Column: Frantically searching for inner peace, one elusive lesson at a time
My friend Laura meditates every day, and she never walks around with an accidental scowl, like I do. In fact, she’s always smiling, always a calming presence, never disheveled in sweatpants.
That’s the way I want to be.
My first attempt at inner peace was years ago, when my daughter was a baby. I had wound myself up so tightly inside motherhood that my default mode was Full Alert. One mantra played on a loop in my brain: Don’t screw up the kid, don’t screw up the kid.
So, with Oprah’s encouragement, I tried to “sit quietly and breathe.” Unfortunately, every time I sat quietly, I fell asleep. I never got what I was hoping for — a nice, floaty feeling, like a mix of assurance and rum punch. But sleep turned out to be good, too, and I never did screw up the kid.
Since then, I’ve flirted with meditation many times. I like knowing that it’s a possibility — that I could connect to the here and now if I’d just log off of Facebook for a minute. And — thank goodness — I’ve mellowed with age.
When my mother died in September, though, I lost almost all of my mellow. I was in Sweden when I got the news, and I needed to get home to my sister, who has Asperger’s. I left my family in UmeÃ¥ and wept noisily — to the dismay of my seatmates — throughout my four-airplane journey to Arkansas.
The months after that felt whipped up and wrong. The kids came to Arkansas, but my husband stayed in Sweden. I missed him, my mom, UmeÃ¥, Ann Arbor, and my sister’s cheerful countenance, which had always been so dependable but was now replaced by deep mourning.
One day, I found a small book — “Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It had been a gift from my calm friend, Laura. She’d suggested I keep it in the bathroom — a course in better living, one potty break at a time. Instead, I’d lost it so profoundly that I forgot I’d ever had it. But now here it was in my suitcase, in Arkansas.
Well, good. Maybe it was time to try again for some inner peace. I opened the book to Lesson Number Six, a quote from the Buddha.
“Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, mine.”
I glanced into the next room at my children, then down at the sparkly watch I’d just inherited from my mother. Maybe Number Six wasn’t the right place to start.
A few days later, I decided to try Lesson Number 44, “Feeling the Breath.” I sat on the floor, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply.
“Mom!” My son barged in. “Sister says I look like Justin Beiber.”
I opened one eye. “Is that good or bad?”
“Bad,” he said, and trudged away.
Moments later, I heard a thud and an “ow.” Clearly, it had been a bad idea to Feel the Breath while the kids were awake. Perhaps meditation, if I ever accomplished it, would bring with it slightly better judgment.
Through the fall and winter, I read all 108 lessons. I breathed my way through memorial parties, scattering ashes, thank-you notes, accountants, and cheering up my sister. I never got exactly what I was looking for — the floaty, serene feeling.
But I thought I could find it on spring break, in Cancun.
Every day last week, on our family vacation in Mexico, I sat by the ocean and tried to meditate. The water was lovely, and the sky was big. If I couldn’t find inner peace in that place, I figured I was just never going to find it.
I didn’t find it. I dug for shells. I got distracted by pelicans. And when I closed my eyes, my to-do list ran by on a neon ticker: Clean Mom’s house. Talk to lawyers. Move my sister to Ann Arbor.
I left Mexico feeling a little defeated. Still no inner peace. I felt even more defeated when we landed in Detroit among big, wet snowflakes. The defeat nearly overwhelmed me in the long-term lot, as I scraped ice from my windshield, wearing sandals and no gloves.
And then, I thought of Lesson Number 35. “There is no other time than now.”
Holy cow. That made sense. This was serenity. Now. Frozen toes and snowy hair and a family waiting for me at luggage claim.
My heart swelled, and it kept swelling until the happiness became slightly uncomfortable. This has to stop, I thought to myself. I don’t want to blow up. So, I quickly thought about my tax returns, and I felt things beginning to deflate.
Then I put more muscle behind the ice scraper and laughed into the cold.