*Trigger warning: anxiety

Recently, on a meditation retreat, I spent a whole meal with myself. I sat in the Alice Millar Chapel and munched on my soggy Rice Chex in soy milk — we had to bring our lunch, and I can’t cook.

When people walked past, I did not engage. We had been instructed to not just be silent in a traditional sense, but to practice “noble silence,” a Buddhist practice where one refrains from making eye contact with others or engaging with them in any other sense through body language. The intent? To allow each individual to fully be present with any thoughts and emotions that may arise for them.

Sunlight shone through the chapel’s stained glass windows, projecting rectangles of blue, purple and pink onto the stone floor. Over the course of my 90-minute lunch break, I watched the sun traveling slowly across the arc of the sky outside the window, lighting up different portions of the glass and changing the scene depicted ever so slightly. There was a goat’s head in one pane, and I remember watching it gradually change from mauve to pink.

A stained glass window in Alice Millar Chapel. Photo by Vaibhavi Hemasundar / North by Northwestern

For the first time in many years, I was filled with an almost childlike sense of wonder.

Whoever is reading this, I want you to go into this article with an open mind. Release yourself from any preconceived notions you may hold about meditation. My intent here is not to raise the practice on a pedestal or kick it to the curb. I just want you to know that even though I may still be somewhat anxious, meditation has made me significantly less anxious. That has made all the difference.

I was introduced to meditation by my high school counselor. She asked me if I had ever considered meditating because she noticed that my thoughts were pretty scattered and tended to run away with themselves. “Start with five minutes,” she said. “Just sit down and focus on your breath. You can always extend your time later.”

There are several misconceptions about what meditation actually is. I feel like it’s important to remove the glamour and inaccessibility attached to the practice. Put simply, meditation is just redirecting the mind’s attention back to the breath. You don’t shame yourself if your thoughts wander. Instead, you acknowledge them and come back to the constant rise and fall of breathing.

I hesitate to make blanket statements of how the results of repeated meditation might manifest. For me, however, meditation has given me this sense that my thoughts and emotions are temporary. It has reminded me that I’m always in control of halting negative thoughts before they spiral to rock bottom.

Think of meditation as brain training. Just like how you can train your body in strength, endurance and flexibility, you can do the same with your brain.

After recommendations from my high school teacher, I started meditating for five minutes a day. Those early sessions were torturous. Sitting still for that short period of time with nothing to distract myself with was actually painful.

However, it got easier. The next week, I upped my time to 10 minutes, then to 15, 20, 25 and 30. By the summer after my junior year, I was meditating for 30 minutes every night before going to sleep. I had a journalism internship that required interviewing people daily, and I found that my heart rate was more steady during these interactions. I doubted myself less and was able to focus on what people were telling me, to truly listen to them.

I felt liberated from the confines of my brain.

Cut to senior year of high school, when I stopped meditating because I wasn’t sure how to balance it with school. Let’s face it, it’s hard to wake up 30 minutes early to meditate when you’re so sleep deprived.

A year passed where I didn’t meditate, and with each passing day, it felt harder to return to the practice.

I’ve had anxiety for a while, but it really jumped out in college. Combined with decision fatigue and constant exposure to new people and new experiences, the steep learning curve related to being on campus really threw me over the edge.

Fall quarter was rough. It was primarily because I was scared to take time for myself. The thought of missing out on events on campus paralyzed me. In hindsight, this really wasn’t productive. Though I may have been at events physically, I wasn’t there in mind and spirit. No matter how hard I tried to tack things onto my schedule, I was still not happy.

I was looking at college all wrong. I didn’t have to add things to my schedule. I had to appreciate the things I was already doing. I decided that in winter, I had to tackle my FOMO head-on.

I signed up for a course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in Parkes Hall. We would meet two and a half hours on Wednesdays and were required to meditate for an hour a day. I was intimidated by the prospect of sitting with myself for that long, scared of what might rise up.

It was difficult at first. I would be sitting on my yoga mat, and my breathing would suddenly get ragged, the thoughts would start chasing one another, and it would feel like I was socked in the gut, tumbling down into nothingness — think of Alice, on her way to Neverland.

However, there is no way to sit in silence for an hour without making peace with your thoughts at some point. It was a gradual, non-linear process. However, I’ve been meditating daily for seven weeks now, and my mental state is significantly better. I still have baby spirals, but I’m able to stop them before hitting rock bottom. Meditation also helps me ground myself in the present.

When I’m in the darkroom for my photography course, I’m actually aware of the soft red light surrounding me and the feel of my knuckles being submerged under icy water when I rinse off my prints. When I’m with friends, I feel like I’m hyper aware of the sound of their laughter and the feel of their hands in mine.

I’m doing things that I love, and I truly feel like I’m getting the most out of them.

Meditation is helping me appreciate the moments I’m in as they occur instead of looking back later and thinking, “Wow, that was neat. Wish my mind was actually in the same place as my body.”

During my meditation retreat, when we took a lunch break and I watched the colored rectangles of light dance and flicker across the stone floor of Alice Millar Chapel, I was transported back to a headspace I haven’t been in since I was a kid — when everything is vibrant and beautiful and you’re perfectly content with sitting where you are now.

Perhaps on a campus where “and” is supposed to be in our DNA, we can reframe the situation. Maybe we can redefine “and” to be that added sense of wonder and fulfillment.