March is typically a stressful time in Austin, but not usually quite like this.
Trying to simultaneously plan for the city’s biggest economic and cultural event and brace for its sudden cancellation made for a particularly intense start to the month, and now it’s likely that we’ll be spending the rest of the month in uncertainty about what’s ahead – economically and epidemiologically.
It’s the kind of unease that makes me endlessly refresh my Twitter feed or harp on my kids for not washing their hands enough. I don’t usually identify as an anxious person, but when such big parts of the world around me start to shift, I feel it in my stomach and my shoulders. My conversations with friends flow a little less freely. I ruminate, chewing on thoughts that start out as healthy attempts to inform myself and be prepared for any number of possible situations but slip into future-casting and, if left unchecked, catastrophizing.
So, I decided to take a walk. Not just any walk. A guided meditation walk with audio from Murray Hidary. He’s a Los Angeles-based composer and concert pianist who has started a company called MindTravel, which distributes audio intended for people to listen to while they take a walk in the woods or on the beach or, in my case, the hike-and-bike trail.
Hidary also leads group excursions and is in the middle of a cross-country tour that swings through Texas this week. His two Austin events are taking place as scheduled: a free SilentWalk at 6:30 p.m. March 12 at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and a SilentPaddle at 5:30 p.m. March 15 that will take place on Lady Bird Lake in kayaks that guests can rent, starting at $45, from the dock. At each of these events, attendees will wear headphones to experience the audio individually, but in a group setting. (He’s also hosting events on March 10 in Galveston, March 11 in San Antonio and March 16 in Dallas. Tickets and more information about these events are available at mindtravel.com/experiences.)
With the SXSW uncertainty hitting its peak, I decided to download a 30-minute audio experience from the website and hit the trail outside my office. Hidary also sells audio for a number of other everyday experiences, including traveling and sleeping, that start at $27. Once you download the MindTravel audio, it is stored on your phone to use as many times as you’d like.
I walked out of the office and pressed play on my phone. Walking through the parking lot with sunshine on my face, new age sounds and Hidary’s steady voice immediately calmed my nerves, encouraging me to think about the gratitude I have for my body and my breath and instructing me to start walking at a relatively brisk pace to get into the rhythm of the movement and put the busyness of my life behind me, just for the moment.
I’ve listened to a number of guided meditations, but this was the first one that incorporated walking into the process. Hidary’s voice moved at the pace that I was walking, first at a regular pace and then, at his cue, slowing down to an abnormally slow pace that required me to slow down my thoughts, too.
"With each step, you’re here. And here. Here. Each step, its own arrival," he said slowly, his voice filling my ears and helping my brain focus on my breath. I could feel the expansion of my lungs, but also my patience and my carrying capacity. He prompted me to look around and notice what was happening in real time, not in the past or in the future.
I was walking on the boardwalk over Lady Bird Lake with a full view of downtown Austin, a skyline that feels immutable and always changing at the same time. Brief thoughts of what was happening inside and in between all those buildings crept into my head, but with the next breath, I was thinking about the leaves floating in the water below my feet.
With his soothing solo piano notes in the background, Hidary was talking about a river as a metaphor for the journey of life, never the same from moment to moment, but always there, in some form or another, and always emptying out into the great ocean. Sometimes the waters are calm, and sometimes they are turbulent, but there is stillness in the movement.
"Whatever is happening on the surface of the sea, if the winds pick up and the waves grew larger, even in the roughest of seas, as the storm rages above, feeling tossed this way and that, feeling out of control, no matter how rough it gets, just below the surface, not far below, it’s calm," he said. "That place is always available to us."
As a longtime student of yoga, meditation and general spiritual studies, none of these ideas were new, but even after all these years, I’m amazed at how quickly I can forget about my own ability to self-calm when things get particularly stressful or out of my control. Hidary has spent years studying the use of music and silence in Zen Buddhism, and although there’s no silence during this particular meditation, I was settling into a hyperpresent state while hearing his voice and music.
"Our state is our choice," he said. "How we react is our choice. We don’t have to wait until everything around us is calm to feel calm. It comes from within. We choose."
The never-ending scroll of thoughts in my mind had subsided. I felt more space in my mind, but also in my shoulders. Hidary asked me to stop walking for a moment. By this point, I hadn’t traveled very far along the trail, but I found myself miles from where I started. This hyperpresent state allowed me to reconnect with a sense of loving detachment from everything that is outside of this moment, this next breath. My tennis shoes on the boardwalk felt like roots growing into the ground, but my chest felt light. My heart rate was steady. The adrenaline of the day no longer consumed me, and I was no longer chasing it, either. My eyes closed and the repetitive notes of Hidary’s fingers on his piano helped me feel like I was deeply inside my own consciousness while also watching myself from somewhere outside my body.
Every kind of meditation practice I’ve tried has helped me learn how to feel my feelings without feeling overwhelmed by them, and this particular audio experience was just the reminder I needed that I have more control over my emotions than I think I do, particularly when I’m busy feeding them sugar and caffeine and the dopamine that comes from staying so connected to drama.
There’s plenty of science to back up the idea that meditation and mindfulness can help boost your immune system, and for me, it’s a coping strategy so I can feel better rather than make myself sick with worry or by worrying.
As we are all thinking about self-care strategies right now – getting enough sleep and hand-washing among them – it’s helpful for me to remember that taking care of my mental state should also be on that list. Sometimes, that means simply unplugging and taking a walk.