THE BLOG
12/10/2014 10:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Happy Dance -- Meditation Can Be Whatever Works for You

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On a cool, crisp morning just before breakfast, I pull on a jacket and walk outside to my favorite spot in our yard, a small garden shaded by a dogwood and a live oak. After a few warm-up exercises, I begin swinging my arms and hips in a rhythm I call the Happy Dance.

Swing, pivot, swing, pivot. The exact movements aren't important. All that matters is that they are driven by something deep inside me, a gratitude that can't be quashed.

Most of the day my mind is like a runaway train, crammed with thoughts from the instant I wake to the moment I fall asleep -- and then dreams take the place of the thoughts. To-do lists, shouldn't haves, ought to's and, in better times, hopes, desires, dreams.

For far too much of my life these ceaseless whispers have brought me dissatisfaction and even misery. Occasionally they yield happiness, but it's tinctured by smugness and a strong attachment to the roles defined for me by society.

Quieting my mind for even a few minutes leaves me feeling peaceful and more open to whatever life happens to throw at me. Just as important, it sharpens my desire to help others by making me more accepting of their needs and ideas. It's impossible to concentrate on someone else with a torrent of thoughts flowing through your brain. To really engage in service, you've got to make your mind shut up.

But how? I've tried meditation with limited success. I'm too revved up to sit and breathe. I want to move, go, do, give action to what lives inside me. As my husband says, I'm more like a dog than a laid-back cat. Let me out to run and play, and I'll be happy.

Our son, Reid, was much the same way. His first grade teacher told us that when given an assignment, he'd push back his chair, stand up, and bend over his desk, bouncing a little on his feet as he thought and wrote.

Later Reid showed me the series of swinging movements he called the happy dance. I think it was his version of the ecstatic foot-pattering movement Snoopy used to do in the Charlie Brown cartoons, the one where he quips, "I've got to start acting more sensibly -- tomorrow!"

Some months after Reid's death, grasping for a way to ease my pain, I tried doing his happy dance beneath the oak and dogwood in our yard, and found my own brand of meditation. The Buddhists have long extolled moving meditations. The form I've seen most often consists of carefully placing one foot in front of the other. Way too static for me.

So I dance instead. Swing, pivot, swing, pivot. On most mornings I begin by letting thoughts run through me, doing nothing to banish them. Not yet. As I move, I begin to notice the beauty around me. This lasts only for a moment or two, but it's enough. The cascade of ideas is plugged; I take in a breath with a clear, quiet mind. Ideas crowd back in, clamoring for my attention. Lately these have been especially insistent. How will my mother cope, now that my father's passed on? Will she be okay?

Ssshhh. I let that idea go floating off, like a balloon I've released from my grip. I gaze at the clouds, the fallen leaves, the groove of bright green lichen in the trunk of that pine. I take a sip of the peace. This is great; I'm doing it. I can manage this. Cool! Ah, no, I'm thinking again. Ssshhh. As I move, I count silently to 20, over and over, which helps silence my thoughts.

Look and count. Breathe. Sip the peace. On the best days I feel the bounds of my body dissolve a little, and I become part of all that surrounds me. Swing, pivot. A bird flies overhead. Oh, I've got to call and make that appointment -- Ssshhh -- let that idea go.

It always takes longer than I intend. But these are some of the most precious moments of my life. I breathe and count, mute, and let my gaze travel where it will. And when I manage to think of nothing for a few seconds, I relax and hold the feeling close, and I keep dancing. The stillness comes and drifts away. I draw it closer; I hold it longer; I revel in its silkiness. Like water from the freshest spring. And when I've drunk in enough of it, at least for now, I slow my movements, breathe in and out a few times, and reenter the tangible world.