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.
Heather Heath Chapman lives in Ann Arbor with her family. She’ll be continuing her search for inner peace during a spring hiatus and will return to AnnArbor.com in mid-June.