I’ve grappled with anxieties for as long as I can remember. When I was six years old, my father nicknamed me “Miss What If” because of my incessant questions.
What if I can’t swim back to shore? What if we get stuck on the top of the roller coaster? What if Fluffy runs away? Worry was my constant companion.
In my late 20s came a deep yearning for peace of mind. I became intrigued with the idea of meditation and devoured a myriad of meditation books, articles, workshops, events, and retreats.
Yet meditation was a struggle. Sitting and trying to focus on my breath felt completely unnatural. Twenty minutes of practice seemed like an eternity.
I liked to accomplish things. At the beginning, there were no results to see from meditating. No completed projects to satisfy my need for achievement.
And peace of mind? If anything, I became even more aware of racing thoughts—thoughts that hadn’t been previously apparent.
No matter how much effort I put forth, my busy mind wouldn’t quiet down. It was baffling as to how this practice could lead to some inner peace.
An understanding of meditation seemed elusive, as if the practice was veiled in mystery. I’d find small pieces of the puzzle but couldn’t see the whole picture clearly.
So I started exploring meditation piece by piece until a coherent picture emerged. It became clear to me that meditation wasn’t about stopping thoughts, but about becoming aware of them.
And what a difference that awareness began to make! I learned to look at worry right in the face.
For instance, one night my older daughter missed her curfew. My imagination churned out stories. What if she’s hurt? What if she’s lost? What if she’s in trouble?
The awareness I practiced in meditation allowed me to see my stories clearly—without being engulfed by them. I could see that my mind was churning out what ifs.
I noticed my anxious thoughts each time they arose. I released the stories and their associated stress. I wasn’t denying worries, or pushing them away. I simply noticed, and then made a conscious choice about how to respond to what was happening in the moment.
When I let go of stories—which give the illusion of a sense of control—I entered a space of not knowing. This proved to be very challenging for a Type A personality who likes to be in control. By allowing myself not to know why she was late, I waited for my daughter to come home (which she finally did) without getting tied up in knots.
As time went on and I practiced more, I became more grounded. More accepting. More relaxed. Less reactive. Less judgmental. Less stressed.
I thought I had finally found a path to some inner peace when my younger daughter announced she wanted to live in a rural village in Bolivia for two months. She had just finished sophomore year in college and hoped to join five students and volunteer in the Andes. She asked my opinion about the trip.
“Has your college sent students on this trip before?” I asked.
“Where will you be staying?”
“An unheated youth hostel in the middle of the Bolivian winter.”
“What is the altitude?”
“Thirteen thousand feet.”
The what ifs started. What if I can’t get to her if she needs help? There’d be multiple connections to get to her, including two plane rides, a lengthy bus trip, and a difficult truck ride through steep mountainous roads.
What if she gets altitude sickness? She’d be living at very high altitude, and she’s used to living at about 150 feet above sea level.
What if I don’t know where she is? She was planning on traveling around Bolivia and Chile on weekends, didn’t have a set itinerary, and would often be out of cell phone reach.
It was time for me to let go of my Type A tendencies. My daughter was a self-sufficient young adult who wasn’t asking for my permission; rather, she wanted my opinion. I trusted her judgment and didn’t want my anxiety to stand in the way of her big adventure. Off she went, loaded with a backpack, sleeping bag, and supplies for two months.
I thought meditation would help ease the anxiety I felt, but during the first two weeks of her trip, my mind and body were filled with tension. Until one day, they weren’t.
While looking at the sky, I realized that when my daughter looked up, she saw the same sky, albeit 13,000 feet closer. We weren’t as disconnected as I’d imagined. We were connected by the sky.
In that moment, I felt transformed. I could see that the story of separation was an illusion. I became a mindful parent, living completely in the here and now. My stories of what if evaporated.
Meditation has allowed me to see my stories. Sometimes I notice them and can immediately release them. Other times, it may take a couple of weeks and a moment of grace while looking at the sky.
Meditation isn’t a path that guarantees I’ll live a life of inner peace. But it is a path that offers me a choice about how to respond to life’s events, and with that choice comes enormous freedom.