts. My outer world was still the same — I still had upcoming papers and exams, and the lizards had not gone anywhere — but I was tranquil inside.
Happiness, I’ve realized, does not have much to do with external circumstances — it is something that comes from within. I am happiest when I am meditating, regardless of what is actually going on in my life. It’s not a giddy, fleeting happiness fueled by materialistic gains or egoistic successes. Instead, it’s something much stronger, more stable and fulfilling, mainly because it doesn’t depend on outside events.
My parents first signed me up for a meditation class when I was 16. My family tends to worry and overthink, which is why we especially need to meditate. To deal with this, my parents and I joined The Art of Living, a volunteer-based organization that offers courses on meditation and yoga. There, I learned “sudarshan kriya,” which is a three-stage breathing exercise that eliminates stress and negative emotions. I didn’t think that a simple breathing technique was capable of changing anything, but I changed my mind when I experienced it firsthand. While doing kriya for the first time, my body started tingling and my palms heated up ( I later learned that this was the stress being released), and I felt extremely relaxed afterward. During the Art of Silence course, when I was meditating for 10 hours straight, I felt as if I wasn’t in my body anymore, but simply an observer. There were moments of complete stillness — moments that I keep trying to recreate.
I had been skeptical at first — I thought meditation was pseudoscientific and unable to offer any real results. I also wasn’t sure what exactly meditation entailed. While there are a lot of different techniques for meditation, the practice is actually very simple: You don’t have to try and empty your mind or get rid off all thoughts; instead, you simply accept all thoughts and feelings without reacting to them. And meditation is actually scientifically valid: Research shows that it changes your brain structure, increasing gray matter and improving traits such as memory, concentration, stress management and emotional regulation.
I’ve noticed that when I do kriya regularly, I don’t fall sick at all. But when I don’t meditate, stress wreaks havoc on my body: I get constant headaches, nausea and flus that don’t go away no matter what medicines I take. But meditation makes me immune to just about everything.
It’s possible to be in a constant state of mindfulness where you simply observe and accept all your thoughts and experiences without resisting or judging them, but it’s hard to stay centered and calm, especially in places such as Berkeley, where there is always an endless list of things to do and no shortage of stress. But meditation and mindfulness help in dealing with this anxiety.
I’ve always been a perfectionist. I am forever restless, constantly thinking about something or other, and as a result my mind is never at rest. It oscillates between worrying about the future or agonizing about the past, never actually enjoying the present moment.
It’s only when I meditate that I am able to break free of this cycle and quiet my mind. Meditation is all about being in the present moment — in a state of mindfulness. When I meditate, all the chaos outside dies down and I am able to center myself. I no longer react negatively to everything that goes wrong or try to resist what I don’t want — instead, I can stay centered despite everything that happens outside.
I can’t always manage how everything turns out and what path life takes. But even if I can’t control the external world, I can remain centered in the midst of flux and uncertainty and deal with life as it unfolds.
Shanzeh Khurram writes the Tuesday blog on transitions between different worlds and spaces. Contact her at [email protected].