Recently I realized I don’t like the way my dreams feel.
When I sleep, my imagination feels tight and confined. I don’t know exactly what I dream, but it’s like the feeling of email all night long. I wake up in the morning and say to myself, really? We could have done anything last night, brain. We could have gone flying, or breathed underwater. But instead we nitpicked.
My dreams are, of course, a pond-like reflection of my everyday life. I realize something needs to change in my perspective in waking hours for my sleeping self to catch up.
So, I’ve done something radical, for me. I’ve taken up meditating.
Of course, being me, I have now told anyone that will listen that I am but five days into a meditation practice and therefore basically an old hand. I say this obviously (I hope) tongue in cheek, usually in the context of how I’m feeling about something stressful.
“Well, now that I’m a Calm app user and basically an expert meditator five sessions into my ‘Meditation for Beginners’ audio course, I’ve totally got this. Don’t worry about me. I’m in touch with my breath, or whatever.”
Also being me, I’ve taken the daily practice seriously. I want to practice it, and every time I sit down to meditate I am humbled by how much I have to learn. What gives me hope is, I know through other life experience that it is possible to train my focus.
So, me and the Calm app it is.
Taking meditative practices on the road, with some spooky results
I decided to try a walking meditation last week. They’re not meditations, exactly, but the Calm app does have “mindful” walking guided sessions, at varying time intervals. I selected a 30 minute duration, and set out of my house around 7:15 a.m., after coffee but before work.
A female narrator was my guide. The sessions are all pre-recorded, of course, but it feels intimate having someone right in my ear gently instructing me and encouraging me on what to do. The instructions were simple: walk; but the “mindfulness” aspect included paying attention to aspects of walking throughout the session.
We started with (you guessed it) breath. As I walked out of my driveway in the Butte neighborhood of Palmer and down my gravel street on one of a few usual routes, instead of staring at the ground I kept my gaze level and softly alert of my surroundings, worked on my posture, and gave care to filling up my belly with air and letting my exhales relax my face and shoulders. It felt good.
At my guide’s prompting, I focused on my feet and the muscles working together in my legs. I paid attention to the balancing inherent in putting one foot in front of the other; repeat, repeat. My mind frequently wandered off, and I tried to notice the thoughts and then re-focus myself on my body and visceral experience, paying attention to my breath to reground myself when needed.
Again, it felt good. The guided session continued on like this for a while.
I was settled in and had rounded a corner to turn back toward the house, when the narrator shifted the focus from my body to my immediate surroundings.
This is where things can get interesting in Alaska.
She offered: if you’re in an urban setting, notice the houses, the faces of other people around you. Notice the means of transportation.
I looked ahead of me and saw a tiny pinprick of red. Tail lights driving away otherwise engulfed by utter and complete darkness.
She said: Try to see your surroundings with brand-new eyes, as though you’re taking it in for the very first time. Notice what it feels like. Notice what sounds you hear.
At that moment, I was passing what I consider to be a haunted house that recently went up for sale: it’s basically cobbled-together windows that create an asymmetrical frame, with an entry door that has been wide open since the house has been on the market. The last time I saw any sign of life there it was the flashing lights of an ambulance. The realtor’s “for sale” sign swayed and audibly creaked in that moment, in the trademark Palmer wind that was only just calming after a relentless night.
I looked around me, as though this were all brand new to me and realized: oh, this is scary and somewhat sinister. I am in Alaska in November, in the pitch black of a rural neighborhood that has been the known site of some terrible events that I know about and god knows what else (see: Robert Hansen), the wind is creepily blowing off of actual glaciers to reach me, and I am completely alone on this long and lonely street.
I couldn’t help but “mindfully” laugh at the contrast between the woman soothingly guiding me and what she had unintentionally led me to.
I arrived home to her concluding guidance and encouragement, which included letting this mindfulness practice be a touch point for me in the rest of my day to remain present. As she gently concluded the session, I heard what sounded like a gunshot, and the overly familiar bark of one of the neighbor’s dogs who barks incessantly while their owners are working at night.
Mindfulness. Meditation. Presence. I laughed because, while I am committed to it, the day to day reality of my life in Alaska might really put me up to the challenge.