By the time the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, our stress levels had reached an all-time high.
Like the rest of the world, my wife Brittany and I were concerned about how the pandemic was going to impact our jobs, financial stability and health. But mostly, we struggled with the anxieties of having a baby in the age of Covid-19 (she had just entered her third trimester of pregnancy).
We were tense and anxious. Of course, even the happiest couples bicker and argue from time to time. But this was different. This is a pandemic.
We tried everything we could think of to get our stress under control. We created a consistent morning routine, binged on our favorite Netflix shows, did yoga (although that didn't last very long), cooked dinner, limited our news intake and took evening walks. Still, nothing felt enough.
"Why don't you try meditating together?" a friend suggested.
I laughed at the thought of it. "I don't meditate," I said. "I don't have time for that. Meditating doesn't pay the bills."
"If Bill Gates can find the time to meditate, what's your excuse?" He sent a link to a 2018 blog post from the Microsoft co-founder.
"I [used to think] of meditation as a woo-woo thing tied somehow to reincarnation, and I didn't buy into it," Gates wrote. "But I now meditate two or three times a week, for about 10 minutes each time. Melinda meditates too. Sometimes we sit to meditate together."
He continued: "It's about taking a few minutes out of my day, learning how to pay attention to the thoughts in my head, and gaining a little bit of distance from them."
OK, I decided. What's the harm in trying?
After convincing my wife to try it with me, I started looked into some meditation guides. Sattva is catered to those looking to get in touch with the history of meditation. Ensō was too advanced. The amount of options were endless.
We finally chose to go with Headspace, an app co-founded by Andy Puddicombe — the meditation expert who Gates says turned him "from skeptic to believer." Headspace was offering a collection of meditation guides, called "Weathering the Storm," online for free to help relieve coronavirus-related stress.
Meditating for the first time is not easy.
"Take some time to get comfortable, whether you're sitting up or lying down. We're going to start with the eyes open," a gentle voice from the guided audio began. "Take in the space around you, no matter what's been going on, or no matter what your mind has been stressed with...."
I quickly found myself getting tired and nodding off. It was only 9 a.m. Our dog Henry kept tiptoeing around us, inspecting the situation. I peeked at the timer: It's only been two minutes?! Meanwhile, Brittany was fidgeting every few seconds, trying to find a comfortable lotus position.
"Maybe I'll lay down," she said. I kept getting bothered by the noises; it felt impossible to concentrate.
"What should we make for dinner?" she asked. To which I replied, "How about pasta?"
"We have some ground turkey in the freezer," she said. "I'll go defrost it." She got up and made her way to the kitchen.
Day one didn't turn out so great, but we were determined to try it for at least a week: 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes before bedtime.
We had the same experience for the next few days, dozing off and getting distracted. But, on the seventh day, we actually made it through an entire 10 minutes without anyone breaking the silence or giving up.
Reflecting on my current mental state one evening, I decided that there wasn't a huge difference — except for the fact that I sometimes found myself dreading our early sessions. On the bright side, we were no longer starting our mornings with the sound of depressing news on TV. That was a nice change.
Nine days in, Brittany decided that morning meditations just weren't for her. "I'll join you for the evening sessions," she said.
"I understand," I said. We were both surprised by my reaction. Two weeks ago, I probably would have thrown a fit, insisting that we stay consistent with the experiment and do it together, as a team.
But it made no sense to force things. Plus, I learned to enjoy the alone time. A few other changes that helped:
- Meditating earlier. Instead of meditating at around 10 a.m., I now start at 6:30 a.m. The house is much quieter, making it easier to stay focused and present.
- Having a "meditation" spot. Those who have been doing this for years can probably meditate on a crowded train. But for beginners like myself, finding a designated space helps me ease into the practice much faster. It doesn't need to be your own private room — just any calm corner that has appropriate lighting and little traffic.
- Using noise-cancelling headphones (when I meditate alone). Even with the door shut, there's nothing I can do about sounds coming from outside, whether it's the garbage truck or Henry being curious and sniffing through the door cracks. Listening to the guided practice through headphones, rather than the laptop speakers, helps with concentration.
- Breathing together. When Brittany and I meditate together, we spend the first few minutes easing into the practice. Then, we slowly synchronize our breathing with each other's. It creates a very powerful feeling of connection.
- Not being hard on myself if I don't get through an entire session. On some days, my mind simply refuses to sit still. But getting frustrated or forcing myself to power through the full 10 minutes only creates more stress and pressure. Twenty minutes of meditation a day isn't easy, and patience is the key to getting there.
During such an unprecedented time, stress on the body and mind is inevitable. Luckily, there are enormous restorative and healing powers in meditating. Studies have found that it can lead to benefits such as strengthening relationships and improving mental health.
After three weeks of meditating, Brittany and I have noticed a significant difference in our moods, interactions and ability to focus.
Not only are we much more productive with our own work, but we're also learning how to have empathetic conversations with each other. Because we're more relaxed than usual, we've found it easier to express our emotions without feeling overwhelmed.
In fact, we've found comfort and peace in talking about and listening to each other's stresses and concerns. Instead of personal attacks, we focus on finding resolutions.
I won't try to sugarcoat anything; it's unlikely that meditation will solve all your problems. However, I can truly say that it's helped me become a better husband, friend and family member, which makes me more confident about being a father this summer, when our first baby is due.
Instead of letting the anxieties and uncertainties take over, I now step back and just breathe. Inhale, exhale. My new favorite mantra is, "Focus on the things within my control."
Tom Popomaronis is a leadership researcher, commerce expert, cross-industry innovation leader and VP of Innovation at Massive Alliance. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Inc. and The Washington Post. In 2014, Tom was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal. Follow him on LinkedIn.
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