You fly off the handle more than you like to admit. Maybe you have more anxiety than you wish. Or life is just a little crazy and a bit more calm would be nice.
Whatever stress you’re living with right now, chances are you’re coping ok but you’d like to do better.
Meditation could be part of the solution – but you probably figure it isn’t really your thing.
Meditators were sceptics once too
Well, successful novelist Tim Parks had never tried meditation and never would have. It was definitely not his thing. He would run a mile from anything vaguely New Age. That’s why I was drawn to his memoir; Teach Us To Sit Still. A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing.
This is not a story about how he quits his western lifestyle to follow a guru in India. But his search for a better, pain-free life does take him along an unexpected path.
In the beginning doctors advise him to have surgery but cannot assure him that it will rid him of his chronic pain. Much to his surprise he winds up meditating instead…
“Morning thoughts rise like bubbles. I concentrate on the breath in my nostrils, on my lips. Only steady awareness of the body will still that mental fizz.”
Sounds like magic doesn’t it? From sceptic beset with pain to calm morning meditator able to clear his mind with a little focus.
In fact he himself is quick to add that ‘there is nothing mystical about this’. He might have moments when he can ‘still the mental fizz’ but on this occasion, when he begins meditating, he finds himself composing an email. Next he finds himself replaying in his mind a goal from the game he watched the night before.
However, he is not bothered by his wandering mind. He learns not to beat up on himself when thoughts arise – they too are a part of the process of meditating.
He learns how to sit still and focus on his breath and be aware of his physical being. He learns that through doing so he can have moments of mental stillness and quiet, that come and go.
He learns not to strive hard in meditation and not to be preoccupied with success or failure.
Hallelujah! You are completely normal and capable of meditating
Emptying your head of thoughts is not a requirement for doing meditation properly. You can stop believing that meditation is not for you and that you cannot do it anyway.
It is absolutely for people like you whose priorities are about:
- achieving and maintaining healthy relationships
- being productive and satisfied at work
- earning a decent living and having financial security
- reducing stress and maximising mental and physical health so that you feel and live well.
If you are prone to over-thinking or anxiety, black moods, flashes of rage or waves of emotion it just means that you are more deserving of the benefits of meditation. Also, like Tim Parks suffering from chronic pain, whatever your ills they will help motivate you in your meditation practice.
The Cheat Sheet
Meditation is simple even though it can be challenging. You only need a few pointers to get started (or re-started). These will ensure that you know that you are indeed doing it properly!
1. Give a thought to timing
If you are just starting out it is worthwhile to give it a decent try. Ideally, set out to try meditating each day for one week. If you miss a day, no problem of course, but you want to give yourself a reasonable chance of getting into the swing of it.
To begin with you will have to make the time to do it – that will probably mean you have to take a little time out of work, give up a bit of television or get up a little earlier. This bit gets easier. Just focus on the week ahead for now.
Have a set time in mind. Siff suggests 20 minutes is probably a good goal, with 5 being too little and 60 too much. Ensure you have enough time so that you don’t have to rush straight afterwards.
Use a timer or have a clock nearby to glance at. If you begin to struggle, see if you can stay meditating a bit longer. If the struggle worsens and you want to finish early, do so.
2. Consider posture and stillness
Siff words it nicely when he suggests that you ‘show a preference for stillness’ when meditating.
It is important to find a position that is sustainable. The position itself is not too important.
If you choose to sit on a chair, the floor, a mat or cushion, ensure that your back is upright with your spine in neutral position (that is, with its natural curvature). Use whatever supports you need to allow this (cushions or towels below your tailbone to tilt your pelvis forward or prop up your knees if you sit cross-legged) .
Pull your chin in a little to straighten the back of your neck and place your hands comfortably in your lap or on your knees.
Lying flat with suitable supports may be best if you have back pain.
Close your eyes.
Finding a suitable posture and being still with eyes shut will facilitate your meditation.
3. Allow yourself to arrive
Giving yourself a moment to transition into meditation is another of Siff’s sensible suggestions and it promotes a kind approach to yourself.
Take time to find your position and adjust yourself as necessary in order to work towards stillness.
Reflect on where you have just been – physically or in your thoughts. Again take your time as you work towards beginning your meditation.
Some deeper breaths and gentle stretches can help.
You may like to take a mental or physical note of any issues that are on your mind – jotting something down to return to later may assist you to let go of the day or night and bring your focus to your meditation.
4. Don’t be a try hard
Siff identifies gentleness as a condition for meditation. He notes our tendency to be self-critical and to want to do things well. However, a non-striving approach will help you to develop your meditation skills.
If you feel an urge to move, do not berate yourself or try to stifle the urge. It is useful if you can defer a reaction.
You may react automatically (and itch yourself, say), no drama. Maybe next time you can take a moment to see if the urge to move or itch passes. If it does not, moving is fine – however it is helpful if you can do so slowly and deliberately (rather than reactively).
Being forceful in meditation is counterproductive. Do not try to stop thoughts and feelings. Let them arise as they do. Try as best you can, not to judge your efforts and beat up on yourself. Go gently.
5. Behold…witness yourself meditating
And now notice what is happening.
Bring your attention to yourself and to the moment.
You can bring your attention to your breath if it helps – notice the inhalation and exhalation at the nostrils, or the inflation and deflation at the belly.
Or notice sensations – the touch of hands on your knees, the pressure of the floor beneath you, discomfort in your body perhaps.
Your mind will wander, thoughts and feelings will arise – notice these.
If you experience agitation or frustration, confusion or other disquiet, observe it in yourself. Does it pass? Does it come and go? Is it nagging at you?
Are you caught up in expectations or appraisals of your meditation?
Do you notice yourself trying to avoid some thoughts or emotions? Or are you relishing a moment of peace and satisfaction, not wanting to let it go.
Register whatever goes on and take an interest in it all.
All of this is meditating. And by doing these things you are:
- developing your meditation skills
- honing your capacity to pay attention
- building awareness and understanding of yourself
- improving your emotional regulation
- becoming more resilient.
Make a time, ease into it, be still, go gently and observe…
With these 5 simple (but not always easy steps) you will be meditating!
Do you have any pointers to add in comments? Or any lingering misgivings or questions? Let me know how you go…