Ali Safawi: Presence, past and future

Thursday, January 25, 2018 - 4:57pm

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 18 million U.S. adults meditate. How do they find the time?

I tried to take up meditation during the second semester of my freshman year. I had just gone through a particularly nasty breakup, my Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program project was not what I had anticipated, and my coursework was both overwhelming and unengaging. I needed an out, a way to regain the focus and drive I had lost. So I began going to mindfulness sessions offered in the basement of the University of Michigan’s Angell Hall.

That did not last very long. Meditation is not an instant peace of mind. It is also hard, especially when your mind is racing with a thousand things (which, ironically, is what causes you to attempt meditation). Meditation can also be really boring, especially if you have grown used to always having something to do or think about.

I first became interested in meditation when I read Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” in high school. Was I expecting a cosmic experience my first time meditating? No, but I did expect to feel something.

The biggest factor that cut my meditation adventure short was time. Fitting mindfulness sessions into my busy schedule was always a challenge. I could have tried to meditate solo; however, I felt like I needed to do it with other people to hold myself accountable. Perhaps if I had felt more “at peace” after meditation I would have made the effort to continue. Perhaps if I had made the effort to continue I would have started to feel more “at peace.” The chicken or the egg. I guess I will never know.

The next time I tried mindfulness was in Behavioral and Social Foundations for the Health Professions, when one day our professor walked us through some forms of meditation in his lecture on presence. One of them, called loving-kindness meditation actually did have an impact on me. The meditation’s ethos is to cultivate goodwill and kindness by mentally sending it to various people in your life. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to reconnect with their emotions (the stress of college can make you numb), but I warn you: it is intense. I cried — no, weeped — in class during the meditation. It felt great afterward, like I was as light as a feather, but it was also exhausting. I have yet to try loving-kindness again only because it requires someone to facilitate.

I still am looking for a way to be present and mindful because I feel like I am misaligned with time. I dwell on the past while worrying about the future, all while largely ignoring the present.

The past is immutable and unchangeable. Mistakes I have made, often due to nothing more than not thinking before I speak, are permanent scabs that fester until I eventually forget about them. Even in the shadowy realm of my mind where I store all the bad memories — what psychiatrist Carl Jung would call the personal unconscious — the memory of these mistakes are just waiting to erupt back into thought. Letting go, moving on: These have never been things I have been good at.

Then there is the future: Something I both plan meticulously for and at the same time know nothing about. In my favorite childhood book series, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” each hero had a fatal flaw. Mine would be decision anxiety. For every choice that I make, I worry intensely about the consequences and whether I have made the “right call.” Waiting to see if I made a good decision or not can be hell. I also feel like my time at the University is flying by too quickly, and there is so much I want to do and experience.

The solution to my problems with both the past and the future would be to focus more on the present. Then I would consider my words and actions more deeply and enjoy what time I have left as an undergraduate. Realizing the benefits of presence and mindfulness is one thing, finding the right way to put it in action is another.

I believe that many students are in the same position I find myself in; we need mindfulness but have not found the right path towards it. Meditation is one path, but it cannot be the only one.

One path I am trying now is maintaining a planner. Now, this may seem like it should be second nature to most students at the University, but I have always struggled in maintaining one. Perhaps this is because the planner hides in my backpack or maybe it is because I move through things so mindlessly that I do not stop to think to plan ahead. For each student, the path to mindfulness will look different.

So, to all my fellow Wolverines that have struggled with meditation and in finding a way towards mindfulness: I empathize with you. It is hard, but the end result—a way to stop dwelling on the past and worrying about the future—is worth it.

Ali Safawi can be reached at asafawi@umich.edu