My father taught me to meditate when I was in second grade. I was the only Puerto Rican kid at the Quaker School in Frankfurt Philadelphia, and I was being bullied on the schoolyard. Yes, I was bullied at Quaker school.
During recess I would sit on top of the stoop that led to shop class and read a book while the rest of the kids played kickball in front on the asphalt. At some point before the end of recess, Joey, the street hockey kid, would inevitably throw the red kickball at my head or my book. And then on cue everyone would laugh. It happened daily, unless the weather was too bad to go outside, which wasn’t too often.
My dad worked close by and always picked me up and dropped me off at school. One day I shared my predicament with him. Looking back now, my fifty-year-old self would have told my younger self to sit somewhere else, but my dad took a different approach: “Tomorrow when you are sitting on the stairs, imagine a big yellow ball at your tummy and breathe deeply into that yellow ball. As you exhale, imagine your breath activating a protective yellow shield in the front of your body. Take another deep breath into that yellow ball and imagine your second exhale activating another yellow shield protecting your back body. Keep doing this till you feel safe.” Maybe this magical thinking was an easy sell to a second grader or maybe I just believed everything my father said, which is more likely. Either way, I tried it out the next day. I sat at my post, started to breathe into the yellow ball and activated my power shields. Call it coincidence or call it my forcefield, but Joey’s ball hit the side of the stairs that day. He was humiliated, and everyone laughed at him on cue. He never threw a kickball at me again.
Those deep belly breaths have come in handy over the years. Especially after my father died. Specifically, two years after my father died, when I went on my first meditation retreat. That magical thinking? Sadly, I let that go when I went to high school along with my stuffed animals and imaginary friends. I only got back to a meditation practice when my father died. But I guess I had to be in that much pain to finally find my way back to my breath.
You may be familiar with this state of overwhelming rumination: I endured the constant drum of “I can’t believe my father is no longer in his body”, “my mother has early onset Alzheimer’s and is now my responsibility”, “I don’t even know what meds she’s on”, “how am I going to tell her that dad just died like again and again because she is going to keep on forgetting.” And I felt a huge rush to run away. So I did what every good human does when they want to avoid their shit: I got busy.
Just sit your ass down and breathe.
I don’t recommend this. Do it for a week or two, if you must, but I wasted my time for two years. It only when I went to meditation camp that I realized what I was running from: FEAR. It seems obvious to me now. Without my dad I was going to be alone. FEAR, FEAR, FEAR. Mind you I am married, I have four kids, I have a sister, brother and sister in-laws and a mother in-law and father in-law, and I won’t even get into nieces and nephews. I wasn’t alone. I was actually the opposite of alone. But a fog had surrounded me, and I didn’t see the love that was all around me. I noticed it from time to time, but I wasn’t allowing myself the indulgence. In fact, I didn’t even like getting hugs at the time. Instead of admitting I was scared, I became hard. If I had to do it all over, this is the advice I would have given myself.
Slow the F*ck Down
Just sit your ass down and breathe. Or stand. Or walk. It doesn’t have to be any place special or on the floor or on a cushion, just you and your breath however you want to meet each other. Close your eyes and take those deep belly breaths. If you are feeling magical, breathe into that yellow ball at your tummy. Activate your power shield if you want or just keep taking those deep, luxurious breaths. Keep doing this til you feel safe, til your heart rate comes down or til you can breathe out a genuine smile. You got this.
You don’t have to do this alone! Repeat: Meditation doesn’t have to be done alone! I met an amazing woman who invited friends to sit and meditate with her before work on the first Monday of the month after her husband died. Bring a friend to a meditation group at your local Tibet House. My husband took me to my first meditation retreat and I dragged my sister-in-law Beth to my second one. Sitting with friends, family or strangers and sharing breath is powerful and healing. A lot of people may not know how to help you or how to even be around you when you are in grief mode. Let them hold space for you. Ask them to sit with you. It really helps.
Open the Flood Gates
Sit comfortably with your eyes closed (and maybe do this one solo. It gets messy. Emotions, feelings, tears, snot.) Get uncomfortable. It’s good for you. Uncertainty? Invite that in, too. And breathe and just let go. With each exhale, just let go. Keep bringing your attention back to your breath. This is a detox. Your breath is literally washing your thoughts and helping you to greet each emotion with awareness. Get to know your pain. Its purpose is to get your attention, to help you. Stop and learn why it is there. Don’t leave before you get all your lessons. And keep showing up because there will be many lessons. You don’t want to miss any of them.
Get uncomfortable. It’s good for you. Uncertainty? Invite that in, too.
No Escape Hatch
You can’t bypass the grief process and expect to be whole in any kind of way. A meditation practice is a way through. Hold on to that breath like your life depends on it, because it does. Trust that it will take you where you need to go, it will hold space for you, it will nourish you and ultimately, it can heal you. How? Science says those deep belly breaths activate your parasympathetic nervous system, your relaxation response, and put the brakes on your fight or flight mode. Science also says meditating reduces the size of your amygdala, the fear center of your brain. What does that all mean? That you have a lot more control kicking fear to the curb than you thought. This is where things get tricky because most emotions can fall in either the love column or the fear column, but grief has a peculiar position. It sort of straddles both. That’s why it’s so hard. Grief forces you to hold fear and love at the same time, but we humans don’t have a lot of patience holding paradox. But you must hold it. That is why not meditating isn’t an option. Because your breath is how you hold it. It literally wakes you up. It’s your life force and tips the scale towards love.
My biggest take away from meditation: That in the small act of listening and responding to my breath, I was able to sift through my grief to re-discover love. No one showed me how to do it. Don’t get bogged down by the how. Your body already knows how you need to do it. These days,when I breathe, I can tap into love and my dad is with me. Find your breath. Find your way. Find LOVE.
Sukey Novogratz is the co-author of Just Sit: A Meditation Guide for People Who Know They Should but Don’t. She co-wrote the book with her sister in-law, Elizabeth Novogratz.