I was on vacation last week, and I spent a few days in Cape Cod. In March, it’s a gray place. Most of the things that make it “the Cape” in the eyes of folks who visit in the summer — the warm weather, the clam shacks, the traffic — are absent. Rather than being a tourist paradise, it’s just a long, windy, sandy stretch of land where a bunch of people live and where lots of stuff is closed for the season. (According to one dated-looking government website, the population jumps from 200,000 to 500,000 during the summer.)
It’s still beautiful, though, and as a stereotypically harried New Yorker, I was determined to spend some time gazing out meaningfully at the ocean, going on hikes, and so forth. One day early on, I ignored the rain and went to the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp trail (PDF), which features a boardwalk winding through a swamp. It’s pretty magical. I’m stealing this comparison from a travel site, but the swamp has a Brothers Grimm feel to it: The forest seems haunted; in every direction are these tall, skinny trees anchored to patches of dry land rising up out of the water (here’s a photo).
Despite my desire to unplug for a few days, I wasn’t feeling relaxed. Something hadn’t kicked in yet. So I tried something: I sat down on a bench at the boardwalk, looked out at the swamp, and took 25 deep breaths, counting each one.
I’d tried to meditate before, and had briefly, with the help of a weird and scientifically questionable gadget, managed to do it regularly for a whole two weeks once. But it had never stuck: I just couldn’t turn it into a habit. This had always frustrated me, especially having read about the salutary effects of meditating not only in the scientific literature, but also in Dan Harris’s excellent book, 10% Happier.
This stripped-down version I tried in the swamp worked, though. I really did feel calmer and more clear-headed right away — part of the reason I’d felt anxious was due to the usual clamor of thoughts rattling around in my head, some of them work-related. They quieted significantly. I did a loop on the boardwalk and breathed another 25 breaths. I returned to that boardwalk and that routing a couple more times on the trip, bumping things up to 50 breaths. I also tried the 50-breaths thing at various other points during my trip.
Some of you might be thinking, What’s so innovative about that? Meditation is just breathing! Yes, but for those of us who try meditation but have trouble sticking with it, one of the challenges is that — when it comes to most of the guided audio for beginners and so on — we’re tasked with doing a few different things at once. Sit still. Be “comfortable but alert.” Focus on your breathing. When you have a thought, note it, but don’t react. Try not to get frustrated if you’re fidgety or having any other sort of trouble losing yourself to your meditation.
I’d like this to be a gateway drug to a regular meditation practice, but regardless of whether it becomes that, I’ve decided that twice a day, I’m simply going to count out 50 breaths. Try it yourself: Start with ten, even. Make sure they’re good, deep breaths. Do it on the subway or in the car or bathroom, if you have to. It helps. Breathing is the cornerstone of “real” meditation, after all.