I started meditating at 21 years old in the summer of 2017. I might have tried it once or twice before, but I really didn’t know anything about it other than that monks did it in movies. While at Pitt, every month or so, we would have team building meetings (shout out Penny, Dr. Conte and Lusaka). This is where I first meditated for real. A timer would be set for 2 minutes and we were instructed to sit upright, eyes closed and just watch the thoughts as they passed through your mind. The potential benefits were increased focus, better decision-making, less dwelling on mistakes, all things that would give anyone an edge while playing a sport at a high level. To be honest, I was interested in it, but it didn’t really stick.
Fast forward a few months and I was having my first real run in with anxiety mixed with some traits of OCD. A back injury had put me on the couch for a few weeks. I’d never had so much time to spend with my thoughts before. I won’t go into too much detail, but if you’ve ever been there before, you know what I mean. When stuck in those loops, I looked for just about anything to get out of it. I would spend hours googling causes of ruminating thoughts only to just freak myself out even more. I wouldn’t recommend it.
One of the major themes of these loops was questioning whether or not I still had the passion for the stuff I liked to do i.e. soccer, lifting, etc. It seems almost ridiculous, but with so much time off and not having done anything in so long, I would wonder if when I got back, I’d still enjoy it. It turned into a full-blown identity crisis. From there I would end up at the thought of why I ever enjoyed it at all and because of my mind being stuck, that question would just repeat, no matter what kind of answer I gave. This led to thinking that I didn’t have an answer. It was terrifying because those things made up so much of who I was, and did I just out of no-where lose my passion for them? The answer is no, but it took me a while to figure out what was going on.
Around this time, I started listening to a podcast that I still listen to today called Barbell Shrugged. Barbell Shrugged covers everything from CrossFit and weightlifting to the benefits of red-light therapy. One day, I decided to listen to the episode with Bradley Martyn as a special guest. I knew Bradley Martyn from YouTube. He’s an absolute beast of a person who has gone viral with several videos. In one of these videos, he squats 405 for multiple reps while standing on a hoverboard, but there is way more to who Bradley Martyn is than just viral videos.
This episode still continues to be one of my favorites of all time. Bradley talks about how meditation has become really important to him. He says that meditation can be anything that gets him out of his head, be it exercise or watching his breath. In this line of conversation, the book Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal was mentioned. I bought it days later and I cannot recommend it enough. Some reviews include, “A user manual for hacking your brain to dive high performance” and “A manual to getting more: out of your body, your mind, and your happiness.”
A large portion of the book is centered around flow states. A flow state, otherwise known as being “in the zone,” is when a person is fully immersed in an activity. When in flow, focus and attention is heightened and mental chatter is silenced. Everyone has experienced a flow state at some point in their lifetime. Flow states are often achieved in athletics. Meditation can be an important catalyst for accessing flow. In some way or another, flow is what we are all after.
In the late fall of 2019 during the national tournament run with West Chester, I started experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety that I had never had before. I remember prior to the Elite 8 game against Adelphi at Hofstra University, we were given a dance studio as our locker room. I don’t think anyone knew it at the time, but my heart was pounding, my mind was racing and I could barely breath. The second I crossed the touchline and the whistle blew, everything disappeared, and I was locked in for 90 minutes. This happened in the next two games during the Final Four too. I had accessed the flow state. Ever since, I’ve wondered if my experience with mediation helped with the quick transition from a place of anxiety to one of focus and attention so quickly.
Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, one of the largest meditation apps in the world, has said that mediation nourishes the mind the way food nourishes the body. It can be pretty easy to get stuck on autopilot and forget to check in with your mind every now and then. If you want to get as much as you can out of life, you need to make sure everything is in order, starting with your mind.
There is a lot to learn when it comes to how your mind works. When I first started meditating, I was confused a lot of the time. I remember thinking, if I am supposed to stay present as often as possible, then how do I plan for the future? A valid question. Staying present doesn’t mean you can’t plan for the future. What it does mean is that you shouldn’t get lost in thoughts of the future and forget about what is happening in the current moment.
I can’t recommend meditation enough. Start slow, two to five minutes at a time. It can give you a great understanding of how your own mind works if you let it. Mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. You can squat 500 for reps and do 30 strict pull ups, but if you don’t sort out what’s going on in your head, what is all of that really worth?