Recently, I attended meditation class (late of course) and was pretty frustrated with my practice. I didn’t feel calm, or clear minded and I couldn’t get into any sort of “flow.” I was focused on the person snoring behind me, how sore my back was, and how much homework I had to do once it was over. After the practice ended, I felt relieved, and not because I had a successful session, but because I could get on to the next task for the night.

It wasn’t until someone in the room spoke up, and recognized this same feeling, of disordered thoughts and chaos, that I realized meditation isn’t supposed to be relaxing.

“The goal of meditation isn’t to control your thoughts, it’s to stop letting them control you.”

But here I was, trying to be the antithesis of that Duke kid, going to meditation club instead of 4th floor Perkins, and I caught myself feeling rushed, neurotic and presently, un-present.

However, I think that recognition, that feeling of knowing I wasn’t calm – was what actually saved my practice. Once I realized it’s okay to not be okay and to not feel relaxed, was when I actually entered the present moment and was with my thoughts.

“Focus attention on the feeling inside you, accept that it is there. Don’t think about it. Don’t let the feeling turn into thinking…judgment or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it.” ― Eckhart Tolle

Meditation is not a check in the box, or another club to attend. It’s the deliberate practice of slowing down and checking in with myself, rather than checking off.

So rather than checking off the box that’s color coded on my Google calendar saying “Mediation Club,” it was time for me to step foot inside the box and see what I found.

Finish your homework after this, and keep your GPA up… answer your emails because they might set you up with that internship… call mom because you forgot you needed something… (but thank her for the banana bread), and decide between dinner with a new friend, versus the one you know will always be around…. 

Suddenlymeditation club felt like another “to-do.”

I think sometimes, we fall victim to a transactional lifestyle. We view things by a cost-benefit analysis and if something doesn’t serve us, we shy away from doing it. And meditation club was definitely not serving me well that night when I felt like a thousand other things were going on.

However, the student’s comment made me think about the things I do where I don’t get any sort of immediate gratification from. I run a lot. I run on the team at Duke, and while I get all sorts of perks like Nike athlete gear, notoriety and free trips to travel, it isn’t something I do to just get something out of.

A lot of the time, (most mornings at 7:30), it’s really hard. I usually don’t feel good running and constantly battle negative thoughts or how much I want to stop and the pressure of being good enough. But sometimes, I feel euphoric and get into a certain state of flow that makes me feel invincible. When my positive self talk outweighs the inner thoughts to slow down, running becomes a powerful tool to express myself fully and I love exploring deeper into the potential of how good I can be… how much I can push myself… testing how much my body can handle…  

That’s the reason why I love to race.

But just because running is a tool, a guaranteed way to stay “healthy” and can make me feel like I’m suspended in time, it’s not the reason why I do it. Just like in meditation, it’s supposed to “relax” me, but I need to constantly remember that relaxation is not why I practice.

“The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

If I get too caught up in outcomes, versus process, I will never be happy in the here and the now, because I’m always waiting for when it’s over.  If I’m always living in the future, I’m not really living. I’m too caught up expecting and awaiting. But that’s where the chaos, anxiety and disruptive thoughts come in. The future is never really here, it’s just a concept of the mind, so of course it’s is bound to cause disorder when it hasn’t arrived.

I don’t run to feel good. I don’t meditate to relax. And sometimes, I get those outcomes, but if I’m too focused on getting something out of either one of those tasks, I fall victim to a mindless and consumption based lifestyle, and forget why I’m doing either of them. But that’s exactly why I love meditation and why I love running.

Because they are two things I can’t buy.  They aren’t a transaction I can just swipe to feel good (like my online shopping impulses, routine morning coffee trips or delving into a bag of dark chocolate covered pretzels after a long day).

Rather, both practices exercise presence, and while mediation is my mental exercise, running is my physical.  Everyday is an opportunity to practice presence a bit more, so if I can translate these lessons to my relationships with others, and the world around me, that’s kind of the meaning of all this, right?