The 28-Day Meditation Challenge: Can Focusing On Breathing Change Your Life?

I am the opposite of new-agey. I have only gone to a psychic once, in New Orleans, and tuned out immediately when it was obvious that homegirl had no idea what she was talking about. I have never been very interested in horoscopes, mostly because the attributes ascribed to my sign, Taurus—stubborn, down-to-earth, bullheaded—never seemed particularly embraceable. And neither Madonna’s biceps nor all my friends who adore it have been able to convince me to try yoga—mostly because my parents are devotees (in fact, my dad quit his job as a stockbroker to teach yoga) and whatever your parents do just isn’t cool. So when Sharon Salzberg, a friend of a friend and a meditation teacher for more than 30 years, asked me to be part of the 28-day meditation challenge outlined in her new book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, for the month of February, I wanted to run. Like, fast. But I didn’t. Lately, I’ve been feeling the need for some kind of change. Not for any particular reason—just recently, I find myself getting stressed over things I can’t really control and I’ve been feeling a lot of muscle soreness, particularly in my back, that I just can’t seem to get rid of. And please don’t tell Amelia [I won’t! Oh wait… — Editor], but I’ve definitely been feeling like I’ve been writing and editing slightly less efficiently at work.

So Sunday, I read the first chapters in the book to find out what I was getting myself into. Week one is all about training concentration on the in and out of our breath with three 20-minute mediation sessions. I grabbed a floor pillow and put it in the new “meditation corner” of my apartment. And I decided that I wanted to meditate in the evening, right as I finished up work, to clear my mind for the rest of the night.

Fast forward to last night, when I finished work. All of a sudden I felt nervous. Was I really going to sit and do nothing for 20 minutes? I already feel like I have 30 hours worth of things I want/need to cram into the 24 allotted in a day. And can I really sit completely still for 20 minutes paying attention to nothing but my breath?

As I started the session—along to a CD that comes with the book—I took several deep breaths. I was surprised to find how tight I felt through my upper chest—a feeling I’ve only noticed before when I get emotional and am about to cry. I decided to focus on opening up there as I breathed in and out. Sharon made it very clear that while in a session, thoughts would pop up. She stressed that it wasn’t about thinking nothing, but about noticing when you’ve been distracted and letting the thought go—be it a bad one or a good one—without judging yourself. That, for me, was easy.

What was much harder was tuning out all the sounds and happenings around me. For that 20 minutes, my apartment has never sounded louder. The steam heat kicked into gear, making a low-grade hissing noise that I usually don’t notice, but all of a sudden was deafening. Even worse—the fact that my neighbor was watching “Jeopardy” and I could hear almost every word. I heard creaky footsteps coming from the apartment above. And my cat was seriously irked by the fact that I wasn’t paying any attention to her—she started meowing hysterically and at one point, even jumped on my head.

For each and every distraction, as soon as I registered it, I just tried to shift my focus back to my breath. And it wasn’t that hard. What felt like five minutes into the session, my legs went numb, but even that couldn’t distract me. Next thing I know, the voice on the CD was telling me to open my eyes and that the session was done.

Standing up, I felt pins and needles all through my legs. But I also felt exceptionally light. The tightness in my chest was gone and I felt energized enough to take a walk before proceeding over to a friend’s house for dinner.

So I’m thinking, maybe there is something to this. Stay tuned to see how the next four weeks go.