Here’s the scene: I am in a hurry. I’m thinking about vital priorities like getting dog food on the way to work. I am anywhere but the present moment.
My son has parked his car directly behind mine in the driveway, but I don’t realize this until after I balance my cereal bowl on my lap, press the garage door opener, gun the car in reverse and ram into the front of his Acura.
There’s nothing like a low-impact collision to jolt you back into the present.
I call the insurance company while standing next to the carnage. Little bits of headlight glass glimmer on my trunk as I give my name and start explaining.
“I need to file claims on both of our cars,” I say, trying to sound on top of it. I’m ignoring three neighbors who are huddled in the street staring. One of them is pointing. This strikes me as insensitive.
The woman on the other end is worried. “That’s awful – two accidents on the same day!”
“Well, yes, kind of,” I say.
“Were the other drivers hurt?”
“Nope,” I say.
“Well, thank goodness.”
“Technically, there were no other drivers,” I add.
“I see,” she says. I hear her tapping the computer keyboard. Silence. “I see,” she says again, sounding less supportive.
I decide it’s a good time for a joke. “I bet it’s the first time you’ve had someone hit their own car!”
“No,” she answers. Tap, tap, tap. I realize she is looking through my file. “But it’s the first time a client has done it twice.”
In small doses, my spacey nature has been described as “cute,” such as confusing airplane gate numbers with seat numbers and missing my flight. However, in bigger doses, it is referred to in less adorable terms.
At some point I even got on my own nerves. In response, I began practicing mindfulness.
One of the best parts of starting to meditate when you have no idea how to sit still is that you can only go uphill. I read everything I could find. It’s not a new approach. Being present was summed up centuries ago by Saint Therese of Liseux, who said, “I choose all.”
I liked the perspective, but I thought, obviously, she never had an autistic child.
Yet as I dug deeper, I saw the wisdom in her words. Being present in each moment never means loving everything that happens. It simply stops the war with what is.
Being science-y I’m drawn to the fact that mindfulness has implications beyond finding lost keys. The practice leads to an array of good things: lower blood pressure, the ability to stay calm, greater creativity, and less inflammation. A recent study in Biological Psychiatry showed just how far the practice can go.
Researchers recruited 35 unemployed people. The participants were feeling stressed as they searched for work. The intervention went like this: The group was divided randomly in half and all had their brains scanned and blood drawn.
One group spent three days learning mindfulness meditation. The other group was taught relaxation exercises and encouraged to avoid negative thoughts.
At the end of this period both groups were re-tested, and stark differences emerged. The meditation group showed heightened activity in the part of their brains related to calm and attention. They also showed reduced inflammation markers in their blood. The other group was unchanged. This effect continued when participants were again tested after four months, even though very few were meditating.
This study and others like it point to meditation’s structural brain changes. The practice builds our stress reserve. It allows us to detach from events and avoid overreacting. In my best moments, mindfulness changes the way life unfolds. I have the same experience when I spend time with my brain-injured son.
I had a glimpse of being fully present when I sat with Porter last night as he played with his puzzles. The evening sun filtered through the shades as he carefully placed the letter “B” in the alphabet board.
I clapped. He looked up and smiled then reached for the next piece.
In this moment, there were no politics, no late bills, or stress from work. He plugged the pieces in the puzzle and smiled after each one. There was only the moment.
During hard times as a caregiver, parent, or human, intentionality reshapes what we see. Retraining our attention to stay in this minute settles anxiety and brings depth to our lives.
It also has lowered my insurance rates.