We can't put our phones down, but we can do This
Today is the last day of May; a month promising flowers, the first flush of spring, and mental health awareness. Anita Cheung founded Moment Meditation with a mission to shape meditation in a 21st century world - A world where (don't hate me for the most cliché sentence I'll ever write) our phones refresh according to a strategic algorithm that's designed to make us addicted, and putting our phones away at dinner is a more meaningful gesture than a declaration of love. We get that at this point, tech is as woven into our lives as our DNA, but this caliber of stress is not sustainable - we have to do better. Anita, woke on this, established Moment Meditation to make mindfulness less intimidating for those who have never set foot in a meditation studio. Irving Chong talks to her, here.
Irving: If you look through [Moment's] website, or at your previous venture Social Yoga, [your philosophy is] not just meditation or just yoga. You seem to take these things and incorporate them into someone's life to enhance it, not to be this separate chunk.
Anita: Yeah, I'm really passionate about debunking the myth that you have to be a certain way to be a meditator or to be a yogi. We can all weave this into our lives, in simple ways - it doesn't have to be your everything, but [it can be] one component.
Irving: I feel like meditation has a heightened importance in our world today because we suck at just sitting with ourselves or disconnecting from our phones. We never have to feel like we're alone, which is good and bad.
Anita: It's nice to feel that you always have a community around you but then there is value in being by yourself and being still and with your thoughts.
Irving: We talked a bit before about how our generation was never really taught how to do this, but schools today are incorporating mindfulness workshops and meditation classes in their day to day.
Anita: I like to say that the kids are alright, they're doing okay. The first off-site group that reached out to us were a group of teens because they wanted mindfulness in their school. I think a lot of kids get it...it's this in between group, mid-ish 20's to 50 that have never had this education though, on how to be by yourself, with your thoughts.
Irving: Would you lump this in with the type of person who gets mad at millennials, who might say, "Back in my day, we didn't have all these people being diagnosed with this and that."
Anita: I think it's the "work hard and suffer for it" train of thought. I've come to realize that suffering is, for the most part, self-inflicted in the world that we live in, in this privileged westernized world.
Irving: We're the 1% of all the people who live in the world.
Anita: Right. We Westerners love suffering, we love to make ourselves suffer, we love to talk about busy we are, how terrible our job is. It's a type of social currency to use in conversations.
Irving: We always need to appear busier than we actually are.
Anita: Exactly, so if you're the person who says that they're happy and chill...
Irving: The response would be, "What's wrong with you? This must mean you're not doing anything."
Anita: Yes! I was listening to this podcast yesterday called "Hidden Brain" and they compared Italians with Americans. For Americans, the idea of success is to someone who works the hardest. For Italians, the idea of success is to be the person who doesn't have to work. I thought it was interesting, how this self-inflicted stress is a very North American way of looking at things.
Irving: On your website, you share people’s personal stories with their mental health and the issues they're struggling with. One re-occuring theme is the concept of this mask...you'd never know they were struggling with mental health by interacting with them, they've perfected putting on a face for the world to see.
Anita: Exactly...I don't know about you, but I grew up watching those Xanax commercials with the little blob that was always sad and would blop around with this little cloud over its head. Seeing that, I remember thinking "that's what depression is."
Irving: A little cloud following you around, wherever you go.
Anita: For some people that's what it is. In my case and other people who I've talked to, especially those with anxiety, you're fully functioning, you're out, you're working, maybe you aren't happy...but you get really good at pretending.
Irving: We can convince ourselves that everything is fine or that this feeling will pass or I need to do this or get this done then I'll be good.
Anita: Yes, totally. You don't really know somebody until you actually know them, you know?
Irving: But going off that, how do we normalize talking about mental health? How to we get people comfortable in having these discussions daily?
Anita: That's hard. This was one of the questions we asked our class last week when we had for our Meditate on Mental Health Event. The biggest thing that came up was being open about your story with your friends. They're the last people you should feel like you need to hide things from. I know with my group of friends we've gotten to the point where someone can just say they're having a shitty day, they're feeling low, or having a bad mental health day. When they open up, we know we can rally around and support them. It takes open communication and true commitment to have that in any type of relationship.
Irving: Getting this level of rapport with someone takes a long time.
Anita: It definitely takes time and work and a certain level of vulnerability as well because that's what fosters relationships.
Irving: Our culture sucks at being vulnerable. We don't even like to admit when we're wrong.
Anita: Yeah, oh my gosh. When you say culture, I think specifically of my Chinese/Asian-Canadian culture. It's very bad at admitting fault.
Irving: When I was growing up I felt like if I ever did anything wrong it would go on this permanent record for the rest of my life.
Irving: And my mom would never forget anything. If I didn't do something properly then I couldn't do it or even learn how to for the rest of my life.
Anita: Yeah, it becomes this permanent state. I was telling [my boyfriend] the other day that I don't think I've ever heard my parents ever say, "sorry." There's never an admittance of being wrong, or of feeling weak or anything like that. We learn from our parents, and then adulthood, I think, is this time of relearning and rebuilding ourselves.
Irving: I don't see it as much as relearning. I see it as finding a different way to do things, there's more than one path. I find it funny because with Asian parents, it's hard to talk to them about stuff.
Anita: Oh yeah.
Irving: But then my parents, both my Mom and Dad, tell me that I can always ask them for help. Which is weird because...I mean, I never practiced how to.
Anita: "We never practiced" is a good way of putting it.
Irving: How do we break down this stereotype of what a "depressed" person looks like? Specifically in how they're portrayed in pop culture and discussed in media?
Anita: It needs to be more visible, and it's not a job for one person. I think, if everyone does their part in being a little more honest, open, you will begin to see that [depression] takes many different forms and impacts all kind of people in many different ways. There isn't one standard case...it shows up differently depending on who you are. The more we show this, the better things will get.
Irving: You wrote a post for the journal discussing how you found meditation and how it saved your life. How?
Anita: The thing I always come back to is this sense of having quality time with myself. I can just sit and take the time to notice my thoughts and notice how crazy, in one sense they're irrational, or how amusing they are sometimes, like "oh weird why would I think about that?" I began learning how to separate my thoughts from myself, and recognize that they aren't always true. I think before [meditation], my thoughts pulled me in so many different directions. I would be having a good day because something good happened and it would pull me in that direction, and something bad would happen, and I'd be jerked back. Sometimes we use this analogy that your mind is like a wild horse. Our job with meditation is to tame it, but not to the point where it's subdued and a lazy horse...to the point where you're in control, instead of at its whim.
Irving: My favourite university professor ran meditation exercises in class. He would always tell us to focus on finding that pause between thoughts. He told us that if a thought came, not to panic and start thinking...he wanted us to let the thought come, accept it, and let it go. I remember this was the first time I practised mediation. It was nice but I could feel myself not wanting to sit still. This is still a problem for me. I feel like some people who want to try meditation, think they need to sit still, by themselves for twenty minutes.
Anita: That's what people think when they think of meditation. A formal meditation is seated, can be done alone or with other people. It doesn't have to be twenty minutes; it can be five, ten, whatever. There are other ways to weave mindfulness into your life, like how athletes or musicians talk about being in a flow state during a performance. There are meditative activities like knitting or colouring...there's different ways for people to access the same state.
Irving: And if you've never practiced meditation, sitting with yourself for twenty minutes is probably not going to work, right?
Anita: You're not going to go from being a couch potato to finishing a marathon in one go. We have to ease ourselves in. Even if you go from being a couch potato to running a 10K, it's probably going to hurt. It's going to hurt and suck and you're going to think you're not good at it but it doesn't mean you can't do it. It's the same thing with meditation. In any other aspect of life we're nice to ourselves because we recognize that it takes time to learn something new. Someone said this the other day, "It's funny, the two things that people think they should be good at is sitting still and relationships." Both of these things you're not born being good at. You learn them.
Stay tuned for Part II, going live this Friday.