How—and Where—I Finally Learned to Meditate

Hint: it wasn't on dry land

woman snorkeling in the Maldives

Eyes on Asia

The first time I tried to meditate, it felt like I was drowning.

As I followed the instructor's mindful breathing exercises—slowly breathing in through the nose and releasing out through the mouth—I wondered if anyone else felt like their lungs were going to explode. Did anyone else feel like the air was tripping over itself inside their lungs? Did anyone else feel like there was no more oxygen left in the room?

Anyone else feel like they were drowning on dry land?

Air hunger is what they call it when your body feels like it's not getting enough oxygen, even though you're taking in full breaths—and, no, it's not customary in meditation. For whatever reason, for me, trying to control my breath, or even focusing on it, flips the air hunger switch. It's almost as if as soon as I become mindful of my breathing, my autonomic nervous system panics and goes haywire.

This only had to happen a handful of times before I stopped trying to fight it (or force it). Much of meditation is centered around breathing and being aware of your breath, but rather than throwing in the towel completely, I decided to fake it. Why not? Everyone's eyes are closed, anyway.

After I finally cleared the hurdle of mindful breathing (or walked around it), another challenge revealed itself: my mind.

On the outside, I sat still as crystal, cross-legged, the backs of my wrists resting against my knees, middle finger and thumb pinched together—inside, it was a wild goose chase. Whether in a fancy spa in Miami, at a holistic retreat in Bali, at home in Florida with my mom, or at the end of a yoga class in NYC, my mind's itchy feet would always take off running somewhere else.

One word would set off a chain reaction of thoughts. I could travel from my happy place on a beach to visualizing a klutzy penguin bouncing its way down a rocky cliff to wondering whatever happened to that annoying girl Stephanie from kindergarten or if that guy still has that chair he bought from me off Craigslist in 2004. To weave straw into gold, I'd attempt some semblance of structure by retracing my steps as far back as possible. But, as they say, nothing gold can stay.

I've lived most of my life near a beach, though I never really noticed. Meaning, of course, I've taken it for granted. I grew up on the Gulf of Mexico, where warm water was almost guaranteed year-round. It's like walking into a bath. The memories that play back in my mind are primarily tactile—the cloudy saltiness of the water; the way the water surrounds you in a gentle hug; the way the waves gently tossed my body as I swam underwater; the far-away silence.

Even as a kid, I remember loving being under the water—not on top or next to it but under. No fish? No problem. They're lovely to look at, but I'm here mainly because of the ocean. Pools are great, but just don't cut it. There's just something special about being in the sea.

There's a saying that "salt water heals everything." Minerals in the water are said to help reduce inflammation and promote relaxation; the salinity aids wound healing and just looking at the ocean releases feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin.

Snorkeling has always been a favorite vacation activity for me, even if there's not much to look at. As much as I loathe strapping on the mask and chomping down on the bit of a snorkel, it's hard to be the feeling the moment you slip under the lip of the sea, and everything goes quiet as you become enveloped in a different world.

My breath takes a few shocked gasps to get into the rhythm of breathing through a snorkel, eventually submissing into a hollow sound that becomes so repetitive in my ear that it disappears along with my heartbeat. Life's stresses dissolve off my shoulders after a minute or so. My thoughts stop flooding and start floating.

Hello, it's just me, floating underwater.

I feel the most present underwater in the ocean. I'm everywhere and nowhere in time. It's an all-encompassing experience and the only thing that exists. I rarely want to leave. I get annoyed when someone swims into view, breaking the fourth wall of my serenity.

I imagine this is what my mother felt whenever I impatiently knocked on her door with an unimportant question while she was floating in her own slice of serenity via the chair in the corner of her room.

Unable to control my breath or quiet my mind on land, I didn't get it then. But suspended in the cradling arms of the ocean, I've started to understand. Looking back at my meditation journey, struggle, compromise—whatever you want to call it—I can finally see that I was chasing a wild goose when I've been a penguin all along.