In the end, these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go? Buddha
I knew that meditation would be the most challenging activity of my brain reset programme, but I had high hopes. I’ve done plenty of difficult things in my life so I’m not scared. My most recent challenge? At Xmas I cooked Otto Lenghi’s alternative Xmas dinner. For twelve people, virtually single handed. Beat that for difficulty.
I’ve tried meditation before. Way back when, before it was mainstream, I did a course on primal sound meditation. I was given my own secret, personal, unique, primal mantra written on a small card. God knows what happened to it: languishing in an Oxfam book shop, wondering where I am, I expect.
Over the years, I tried many of the variations that meditation spawned: mindfulness, relaxation, creative visualisation. When I say I tried, I mean I prepared to meditate: I read the books, did the courses, absorbed the theory, and explored the Apps. And then, I didn’t practice, as though I could meditate through osmosis. The only way to learn to meditate is … to meditate. Several problems arise for me: I can’t sit still, I can’t shut up, I can’t stop thinking and above all I can’t let go. Not for longer than about two minutes at a time anyway.
So what did I think would be different this time?
Firstly, motivation: my new “one life, live it well” belief resonates with the simplicity of the Buddhist philosophy: there are two truths: 1. you will die; 2. you don’t know when. Given those two truths, how will you live each day?
Secondly, the benefits of meditation for health and well being are now supported by convincing science. Regular practice soothes our brain’s fear centre, reducing impulsiveness; and strengthens our executive thinking function, increasing rational thought. Over time, and with regular practice, meditators experience less fear, anxiety and anger, releasing more emotional bandwidth for peace and joy. Meditation also impacts the nervous system, which is composed of two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The first is our survival system, stimulated by aerobic exercise, anxiety and fear. The second is our rest, digest and calm system that is stimulated by meditation, (also yoga) and particularly by the long, slow, conscious out breath of our breathing cycle.
Thirdly, part of my plan to reconnect with my own rhythm is to stop focussing on outcomes, and start engaging with the process and trust that something different will happen as a result. In my fiction writing, for example, I stopped setting myself word count goals and set myself time limits: I’ll write for two hours. So much more relaxing. I can approach meditation in the same spirit. Just sit quietly for twenty minutes and trust that change will occur.
My plan was to keep my practice as simple as possible, by sticking to these basic principles:
- In a quiet undisturbed place, sit cross legged and straight backed on the floor (or on a yoga brick, cushion or blanket – I use a yoga brick – it keeps your hips higher than your knees, which is a good thing)
- Close your eyes
- Place your hands, face up and relaxed, on your thighs or knees
- Focus on your breath
- Allow thoughts to come and go
- Aim to clear your mind of thoughts
There are lots of fancy optional extras out there:
- Music, usually monks chanting or bells, but endless options; I prefer silence
- Mantras and chants of various kinds – I did find it helpful to have a mantra, a few words, meaningful to me, that I would repeat over in my mind in my efforts to stop the incessant chatter in my head, and to return my attention to my body.
- Guided visualisation apps which I don’t like to use for meditation: words keep me firmly in my head which is where I like to be, and stops me experiencing myself through my body, which is essentially the aim of meditation.
- Lots of books which will educate you on practice, process and results. Worth a read if you like, but not instead of actually sitting and meditating.
My aim was to sit in silence for twenty minutes twice a day every day. Confession: I failed. I’ve been practicing meditation for over twelve months now, about four or five days a week, once a day. I meditated twice in a day on two occasions only. Lately, I’ve meditated more regularly, most days, and hope to develop into a twice daily practice. I use a free app called Insight Timer, which can time your meditation and give you lovely sounding gongs along the way. This app also includes a free five lesson course on meditation, which is brilliant. Simple, to the point and inspiring.
I see my progress over the year in four distinct phases, each about three months:
Phase I: My knees are killing me
Utter tedium: lots of sighing, fidgeting, and wishing I was doing something, anything, else. My knees hurt and my back ached. I couldn’t stop thinking, and mostly what I thought was Ouch! My mind turned to pressing issues: what to wear out for lunch tomorrow? What to cook for dinner tonight? Time felt interminable, and I kept checking the clock: surely it was over now? No, it wasn’t. In the early weeks, I could barely manage five minutes. I stuck with it, increasing the minutes gradually. By the end of this phase, I could sit for twenty minutes cross legged.
Phase II: Stop thinking, dammit
I attended three classes in meditation at my yoga studio. Ignacio from Peru assured me that the not thinking bit is a challenge for everyone, so don’t worry about it. Helpful, as the chatter in my head was incessant. Now I focussed on my breath more, aiming to experience myself through my body not my mind. Time went quickly, and I experienced fleeting moments of no thinking…and a connection to myself that I can’t describe without sounding a bit new age-y, so I won’t try, except to say that it felt deeply soothing. To my surprise, I found I was resistant to it: I didn’t want to let go, to sink into it. My ego fought, pulling me back to the preoccupations of my mind. At this point, I was getting a glimpse of how meditation could feel.
Phase III: If I could only let go…
I tried to find ways to extend these moments of connection. I devised a simple chakra meditation of my own, focussing attention on the seven centres of energy. This helped to keep me located in my body. Intrusive thoughts continued, but on more profound topics: no more wardrobe or menu planning now. Sometimes memories of Tino came to me. Or a thorny writing problem would enter my mind; occasionally, a solution would present itself, as if by magic. Meditation became timeless, I was sometimes sorry when my timer sounded; and I sat for a little longer. I liked meditating, and looked forward to it.
Phase IV: Two miracles occur
Miracle One: after a year of practice, I enjoy meditating. It feels calming and balancing. My mind wanders still, but chatters less. It’s easier for me to stay in my body and quiet my mind. Somewhere along the way I realised that most problems will benefit from just being left alone for a while. Many untangle themselves if you do nothing. In other words, I have become more patient. (Confession: my husband won’t endorse this claim.)
Miracle Two: sitting cross legged so regularly has been brilliant for the muscle tone in my legs; if there’s been an equivalent transformation in my psyche, I’m in amazing shape.
Thank you Tino.
Tino with his wife, Pat
“Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” Buddha
Next blog, coming soon: Journal Writing
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