I’ve been buzzed since I was a kid. More accurately — buzzing. Like a bee, from one thing to another. I could never sit still. Still can’t. When I was a kid, I drove my mom crazy. “Why don’t you just light somewhere?” she’d yell, exasperated. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized she meant, sit down already!
At age 47, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Finally, I had an explanation for the constant buzzing in both my body and my mind. It’s no wonder I could never do sitting meditation. Sitting still, even for a moment, drove me nuts. My body wants to move, constantly. My mind, even more so – which is why I sought out a meditation practice in the first place.
In the course of learning more about ADHD (also known as ADD), I learned that I’m not the only ADHDer who has trouble meditating. Through an informal survey of my ADHD friends and acquaintances, I’ve found that nearly every person I know with ADHD has tried, at one point or another, to meditate. And most people I’ve spoken with have had to make up their own kind of meditation (good thing we’re naturally creative!). A lot of us just have a tough time sitting still.
Best-selling author Gabor Maté, M.D., from Vancouver, British Columbia, says, “The ADD mind is most uncomfortable with meditation, is intensely bored with it.” And he should know. Maté, who wrote Scattered Minds: A New Look At The Origins And Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder, was himself diagnosed at age 51.
We’ve all experienced boredom on occasion. But, according to Pete Quily, another Vancouverite who has coached ADHDers for over six years, “Boredom is like kryptonite to someone with ADHD.” No wonder a lot of us find sitting meditation about as attractive as having our fingernails pulled out. I can’t even stand in lines; I avoid them like the plague.
Before my diagnosis, I was lucky to find a meditation practice that actually worked for me. Little did I know I was treating ADHD symptoms that I didn’t even know I had! Turns out I was on the right track, which I affirmed later when reading Thom Hartmann’s book Attention Deficit Disorder – A Different Perception. The meditation practice I was introduced to involves lots of stimuli, including holding beads (tactile), chanting (auditory) and gazing at a mandala (visual). This worked so well for me that I could sit for up to three hours at a time.
Lo and behold, in his above-mentioned book, Hartmann says that those of us with ADHD need “periodic disciplined and focused consciousness, [and] gravitate towards mantra or rosary meditation.” Bingo! I just happened to stumble across the right kind of meditation for my ADHD mind.
According to Maté and other researchers, meditation acts on the neurophysiology of ADD, addressing the imbalance of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the ADDer’s brain.
To achieve better focus, Maté initially used Dexedrine, a commonly prescribed stimulant medication. However, “I don’t take the medication any more,” he says. Instead, Maté now meditates regularly (from a personal interview with Dr. Maté, March 17, 2009).
In Scattered Minds, Maté explains, “A brain used to decades of inattention and disorganization will not overnight reorganize itself. If attention and presence of mind are the long-term goal, time and effort need to be devoted to their cultivation each and every day.”
As I reflected on my own 15-year Buddhist meditation practice, which I began prior to my diagnosis, I realized that it had successfully helped me to manage my most difficult ADHD challenges. For example, in classic ADHD style, I was constantly late for meetings, appointments, you name it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I tried to cram way too much stuff into the day, miscalculating how long each task would take, until I was left with only a few minutes to shower, dress, get out the door, and fight traffic on the way to whatever appointment I was late for.
Once I started meditating regularly in the morning, my sense of time itself was altered, and my chronic lateness vanished. My ability to focus improved, and as I focused better, I was able to use my time more productively, thus giving me the sense of having more hours in the day.
With regular meditation, my mood swings were less pronounced. I experienced a calm inner state and confidence that sharply contrasted with my usual hyperactive edginess, anxiety, and mental chaos.
My father once said to me, “You’re a much nicer person when you chant.” His comment shocked me, because he never usually spoke like that. It was great to have my own subjective experience validated by someone else.
Once I learned about ADHD, I started to wonder if my daily meditation practice had helped me to overcome my challenges, in part, by altering my brain chemistry. The resulting increase in dopamine, and therefore my happier mood, might have explained my dad’s comment that I was nicer when I chanted.
After my diagnosis, I saw how beneficial my meditation practice had been. I realized that after I stopped practicing, my ADHD symptoms had gotten worse. I began my ADHD treatment with a stimulant medication, but quickly realized that medication alone would not be enough. I dusted off my altar and resumed my meditation practice.
And guess what? I’ve finally found a place to light.