Right… you’re going to have to excuse me getting a bit ‘new age’ on you, but I want to talk about meditation.
In February 2015 I spent a month in a meditation retreat in Guatemala. What I learnt during those weeks turned me from someone who thought they couldn’t mediate (not for me, can’t quiet my busy mind), into someone who, on a good week, has a (mostly) daily practice.
The benefits? I’m calmer. I’m more focused. And I have more mental ‘space’.
If someone had shared with me what I’m about to tell you, I’d have been more likely to stick with the practice years ago, and that’s my hope for you too. To dissolve any preconceptions, and perhaps persuade you it’s worth a try.
The goal is not to have zero thoughts – your mind will wander.
One of my biggest challenges with mediation (and the reason I gave up after a few sessions in London) was expecting my mind to go completely quiet. And when it didn’t I thought I was doing it wrong.
I now know the goal is not to have a thought free mind. It’s more taking your mind from a busy city road with lots of cars (thoughts) whizzing by, to one where there’s a few passing slowly.
So, don’t making a thought free mind the goal, and accept thoughts will arise when meditating. That’s normal. Your task, however many times that happens, is just to return your attention to your breath. One thing that I’ve found very helpful is labeling thoughts as they arise – ‘thinking’ ‘worrying’ ‘planning’ before retuning my attention to my breath.
There’s no ‘right’ way to meditate
It can be confusing to know how to start a meditation practice – do you listen to music, chant a mantra, follow a guided recording like headspace, or just… sit there? The truth is, there’s no ‘right’ way to do it – it’s whatever feels good (or manageable) for you.
I was thrown in the deep end with twice daily silent meditation for 30 minutes (which initially like 4 hours) but it soon got me into a routine. These days I do about 15 minutes, but the practice essentially me, sat on a cushion, in a quiet space. I also light a bit of incense, because it was always burning in the retreat, and it signals to me that it’s time to get quiet.
So, choose one technique to try, and do it for a month. Start with five minutes a day of mindful breathing (focus your attention on your breath entering and leaving your nose) sat on a cushion with your eyes closed. It can be as simple as that. You can count in an out if it helps. Or not. Remember your mind will wander. Just bring it back to your breath entering and leaving. Then rinse, and repeat.
I’m not saying you won’t get any benefit from a once-weekly meditation practice, but like with most things, you need to practice frequently to get the real benefits.
I’ve been through several cycles of meditating every now and then (which does bring a bit of immediate calm) and committing to near-daily practice.
It’s the near daily practice that seems to trigger a whole cascade of benefits – the immediate (feeling calmer, being more focused, getting more done) AND the longer term (less anxiety, more clarity and being able to have the mental space).
Create space. Be patient.
A regular meditation practice starts with commitment. It takes something like 66 days (about 2 months) to turn a new behaviour into a habit, so don’t expect it to feel natural straight away.
You also need to create space to practice. And I mean space in the sense of a space (you might choose your bedroom, a study) and space in the sense of time. You’ll always find a good reason not to do it. Don’t give yourself the option not to. Build it into your routine, like you would anything else important. There will never be a ‘good time’ so you have to make time.
Help yourself out by choosing the same time every day to meditate (I like morning – it sets the tone for the rest of the day) and tie it to an existing behaviour that’s in your daily routine i.e. after I brush my teeth I will meditate, or “after I get dressed I will meditate”.
An aside: Don’t do it in tight jeans. Or after a big meal. Be comfortable. If that means sitting on a stool or a cushion, and wrapping yourself in a blanket then that’s what you do.
When everything feels bad, meditate, when everything is good…. (you got it…) meditate
There’s a funny thing that happens when you meditate. Usually people start practicing when things feel a little unbalanced in their life. So they start a meditation practice. And then things get a bit brighter. They feel more balanced. And happier. So then they stop. And you guessed it… things start to go pear shaped again.
I can say this with confidence because I’ve been through the cycle several times over. There’s a saying in Mexico… “For everything good, Mezcal…for everything bad, the same” and I think this applies to meditation.
When things feel bad, meditate…. When things feel good – the same.