For the past couple of years, meditation has been easy. I’d put in some hard work over the previous decade and had found a place of stillness each time I took to the cushion. Sure, sometimes what I met as I observed my mind was difficult, but my practice had become productive and indispensable.
I spent the last two years as a stay-at-home dad of a toddler. I did all of the dad, and much of the mom, stuff. I managed the house, cleaned (badly), cooked (very well), arranged activities and play dates, and did what I could to keep the family satisfied.
None of this was easy, but my daughter napped every day. And while she napped I had a solid 35 minutes to meditate, without fail. I taught a couple of classes each week, and led a Wednesday night drop-in meditation group, but that was more rewarding and fulfilling than taxing.
Then it all came to an end.
My daughter started preschool this year, and I went back to work. What was meant to be a part-time job at a retail store has recently dumped 10-hour days on me. Plus, I still teach and lead drop-in groups. On top of all of this, I remain the primary caregiver for my daughter as my wife, a wonderful person who does all she can to help, is away 12 hours a day and often travels internationally for work. I believe her stress is at least as great as mine, plus she suffers from the working mom guilt of being away so much. But I’ve taken on a lot, and it’s getting difficult to handle. I’m not sleeping well, what began as a minor cold has become bronchitis, and my periods of meditation have become sporadic.
The first thing that has had to go is five minutes. Thirty minutes of meditation a day, if I get up early and sneak downstairs, is often doable. Thirty-five is out of the question. And some days, 20 minutes must suffice. Other days, like this past Sunday when I lay in bed sick, no formal practice happens at all.
I have newfound empathy for my students who plead that they just can’t fit it in. Practice works best as an uncompromised discipline, and when I don’t practice it really screws me up. But that doesn’t make it any easier to find the time.
The thing that amazes me when I do practice is the quality of my breath in the face of all of this stress. Today, in deep, increasingly rare, practice, keeping my focus on my breath was very distracting. Not because of thoughts that pulled me away, but because of the shallow, forced nature of the cycle of my breathing. Stress is making me sick.
I finally settled down, only to have the bell ring and send me back into the fray. Stress has become me, and, at least for a time, it’s time to set aside all of the creativity-enhancing, intention-finding practices and refocus on plain old stress management. My mental and physical health depends on it.
And so I soldier on and practice (almost) every day.
I must take this opportunity to establish a special awe for working, single mothers. My brief forays into single parenthood last only as long as my wife is away. All of the getting dressed, walking the dog, making lunch, hurrying to the bus, then to another bus, working, more buses, dinner, bath and bed, while making time for books, talk, and joy are, for me, temporary while my wife is away. But single working mothers do this every day, forever. You are my new heroes. If you can manage a few moments of mindfulness, then bless you. I will never again proselytize about how easy it is to find time to meditate. Important, yes. But easy, never.