What the hell is meditation?
I've known for years that meditation is a critically sensible habit to cultivate. 5000-year-old Eastern wisdom supports this. Modern scientific research supports this. The NHS recommends mindfulness as a means to good mental health. It costs nothing. As a tool for emotional well-being, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Unfortunately, in the Western world, there are cultural influences on our self-care, which mean that, even if we try to care for ourselves, there are barriers in the way of it. In my case, three decades worth of barriers.
My meandering path to mindfulness
I’m fully on board with yoga. I’ve loved it since the first time I tried it and have dabbled with it throughout my life, sometimes weekly, sometimes twice daily, even considering teaching as a profession. Meditation was that bit at the end of my yoga session. The reward for the hard work. I knew that this was not how the Yogis saw it and that their perspective was that yoga is the physical exercise used to prepare themselves for the practice of mediation. As I’d sometimes come close to what felt like an out of body, transcendental experience at the end of my yoga session, I was curious, too.
So, meditation has been on my ‘must do’ list since my twenties, but my disposition is characteristically opposed to the behaviour. How can I just sit still? “I should be doing something”, so my inner voice tells me. Meditation feels wasteful, lazy. I'm too busy. I can’t possibly take 30 minutes out of my day to just sit.
Sitting with my discomfort
A few years ago, I decided to sign up for an eight-week meditation training course. This is the way I learn best, being taught in a group of people wanting to learn the same subject. This course was presented by a well-regarded and published practitioner and took place in a forest, the beautiful wooden roundhouse of my friend’s yoga studio. We practiced a different mindfulness technique each week. Watching the breath, examining a candle flame, examining the inner workings of an old fashioned watch….
"Is this it?" I thought. "You’re not teaching me anything! We're not doing anything". I found it difficult to sit still. My mind wandered. The impossibly calm, elderly meditation master, reminded me that I didn't have to empty my mind of my thoughts, I simply had to let them go and return to the breath.
Three more years passed and I still hadn’t begun a meditation practice. And then came 2020 - suddenly there was a pandemic and I was even busier than usual, attempting to reorganise my entire business online, whilst homeschooling children, supporting elderly relatives, cooking more, cleaning more, drowning in laundry.
The master has failed more times than the beginner has tried
A Zen proverb tells us that: “If you don't have time to meditate for an hour every day, you should meditate for two hours.”
How the hell was I going to find time to meditate now? And then I realised that for right hours a day, I lay down in bed, and sleep was not going terribly well - I could at least do a sleep meditation - and I began.
I chose an app with free content, Insight Timer. Having been so flaky up ‘til now, I didn't want to commit to a paid one. I knew from experience that I needed to like the voice of the teacher guiding the practice. I tried a few different ones, listening to one or two sentences of a meditation before settling on Kenneth Soares. He had a pleasant, soft American accent, not too drawly or nasally. This meditation lasted an hour. I drifted off to sleep to his agreeable tones.
This worked, and I tried it again. Being able to get to sleep in the pandemic was new to me. I was more anxious than usual, worrying into the early hours about the health of my family and friends. As a psychotherapist I know that sleep is the bedrock of good mental health. If I woke in the night and began worrying about the ‘R Rate’ or hospital admissions, instead of reaching for my phone to read the news, I switched on Kenneth and drifted back to sleep to his mentoring.
I’ve explored different meditation masters. The possibilities are boundless on these apps: Thich Nhat Hanh, the inimitable spiritual leader, makes me smile with his oh-so-simple but beautiful explorations of the wonderful world of nature and of our biology. “Breathing in, I know that I breathe in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out". If I want a modern twist on meditation, I listen to Justin Michael Williams speak on perfectionism - he's young and even swears during his guided wisdom, which is often more on my page!
I'm now using a guided sleep meditation most nights. I even manage an occasional 15 minute morning meditation in the ‘Zen Corner’ of my bedroom.
It's taken me 30 years to get here, which reminds me that change is a process. From the initial thought: “Perhaps I need to meditate?” in my early twenties, I've moved along the path of yoga lessons, a scrapped plan to become a yoga teacher, (I trained to be a psychotherapist instead), failed attempts with other meditation apps, my meditation course, a yoga holiday in Morocco (where I discovered how much I enjoy silent breakfasts, and learnt that a yoga nidra was a bedtime meditation), to now, having what could almost be described as a regular practice.
So, what the hell is meditation?
Meditation is getting out of my comfort zone, making the space looking after myself, respect myself, honour myself. It slows me down, I focus. It’s telling myself “I’m worth it” and acting on that belief. It’s taking a brief moment out of my busy day to emotionally regulate, it's being in the present, it's being kind and compassionate to myself. It stops feelings of overwhelm. Practice is a routine that scaffolds my self-care.
I get out of constantly living in my head. My body and mind are connected. I find the time to breathe. Breath is life.
Something so simple, yet so profound.