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What happened when I meditated every day for two months (twice a day!)

(Massive disclaimer alert! I am not a medical professional so take what I say below with a giant pinch of salt. I’m also discussing my experience with one particular form of meditation that I’ll acknowledge right off the bat is pretty expensive, so please don’t take this as an endorsement. It’s just my own personal experience).

Until around three months ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard of transcendental meditation (or TM as it’s often abbreviated to). If I had, I’m sure I dismissed it as some sort of hippy woo-woo that required the ingestion of copious amounts of LSD (and I can’t even handle copious amounts of caffeine). In short, I probably assumed it wasn’t for me.

But then Ray Dalio happened.

Ray Dalio, for those of you who don’t know, is a flippityjillionaire (oh, and a philanthropist), who founded Bridgewater Associates. He also wrote a book called Principles that my boyfriend Richard read and enjoyed. It was through this that he first found out about TM, the meditation technique that Dalio credits with his success. Seriously, Google it. He talks about it a LOT.

Richard quickly fell down the rabbit hole, absorbing hours worth of testimonials from everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Clint Eastwood. One thing they all had in common: they all say that TM was transformative and made their lives better.

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Also endorsed by Hugh Jackman, and who wouldn’t trust that face??

We decided to try it.

I’ll stress that this decision did NOT come lightly. If you’re in Canada, the cost of the TM course is approx $1200 per person plus tax, and as yet I don’t think it’s covered by any benefits/health insurance plan. So it’s a LOT of money to fork out. The only reason we were in the position to do so at that time was because we had been saving for a long time for our travels and decided that, if it truly was the life-changing experience we heard it was, it was worth taking that chance.

What is Transcendental Meditation?

Quite simply, it’s a technique of meditation that you practice twice a day for twenty minutes at a time — once in the morning (generally the first thing you do after peeing), and once in the late afternoon/early evening (just after work is a good time because it gives you that space to transition from your work-life to your home-life).

It relies on a mantra, but unlike other mantra meditations, the goal isn’t to focus on the mantra incessantly, drowning out all thoughts; instead, it’s a tool to allow you to “transcend” or go beyond thought.

During the meditation, the practitioner sits upright, closes their eyes, and after 30 seconds begins to softly and quietly repeat their mantra in their mind. For me, it was helpful to imagine it as a kind of background noise, like a radio in a cafe — something you can just about hear but aren’t necessarily concentrating on.

And that’s basically it. There’s a lot of scientific stuff about alpha brain waves that I won’t get into here, but I’m sure you all know how to Google!

O…K… if it’s that easy, then what does your $1200 buy??

I asked myself this question a lot. Why should I spend so much money, when most meditations are cheaper or even free? My only answer is that you’re paying for the time of the instructors. Throughout the course, we got around 12 hours of instruction, which works out at around $100 per hour. Still not cheap by any means, but a little more understandable. You also get free lifetime access to TM centres around the world so you can join in weekly group meditations or request a personal “checking” if you feel like you’re struggling with your practice.

In broad strokes, this is what happens when you sign up to learn TM:

Firstly, you attend a two-hour introductory lecture that introduces the concept of meditation in general and TM in particular. The presenters run through the science behind TM, its history, benefits, and what you can expect from the course itself. Afterwards, you have a short one-on-one interview with one of the TM teachers to talk about any health issues you have, your reasons for wanting to meditate, as well as any concerns you might have.

Next comes the one-on-one instruction which lasts around 90 minutes. In this session, you learn your mantra and the technique for meditating. There’s also a ceremony at the start to honour TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teacher Brahmananda Saraswati and, OK, this definitely felt like the most woo-woo part. But you know what? It was also really nice and calming. For this ceremony, you’re required to bring two sweet fruit, six long stem flowers, and one white cloth. Other than that, you just stand there and watch.

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Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – fair warning, you’ll have to watch a LOT of his videos and the graphics definitely scream “crap, I’ve joined a cult”

After the one-on-one session comes three days of group instruction, each of which lasts two hours and after THAT, there are two more follow-up group sessions coming a few weeks later as well as another one-on-one session with your teacher.

So yeah, learning TM is a bit of a commitment. But is it worth it…?

My experience meditating

I’ve had anxiety for most of my life, and over the last decade or so I’ve tried meditating with little to no success. I knew that meditation was good for managing anxiety, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t stick with it. Going into my first TM session I was nervous. After all, I had forked out a LOT of money and my track record for sticking with meditation was poor. Could I really commit to meditating twice a day, every day, forever?

Day 1: I arrived for my one-on-one coaching session a tad early, and as I waited on the street to be let in, I saw a guy emerge from the building looking very chilled out. He spotted me clutching my flowers nervously and said, “TM?” I nodded. “Oh man!” he said, “You’ll love it.”

In hindsight, I don’t know whether bumping into this guy was a good thing or a bad thing. It certainly raised my expectations and made what came next feel all the more crushing.

My first session turned out to be not at ALL what I expected. After the ceremony, I was given my mantra and told what to do. For a few minutes, everything was fine but then I started to get really upset. And I mean really upset. My eyes started filling with tears and my throat was closing over with panic. Eventually, I couldn’t hold it in anymore and sobbed. Luckily, my teacher Sarah was absolutely amazing. She taught me a technique to help me calm down and explained that meditation can often bring up deep-seated feelings and it’s not unusual for people to occasionally feel overwhelmed. 

I left my session feeling a little embarrassed and a lot drained. Not at all how I thought my first TM experience would go.

Day 2: The first group coaching session. This was where I REALLY started to feel the benefits of signing up for the course. Listening to other people’s experiences validated my own — for example, another woman felt an increase in her anxiety too and several other people were struggling with “thinking too much”. I learned that the goal of TM isn’t to drown out thoughts and you should never use your mantra as a hammer to beat thoughts away. Realizing I wasn’t “doing it wrong” allowed me to experience my first really good meditation (although in TM they urge you to avoid categorizing your meditations. There’s no good or bad. You either do it or you don’t.)

Days 3-5: My mood was great. I was so cheerful and pleasant that I think my coworkers were growing suspicious. Weirdly though, I was also really anxious. I checked my heart rate a few times and it was pretty elevated (for me. I have bradycardia and normally have the resting heart rate of a slug). It’s a really odd experience to simultaneously feel mentally happy but physically messed up. Sarah and David (the other TM teacher for the group sessions) assured me that this is normal and lots of people go through a period of physical adjustment.

Day 9: Anxiety came back with a bang with my first full-blown panic attack in a long time. I injured myself lifting weights and maybe it’s some kind of newly-heightened connection with my body that made me more aware of it than usual but day 9 was a low point. I felt awful.

Day 20: Returned for another group session. I was momentarily thrown because there were more people in the room than I expected and not all of them were from my original group. I’d grown attached to my group so seeing strangers was mildly distressing. However, it ended up being a great session. We were able to hear from a man who was almost six months into his practice and had already gone through all of the bumps in the road us newbies were currently experiencing. He seemed super zen so I’m hopeful that in six months’ time, I’ll be some kind of paragon of cool too (stranger things have happened I’m sure).

Day 27: Final group session. Mostly strangers this time and a different instructor with a different vibe. I didn’t love this session as much as the others, but I find that even a mediocre group session leaves me feeling invigorated.

Day 40: Getting the hang of this whole meditation thing. And honestly, I love my morning meditations. They wake me up and set me up for the day… usually. This was the first day I actually felt EXHAUSTED after my meditation and almost fell back asleep. Even so, it’s still cool that my body can react so differently depending on the day/the mood I’m in etc.

Day 60: Two months in and meditation has become as much a habit as brushing my teeth. Every single session feels different. Sometimes I “transcend” and weird stuff happens (losing my proprioception, i.e. the sense of where my body is in space; hands going numb; feeling like I’m spinning; feeling an absolute sense of calm and peace), but honestly, those times are rare. More often than not, my mind is still racing from thought to thought and I sneak a peek at the clock every five minutes. Even these sessions leave me feeling better though. By and large, I end my meditations feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle the next part of my day.

So is it worth it?

Yes. But with a caveat. As I’ve mentioned multiple times already, this type of meditation does not come cheap. You can probably look it up somewhere online and learn the technique yourself, but I honestly wouldn’t because I guarantee you’ll do it wrong. It’s a deceptively easy technique, but I needed those group sessions to fully get a handle on it. It was those sessions, more than anything else, I feel were worth every penny.

So while I think pretty much everyone could benefit from meditation, I’m by no means suggesting that everyone should try TM. There are a lot of great cheaper (or free) resources out there to help you learn a variety of techniques from Mindfulness to guided meditations (the Headspace app, for example) and if you can find success with those, great!

Personally, I can’t ever see myself stopping. I’m going through an extreme life-upheaval at the moment and despite that, my mood has generally been more even and my anxiety is easier to manage. It’s by no means a panacea, but I dread to think what a state I’d be in right now without it.

While it hasn’t changed my life (I harboured vague notions that I might become a clean living exercise freak but instead still eat too much bacon and watch too much Netflix), I did not expect meditation to become such an integral part of my day and I’m excited to see where it takes me next!

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How to start a book club and not alienate people

Ah, book clubs, the best kind of club if you ask me because, while they often involve mild intoxication, they rarely ever involve twisting your ankle in sky-high heels, creepy dudes hitting on you, or holding your friend’s hair back as she pukes in the toilet.

I mean, unless your book club gets really rowdy.

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In all seriousness, book clubs are great for the more introverted among us. They provide a wonderful excuse to get together with old friends, meet new ones, and relax in the comfort of someone’s home while discussing stories. What’s not to love?

Since not everyone has access to an established club, and since I’m an old time veteran of the book club game, I thought I’d give you newbies some advice on how to go about starting one yourself.

Step 1: Find some bookish friends

I’d start with people you know — the tried and true bookworms who will have no problem finishing a book every month. But don’t just limit your club to the same three people you always hang out with. Ask work pals or casual acquaintances. Making friends as an adult SUCKS and you’d be surprised how many people would be only too happy for an excuse to socialize of a Sunday afternoon.

My top tip — you want enough people to ensure that at least a few people will a) have actually read the book, and b) will show up. Aim for around five to seven people for your first few meetings (space permitting) and adjust accordingly.

Step 2: Ground rules

How often will you meet? Were will you meet? Will you take turns hosting? If so, is the host expected to supply the libations or should everyone bring a bottle and a bag of crisps? What kind of books are you open to? Fiction only? Some non-fiction? How about self-help or biographies? Should you limit yourselves to books under 300 pages?

These questions (and more) are probably things you want to sort out before your first meeting. Your book club friends are more than likely at least somewhat introverted (hey, I’m just speaking from experience) and would appreciate getting a proper heads-up for what to expect.

Step 3: Pick a book

Here’s the tricky part. No one wants to be the person who picks an absolute clunker of a book that the whole club hates. Differing opinions = good, universal dislike = bad. So nothing too weird and experimental right off the bat. And honestly, nothing too long. You may fly through a book every three days, but perhaps Susan needs the full month to get through one.

My advice here is to do a Google search for “book club books” and pick one that seems appealing to you. Yes, it might dent your book-hipster cred a little, but at least you’re probably going to pick something that’s accessible to everyone.

To be safe, select something that’s been out for a while and is available at your local library. Remember, not everyone can afford to drop the big bucks on books.

Step 4: Pick a time and place

Once you’ve decided who’s hosting, pick a time and a place. Doodle is a useful tool if you’re trying to wrangle multiple people.

You’ll never find a time that suits everyone. Just go with what works for the majority.

At the end of your first meeting, make sure the group knows who will be hosting next time. If possible, get them to commit to a date sooner rather than later. Too many good book clubs die because the host gets busy and never organizes the actual meet up.

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Step 5: Have a few questions ready to prompt discussion…

Sometimes, especially in newer book clubs, it can take participants a while to feel comfortable actually discussing the book. Some people might feel embarrassed and others might not know where to start.

If you’re the host, it’s useful to have a list of prompts and questions to get the discussion flowing.

Start with some general questions:

  • What did you think of the book?
  • What did/didn’t you like?
  • What themes did you notice?
  • Which character did you most identify with?

For more, check out BookRiot’s comprehensive list of discussion questions to suit any book.

You can also ask more specific questions about the book itself. Lots of publishers actually create book club editions with a list of questions included at the back, which can be super handy for making you seem both smart AND well-prepared.

Step 6: …but don’t be THAT person

Nobody likes organized fun. If the conversation is flowing, just go with it! You don’t really need to ask Mary what she thought of the biblical allusion on page 176 if she’s busy gushing over how dreamy the hero is.

The prompts you prepare should facilitate discussion, not dominate it.

Step 7: SNACKS (and if you’re old enough, WINE!)

The only thing better than books is books and snacks (and optional-but-recommended booze). It is my honest opinion that the success of your book club rests on your ability to put out a good spread. Cheese, crackers, crisps, dips — all excellent book club snacks. The way to a bookworm’s heart is through their stomach, so prepare accordingly.

So there you have it! Go forth and start your book club. If you do start one, I’d love to hear about it (especially if you have an unusual, weird, and/or offensive club name!).

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Unearthing old writing: Dear Mr. Potter

I’ve been tidying up my writing folders and found this post I wrote absolutely yonks ago for a blog promoting my friend’s Harry Potter conference. I’d probably approach this differently today, but I can’t help but look back on this piece fondly and wanted to preserve it somewhere. 

Dear Mr. Potter,

When I turned fifteen, I received a book of fantasy artwork from my mother. Engrossed as I was in the beautiful illustrations, it was some time before I noticed the inscription she had written on the inside cover — “Never stop believing in magic”. All these years later, her advice has never left me.

My love affair with all things magical did not start with you, Harry, by any means. By the time I was thrust into the world of Hogwarts at the age of ten I was already well acquainted with wizards and hobbits, fauns and magical faraway trees. But as I turned the first few pages of The Philosopher’s Stone, something inside of me just lit up and instinctively I knew that I had happened across something very special. Your story reached out and touched me Harry, and as your tale unfolded I realised that I felt closer to a character in a book than I had ever thought possible.

For some of our journey, you were slightly older than me — a hero for me to look up to. Then, for a short period of time, we were of an age and I would spend my days flicking through the pages of your books and imagine meeting you and becoming your friend. I can’t tell you how many times I would lie in bed wishing that there had been a terrible mistake and my Hogwarts letter had merely been mislaid (sometimes I still wish this). When I eventually overtook you in age (I was already nineteen when you turned seventeen) I came to view you as I would a younger brother — I worried for your safety (as well as for your choice in girlfriends!).

I don’t think you will ever really know what you have meant to me and to so many others Harry. You introduced countless young people to the world of books and imagination and, in a world where more and more children have given up on reading, that alone makes you worthy of praise. For millions of adults too you have reminded them of what it is to dream and your story has proven beyond a doubt that there is a part of all of us that still clings to that childhood belief in magic.

As I think back on our time together, I remember the advice of my mother and I know that, as long as there are stories like yours out there to discover, I will always, always believe in magic.

Alex, age 23 and most definitely a Ravenclaw*!

 

 

*Note from present-day Alex — weird side-effect of getting older: your Hogwarts house changes. These days I’m feeling much more Hufflepuffy. Perhaps I grow soft in my later years… 

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Even bookworms get the blues — 5 ways to bust a reading-slump!

As far as I can remember, I’ve only ever experienced two proper reading-slumps. The first was when I was 19 and finished the final Harry Potter book and was so wracked with ennui I couldn’t concentrate on ANYTHING for several weeks (it was Twilight, of all things, that finally snapped me out of it, but that’s a story for another day.).

The second reading slump is only finally coming to an end right now. And I’ll be honest with you — this time, it was scary.

Since January 1st, I’ve only completed 19 new books. 19! We’re half-way through the year! Since I normally average 70 books per year this is obviously way below my usual reading pace.

The scary part is, for the longest time I haven’t even really wanted to read. In fact, there were times when reading felt like a slog; a chore rather than a joy. I started to wonder whether I had lost the bug, whether I’d ever really enjoy reading again.

I’m happy to report that the fog is finally lifting. Last week, I devoured both The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and Brief Cases, the newest Dresden Files short story collection by Jim Butcher (although, in this case it would be more accurate to say I “marathoned” it considering I listened to the audiobook. But more on this anon), and for the first time in a long time, I honestly enjoyed the act of reading again.

In order to save my future self and any other bookworms who may happen upon this blog from the undue torment of an extended reading-slump, here are my top 5 tips of busting a reading-rut! Let me know if you have any other tips to share.

1. Join a book club

I was lucky enough that my most recent workplace was chock full o’ nerds so I was able to join not one, but two book clubs.

One was a club dedicated to YA literature (a genre dear to my little black heart). We started out meeting in the office during our lunch break, but as people left for new jobs, we shifted to a Milestones restaurant because Monday night is Bellini Night (4 bellinis and 4 appetizers for $40 — can’t really go wrong). Turns out that a standing meeting with cocktails and conversation is a GREAT motivator to actually read that month’s book.

Some of my favourite books we read were Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Maybe I’ll write a post in future about how to start/structure book club meetings (spoiler alert: I heartily believe they should involve booze or food or both).

The second book club I was involved in at work was actually a comic book club. I love comics, but I tended to stick to the same kind of thing (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series or Bill Willingham’s Fables). Being a part of my workplace’s comic book club (CBC) exposed me to so many different styles of comic I would never have thought to check out such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and What is Obscenity? by Rokudenashiko.

CBC was especially interesting to me because it was mostly made up of designers and illustrators who had a very different perspective on the comics we studied. Coming from an English lit background, it was really cool for me to get exposed to new ways of analyzing a piece of work (hopefully my fellow book clubbers felt the same).

Speaking of comics, this brings me to tip #2…

2. Try a comic book

In the depths of my reading despair, I often felt like I couldn’t concentrate on anything to save my life. Enter, comic books!

Firstly, they’re short — usually you can blast through a trade paperback (a collection of shorter comics) or a graphic novel in an hour or so. This helps with the whole lack-of-concentration issue. It also gives you a sense of accomplishment when you finish it.

Secondly, the pictures! When reading feels like pulling teeth, try really looking at the illustrations. Great comic books artists can tell an entire story using little to no words. This article has some great examples by  Romanian illustrator Ileana Surducan.

One of the books we read for the CBC was Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, which I finished in under an hour but returned to several times over the following days because the illustrations are gorgeous and I really wanted to absorb them.

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From Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

If you’re new to comics, you could do worse than reading this comprehensive guide from comicbookherald.com on where to start.

3. Return to old favourites

If you’re really in the weeds and don’t know how to break out of your reading slump, why not pick up an old favourite? Around Christmas, I rewatched all three Lord of the Rings movies (extended editions, of course) and decided it had been too long since I’d read the actual books. Reading them this year has been a slow but rewarding process. The stories are so familiar to me that I don’t feel bad if I go days or even weeks between chapters since I never really lose my place or forget what happened in the previous chapter. The books are like an old friend — there for me when I need them and even if lots of time has gone by, we pick up exactly where we left off.

While we’re on the subject of old favourites, why not try listening to them instead? Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Howl’s Moving Castle — all of these books are childhood favourites that I decided to listen to the audiobook version of in the past year.

Audiobooks are a wonderful way of revisiting stories because, while the stories themselves are familiar, the delivery allows you to experience them in a totally different way.

4. Audiobooks count as reading too!

While we’re on the subject of audiobooks, I want to say for the record that audiobooks TOTALLY count as reading too! As long as you’re absorbing them and not simply using them to fall asleep to (ahem…guilty of this myself sometimes), audiobooks are every bit as valid as any other book.

There are also some books that are better as audiobooks. For example, the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. I started off reading the books, but quickly switched to audio once I realized they were narrated by James Marsters (Spike from Buffy!). He does such a good job of narrating the stories that I don’t think I could go back to the written version.

I’m also a massive fan of Neil Gaiman and will read anything he has written over and over again. He’s also a fantastic narrator of his own books and I would highly recommend listening to Norse Mythology rather than reading it (since the stories themselves are folklore and probably came from an oral tradition, it feels apt to hear them spoken aloud).

5. Podcasts are your friend

If you’re digging the audiobook format but finding it a little, um, expensive to maintain (Audible ain’t cheap by any means!), why not try listening to a podcast?

I think it’s fair to say that podcasts are having a moment right now, and no matter where your interests lie, I guarantee there’s a podcast out there for you!

But Alex, I hear you cry, isn’t this a list about getting out of a reading slump? How the heck can podcasts help?

Well, oh doubting reader, let me tell you. In my opinion, good podcasts fulfil the same need within me that reading does. They spark my imagination and creativity, they soothe, they inform, they make me question, they entertain. To paraphrase Blindboy of the Blindboy Podcast, they provide a kind of aural “hug”. And when you’re in the depths of reading despair, and nothing seems to interest you, no matter how hard you try, it’s ok to find comfort in other media.

So there they are, my top 5 tips for busting a reading-rut. No matter what route you go down, remember this — if you give yourself the time and space to refill your creative well, you’ll eventually find your way back to your love of reading. Promise.