Apologies for my lack of posts, I had a bit of a low period there for a few weeks and struggled to do anything productive at all. I’m feeling a bit better now, so here’s the promised post on Meditation!
So, first of all, the benefits of meditation for anyone, not just people suffering from depression and/or anxiety, are many. It can help manage stress, help to keep your heart healthy, help with pain management, boost the immune system and aid sleep.
Meditation has a bit of an alternative vibe to it, but the fact is that it can be practiced by anyone, anywhere at anytime (just not in the middle of a meeting…). It’s not just for Buddhist or hippies. I myself am neither a Buddhist nor a hippy, but I practice meditation.
So, I’ll explain how I’ve learned how to do it (my explanation is only one of many ways to meditate) and I’ll talk around it.
One of the best pieces of advice for meditation I received from a yoga instructor. At the beginning of her class, she starts with:
“Bring your mind to the same place that you’ve brought your body”.
This is, in essence, what meditation is. It’s bringing the mind to the body, and away from the myriad of distracting thoughts that the mind floats around all day long.
The second best advice I got from a book called “Buddhism plain and simple”. I’m not a Buddhist, but my partner lent me this book because it is an easily accessible book into the ideas behind Buddhism, which can be adapted for non-religious applications.
In the book, it says this about meditation:
“For meditation, a quiet room is suitable. […] Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. […] Meditation has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.”
It then goes on to say:
“You should have your clothes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. […] sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward not backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. […] you should breath gently through your nose.
Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left, and settle into a steady immobile sitting position.”
So, once you’ve got a comfortable position – you can sit on the ground or on a chair, or lie flat on the ground or kneel sitting on your heels – the book says this:
“After you have rocked your body and settled into your sitting position, bring your attention to your breath. Sitting erect, breathe fully and deeply from your diaphragm. Breathe from the centre of your body. Place your focus on your breath. Breathe naturally and quietly. Don’t force the breath in any way – just follow it. As you inhale, be aware of breathing in. As you exhale, be aware or breathing out.
In the beginning stages, since it’s difficult to stay with the breath, counting each breath may help you to maintain your concentration. Count one as you inhale, two as you exhale. Continue counting to ten, then repeat.”
Just to note, meditation can be performed with eyes open or closed or half open. I close my eyes because eyes open is too distracting for me, but it’s up to the individual.
Following the breath is the hardest thing to do in meditation I find. Often, I’ll find myself controlling my breathing, which is not the purpose of meditation. In order to stop myself doing this, I visualise my mind watching myself meditate as though from outside my body. This is the only way I can manage not to control my breath. It helps with the observation of my breathing too, as I can visualise my breathing from both the outside and in. I usually start with noticing external stuff, like the heat of the air as I breathe out, the rise and fall of my ribs and stomach, the soft noise that I make when breathing. By noticing the external signs of breathing, it helps me to focus in on my breath and helps me to relax into the observation. I also do the counting thing to start off with, as I find it helps to distract me from trying to control the breath too.
The point of meditation is to clear the mind, and here’s what this book says on in:
“… just follow the breath. As you do, thoughts will arise. Don’t be bothered by them. Don’t think they’re bad, or that you shouldn’t be having them. Don’t try to drive them away. If you leave them alone, they’ll depart of their own accord. This is how to “cease all the movements of the conscious mind.” You cannot do it by direct application of your will.
If you find you’ve been distracted by thoughts and feelings, and have forgotten your breath, just come back to the breathing. There’s no need to scold yourself that you wandered away. To scold yourself is to wander away again. Resume counting from one”
Here’s the thing – once you start to concentrate on your breathing, you’ll find that your mind will keep trying to drag your concentration away with random thoughts that pop into your head. When this happens, don’t try to push the thought away. Somewhere in this book I read that the more you resist a thought, or a pain, the more insistent it will push back at you to try get you to notice it. So when this happens while meditating, rather than resisting the thought, you need to acknowledge that it’s there. There are loads of different ways of doing this, depending on your personal preference.
For myself, I will ever so slightly nod my head towards the thought, as a sign that I’ve acknowledged it. There’s a fine line between acknowledging the thought, and getting dragged into the thought. So another visualisation technique that I use is imagining that the thoughts are clouds floating across the sky or objects flowing down a stream. Either way, they’re in constant movement. In order not to follow the thoughts, I imagine that I’m an immoveable mountain or tree or rock that simply observes the thoughts as they float past.
I know this sounds a bit mad, but honestly, once you get over the cringe factor, it works. These are simply my methods that help me to observe my thoughts without getting drawn into thinking! This happens while still concentrating on breathing, so when I first started meditation, I would get really distracted really easily. If I got to ten breaths without getting distracted, I was please with myself. Over time, I built this up into a minute or two of complete calm. I promise you, it’s really worth it to get the release from having a calm mind!
I started with 5 minutes of meditation, with an non-intrusive timer set to go off after 5 minutes. I built that up to 15/20 minutes of meditation, but I also found that I was able to get to the calm place really quickly with practice. So whereas at the start, I might get a few seconds of calm near the end of the 5 minutes, and sometimes none at all, after a few months I was able to get to the calm place within 30 seconds and stay there for minutes.
The main thing to take into consideration with meditation is that it needs to be practiced regularly. It doesn’t matter if regularly is just 5 minutes at the start or end (or middle) of the day. As long as it becomes a habit. Here’s where I’ve gone wrong! I stopped practicing meditation, and all the benefits I had thought that I’d got from my medication, quickly slid away. In retrospect, I think my meditation had quite a lot to do with my state of mind. Stopping it when I felt at my best was a mistake that I don’t want to repeat.
I have to admit that I have yet to start regularly meditating again. Tonight, once I’ve published this post, I’m going to sit down for 5 minutes and meditate. I think it’s important to understand yourself and to know when is a good time for meditation. Personally, I’m always knackered in the morning, so meditating just sends me back to sleep. I struggle with getting to sleep in the evening, and with relaxing after work, so for me, meditation in the evening time is the best time for me to do it.
If you’re struggling to make yourself sit down for five minutes, to take the time out of your day, if you think you’re too busy, think about this: It takes a couple of minutes to boil a kettle and make a cup of tea/coffee. It then takes a few more minutes to drink it. If you can find time for this pleasure, you can find 5 minutes to meditate. It’s completely worth it, I promise!