In this first interview with a valued member of our community, Mary Ellen Arndorfer tells us how she started meditating in her early teens before later establishing a regular meditation practice that supported her through various challenging life events.
She shares with us the tools she uses, how she sticks to a regular meditation practice and her tips for getting started.
Read on to hear Mary Ellen’s inspiring meditation story, a story that spans over four decades of life, family, friendship and work.
How did you first come across meditation?
I had two starts at meditating, some 40 years apart.
When I was 13, my father asked my older sister and I to join him in training in Transcendental Meditation (TM) with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. My dad was a career officer in the Air Force, fun and warm, but fairly conservative and ‘respectable’.
I wish I knew what drove him to seek out something like meditation (he is no longer alive). Although, this was late 1970s California and he was going through a divorce from my mother at the time.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) training
I went through the whole TM training and nervously received my secret mantra in the closing ceremony. I was told the mantra would be a mystical word that wouldn’t sound familiar to me. I was told never to reveal it to anyone.
You can imagine my 13-year old confusion and uncertainty when the mantra was a word that I knew.
What? Did I hear that right? I was too intimidated to ask.
So I took my secret mantra home and tried to meditate once a day on the top bunk of the bed I shared with my little sister.
The difficulty of sticking with a meditation practice
My new meditation practice didn’t last long. Maybe a week?
Like many new meditators, I wasn’t sure I was doing it correctly. I wasn’t sure I was benefiting from it. It felt strange and slightly embarrassing.
Undoubtedly I felt guilty for going through the expensive course and not keeping up with it (pretty sure my dad didn’t either, and I know my sister didn’t).
Who or what inspired you to establish a meditation practice?
Some 40 years after learning TM, I was complaining to a friend at a cycling class that I was so sick of the hot flashes I was experiencing around the clock. She was asked if I had tried meditation. ‘I’m so desperate, I’ll try anything!’ I said.
And I did.
I began that very day with the free week-long trial on the Headspace app. I loved how simple and welcoming it was, and that it was guided by a lovely, gentle British voice.
It was the perfect re-introduction to meditating.
Finding the right meditation teacher, delivery style and method
After the week was over, the same gym friend suggested I try a free 21-day online course being offered by Oprah and Deepak Chopra, called Making Every Moment Matter.
The Making Every Moment Matter course introduced me to the basic concept of ‘be here now’, that we really only have right now, not the past, not the present. It spoke to me and tapped into something deep.
Each day’s session consisted of Oprah introducing the topic and speaking for three to four minutes, frequently sharing an interesting personal story or dropping a celebrity’s name.
Next up was Chopra, who spoke for a few minutes on the topic and introduced the Sanskrit mantra for that day before leading you into the unguided meditation. The meditation lasted about 10 minutes, accompanied with gentle background music.
The meditation app that kept me on track
When the Making Every Moment Matter course was over, I tried the 10% Happier app for its free trial period.
I had read both of founder Dan Harris’ books, 10% Happier and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, and loved his no-nonsense, humorous approach to mindfulness.
I enjoyed the 10% Happier app so much that I paid for it after the trial ended and have been using it for almost two years now.
What does a typical meditation session look like for you?
I usually meditate in the late afternoon, when my mental capacity for my workday is exhausted and before I start the family dinner.
I don’t sit in the typical meditation position on a pillow. In warmer months, I like to meditate in the backyard in a hammock or in the sunroom, with its breezes and hummingbirds buzzing nearby. I love that I can hear our backyard fountain from both spots while meditating.
Making meditation part of life
I take a relaxing bath once a week and always start it off with meditation. If we are on a long road trip, I’ll put in my earbuds and meditate right there in the passenger seat, warning my family first.
Some days I forget to meditate, then ‘make’ myself do it as I get into bed, even if it is just a quick five-minute session.
Normally I meditate 10-20 minutes a session, usually with the 10% Happier app. Sometimes I just choose a favourite mantra from the Oprah/Chopra class and use that.
What benefits have you experienced from meditating?
I always joke with my family that they want me to meditate. It definitely takes the edge off the sharper parts of my personality. It makes me calmer, less reactive and just nicer to be around. I listen better. I enjoy the small moments more.
Meditation definitely helps me sleep better. I rarely anymore experience that monkey mind that constantly circulated through my head in the middle of the night, keeping me from falling back asleep.
Meditation as a tool to deal with a fear of public speaking
I recently spoke at a conference in front of 100 women.
I hate speaking in public. I was so glad my talk was the first day of the conference, so I could get it out of the way.
The morning of the talk, everything was delayed for about 45 minutes. Another speaker kept asking me, ‘isn’t this driving you crazy, all these delays?’
I considered her question, then answered, ‘no, I’m actually fine’.
I realised I was breathing deeply and quietly, like I do when I meditate. I realised this was my meditation practice benefiting me, keeping me calm but mindful. I got up and gave my talk and it went great. I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t talk too fast. I actually enjoyed it.
This was a direct result of my meditation and mindfulness practice.
What do you think puts people off starting a meditation practice?
Meditation is definitely a habit you need to cultivate and commit to. On any given day you will always be ‘too busy’ to meditate.
But you have to decide that it’s just as important as eating, taking care of your kids, working out, showing up for work.
I try to remember all the benefits I’m experiencing (and the ones I can’t see, like future brain health as I age). And I remind myself that when I read articles about all the scientific research on meditation and its benefits, I think ‘you gotta be dumb not to meditate’ – it’s just that beneficial.
Setting yourself up for success
I also have a reminder set on my phone that reminds me twice a day, so that if I don’t get to it earlier in the day, it reminds me again.
I also love it when my meditation app (10% Happier) has ‘challenges’, where it prompts you to meditate for 20 days straight, and keeps track of your progress. You can do it along with others – I do it with my sister – and it becomes a light-hearted competition, which definitely helps to build the habit.
What would you say to someone who is considering starting a meditation practice but doesn’t know where to begin?
Definitely undertake some kind of instruction or guidance, whether it’s an app, or class, or meditation teacher. A lot of communities have free daily or weekly meditation gatherings.
It’s important to understand the basics, get your questions answered and continue learning new techniques, to the find the ones that resonate best for you.
Some people expect to experience immediate benefits from a single meditation session or two. So then they are disappointed when it wasn’t a magical or ‘enlightening’ experience.
But it’s the cumulative practice, the habit meditation that creates the benefits.
Meditation isn’t about stopping your thoughts
It drives me crazy when people say ‘I just can’t meditate’ or ‘I can’t get my mind to stop thinking’.
You’re not supposed to stop thinking when you meditate. You’re just supposed to be aware of your thoughts as they come up, in a non-judgemental way. This is why a good app or instruction is important.
I always recommend to beginners to just try meditation for a week, for seven days straight. Try different techniques, different courses, different instructors. Find the right tools that work for you. Commit to a specific time of day. Start with just five minutes, or even one minute.
Anyone can find one minute in their day, for themselves, for their mental health.
How does your meditation journey differ from this one? What benefits have you experienced? We’d love to hear more! Comment below.
Mary Ellen Arndorfer is the primary voice and creative behind CamperGroove.com, an upbeat blog for camping and trailer enthusiasts. She enjoys living a life with many hats, past and present. She has been a CPA in San Francisco, a river guide in Grand Canyon, CFO at a non-profit, and a freelance writer and editor for travel magazines. And of course, partner to her husband and parent to her daughter in their current home in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona, USA.