I really struggled with the image of meditation. I still do. The meditation pose, those images of meditation stones stacked up on top of each other, normally on a beach. The way guided meditations tend to start and end with one of those meditation bells. How audio mediations always seem have panpipe music playing in the background. I didn’t like how it was marketed to businesses as a way of increasing performance and shifting the bottom line, and particularly when used on corporate well-being programmes in an attempt to make up for bad business practises and structures, and poor treatment of staff.
However, after years of researching mental health treatments and interventions for my university health psychology class, I was eventually won over by the science and came to understand that meditation, along with a number of other mindfulness practices, is a very effective method of mental training. Yet I still struggled to practise it personally, to sit there even for five minutes when there was so many other things that I had to do.
And yet now I love it. Not because it helps me relax and reduces my stress (although it often does), but because it taught me how to listen to my mind, to get to know myself really well, to realise how ridiculous my thoughts sometimes are, and to have more compassion and patience with others when their behaviour seems unfriendly, aggressive or dysfunctional. Practising it has allowed me to be able observe my thoughts without trying, particularly when I’m not meditating. Then I started to see the motivations behind those thoughts.
I wanted everyone to like me; I wanted everything I did to be pleasing to everyone; I didn’t want anything I didn’t like happening to me or anyone else; I didn’t want anyone getting hurt. Then I realised that I was always, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously, letting those unrealistic motivations lead my behaviour and constantly getting myself tied up in knots, mentally and emotionally.
Still, it was difficult to actually sit (or stand) there at the beginning and actually do it. I’d sit down and try to get comfortable. Then I’d wonder if I should go to the toilet first. Is the temperature in here okay? What if my dog starts barking or someone rings the doorbell? Okay, I’d better go to the toilet to make sure, give Rocket (my dog) a treat to keep him quiet, make the house look as if I’m not in just in case someone does knock on my door and wonders why I’m not answering. I’ll have a drink of water just in case I get a bit thirsty. Switch my ringtone off. No, I’ll put my phone on airplane mode. Maybe I should just switch it completely off?
Okay, I’m ready. Let’s do this. Then I’d start itching, my bottom would feel really uncomfortable (maybe I should get one of those meditation cushions. Hmmm). My heart seems to be beating really fast. After a while I realised that it’s always going to be something that’s not quite right, or making me uncomfortable, or tugging at me. Given that we are nearly always distracted and not very aware what our body is doing or even feeling, it’s not very surprising that when we do give it some attention it really makes itself heard. Now I just expect one or all of these different tugs to happen and get on with it anyway.
I’ve tried lots of different meditation techniques over the years. Audio meditations really helped me at first, they taught me the structure of a meditation and helped me to maintain my discipline and keep on track. I often incorporated a body scan into the meditation and followed my breath. I found that I needed some structure to start with, and I still meditate in those ways now. However, more often than not, now I just stop what I am doing and sit or stand still. Whether it be at home, on public transport, or on a park bench. Two, five, or ten minutes here and there, sometimes for longer when I am at home.
That’s my only plan when I meditate. I’m just going to stop. I just stop and wait, observe my mind whirring along and sometimes marvel when it comes to a peaceful stop. Those times have now become a foundational experience in my life. I sometimes go longer just to see how long I can meditate for, and when I’ve had the space and time I’ve sat for over an hour. Yet, I don’t have to do that, but I’m curious about it and I find that it does me good.
If you found this article helpful and want to more detailed instructions and further exercises, they are available in my books: Overcome Anxiety and Overcome Social Anxiety and Shyness are available on Amazon in the U.K. and the U.S.A.
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