Me Time: Writer Margaret Renkl Finds Her Inner Peace
From Health magazine
Thanks to the flu, a broken ankle, a staph infection, and bronchitis, plus several school cancellations, my three children were at home—hurting, vomiting, coughing, or tracking muddy water into our house—all but seven days last February. (Shall I pause to let the horror of that number sink in? All but seven.) Im normally an efficient, organized person who thrives on plans and checklists, but by the end of that month, Id accomplished almost nothing beyond reading aloud the entire fifth book of Harry Potter. I felt so anxious that I was on the verge of hyperventilation.
“You need to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine yourself surrounded by an egg of light,” a Buddhist friend said. But when I closed my eyes and took a breath, I was surrounded by used tissues and dirty laundry.
Obviously, I was in need of some inner peace. Studies have shown that learning to still the mind, if only for a few minutes, can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, limit stress hormones, and enhance immune function. But traditional forms of meditation dont work for me. If I sit still and close my eyes, I fall asleep or think about my to-do list. So, I gave myself a new task: Find an activity that calms my mind without giving my weary body a chance to nod off. Does such a thing exist?
This ancient Chinese practice—believed to offer all the health benefits of silent meditation while giving you something to do with your hands and feet—seemed like an obvious place to start for an antsy, toe-tapping sort like me. The thing is, I have a poor sense of balance and Tai Chi often requires standing on one foot. To avoid the not-so-peaceful experience of looking like a dork in front of a group of total strangers, I opted for a DVD, with only the tiniest hope of success.
I surprised myself. The quiet music and the calm voice of the middle-aged woman demonstrating the moves were so reassuring that I forgot I looked like an idiot. The effort it took to follow along in what resembles the slow-motion version of a beautiful dance was literally mesmerizing. If I didnt feel peaceful, exactly, at least I was filled with quiet concentration, the kind that banishes all thoughts of picky eaters, mortgage payments, and unreliable coworkers. I emerged from the first lesson feeling refreshed and rested.
I have friends who are passionate about knitting. Dont they know that its possible to buy an immediately wearable sweater for less than the cost of the yarn it takes to knit one? Nonetheless, stressed-out 21st-century workingwomen are returning in droves to the craft. It made no sense to me…until I tried it, that is.
Knitting, it turns out, is the perfect example of active stillness. In fact, 20 minutes of knitting can lower your heart rate and blood pressure—the same physical response triggered by yoga, Tai Chi, or meditation. Some hospitals have even begun to offer knitting courses for stress release. The secret seems to lie in the soothing combination of rhythm and repetition. By the end of my first lesson, Id become proficient enough that my hands could make the motions almost automatically. The sound of the needles had a metronomic quality, a calming pace that automatically slowed my thoughts. And the feel of the wool sliding through my fingers was almost like a caress.
Walking in the woods
Id read somewhere that exposure to nature can boost a persons general well-being and sense of calm—and I certainly needed a dose of that. So I headed to some nearby woods where the redbuds and crab apples were in full bloom. Birds called piercingly, squirrels quarreled, and high branches clattered together in the wind. In other words, nothing about the forest was still or quiet or remotely peaceful, but somehow it made me feel peaceful. I stopped thinking about my family and work deadlines and all that laundry. In fact, I stopped thinking altogether.
Back at my car, I checked the clock and was shocked to learn that more than an hour had passed. Now I cant realistically give up an hour every day to nature. But studies have shown that even small doses of nature can be healing, so Ive tried a few smaller-scale nature interactions, as well. I started a small aquarium, planted a windowsill bean garden, and hung a bird feeder where I can see it from my desk.
OK, so the fish arent as interesting as Id hoped for: Watching them swim aimlessly in their small tank, in constant motion but getting absolutely nowhere, hits a little too close to home for me. But the sight of tiny leaves unfurling on the bean vines and the scent of soil filling the room when I water them have been surprisingly gratifying. As for the bird feeder? Its the best minidose of nature Ive found so far. All spring I watched goldfinches and cardinals courting right outside my window. Watching them hop from branch to branch as they get their fill and move out of the way for others to feed may not be meditation, per se, but its something similar—a reminder that the world can offer peace and stillness, even in the midst of mayhem.