By Kathryn Buxton of the British School of Meditation
So, you’ve got the app, maybe even been to a few classes, but you only meditate very occasionally and it isn’t part of your regular routine. You know it’s good for you but you just can’t seem to commit. Does this sound familiar?
Research shows that meditation, and mindfulness in particular, has all sorts of benefits for our mental health. From helping us to get a good night’s sleep to being able to navigate the trials and challenges of life with ease. It’s more than just a passing fad. Meditation has been around for thousands of years and in the past twenty years or so, scientific research with the advent of MRI scanners has shown how powerful mindfulness meditation really is. It can help to calm the mind chatter and help us to be less involved in the dramas our mind plays out daily. In short, it’s good enough to be prescribed by medical professionals as an alternative to anti-depressants*.
So why do we find it so difficult to maintain a regular practice? And meditation is a practice – it’s not a quick fix but something that really takes effect the more you do it.
I’d like to explore the five main reasons people don’t start or give up on meditation. All of these I’ve experienced myself and are also regularly discussed by students in my classes.
I don’t have enough time, I’m too busy!
This is probably the number one reason people give up or don’t even try meditation. The thought of sitting and doing nothing for 10 or 20 minutes feels like a complete waste of time when there’s so much else to do! I love this quote from Dr Sukhraj Dhillon
‘If you’ve got time, meditate for 20 minutes a day. If you haven’t got time, meditate for an hour.’
It speaks straight to the heart of the problem. The busier we are the more we feel stressed and anxious and the less time we feel we have to get everything done. So the answer is not to just carry on and ignore the stress our busy lives are putting us under but to stop, take time out of the day to simply rest and re-boot. Meditation is the perfect way to do that. Taking time to just tune in with the body and follow the breath will actually help us to have more clarity and focus with the tasks we need to complete and help us to be more productive. A busy mind is often a distracted one and so we don’t complete tasks to any satisfaction.
There are meditation timers via apps that you can set with chimes and gongs that mean you don’t have to be clock watching. And you don’t have to start with twenty minutes a day. Begin with five minutes and gradually increase the time so that you’re working towards a twenty-minute practice. If your day really is busy – then take a few mindful moments to reset. The simplest way is to just stop what you’re doing and take three or four deep breaths in and slow breaths out, focussing on the rise and fall of the belly as you do so. Other suggestions include focusing your attention for just a few minutes on the soles of the feet and the contact they have with the floor. Or take time to look out of the window and notice the different colours or different shapes. You could stop and listen to the sounds you can hear, in the room and far away. All these tips only take about thirty seconds to do, but you will have been mindful in those moments, focussing on the here and now and they are valuable tools to increase your capacity to sit and meditate for longer
Apps and guided meditations are all helpful, but don’t underestimate the power and pleasure of joining a class. An experienced teacher can help with any queries you may have and there’s something rather wonderful about meditating with like-hearted people.
So, don’t let the excuse of ‘not enough time’ put you off. When we commit to looking after our physical health, we know it’s good for us and so we make the time for it. The same should be true for our mental health. Sitting doing nothing for twenty minutes is a valuable way to stay mentally ‘fit’, so make time for it.
I can’t meditate because I can’t clear my mind of thoughts!
This is another frequent comment I hear and it’s based on a misunderstanding. The misunderstanding is that meditation is about getting rid of thoughts and having a clear, uncluttered mind. Well you’ll be glad to hear that really isn’t possible and not what mindfulness meditation is all about.
Our mind is addicted to thinking and planning and running through endless scenarios about the future and past events. Often this thinking can be very negative and cause stress and anxiety. As Mark Twain said:
“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
Even if the thoughts aren’t negative, the sheer number of them can make our head spin!
Through mindfulness meditation we are invited to observe our thinking and to simply label what arises as ‘thoughts.’ We try not to engage with them but step back and see with awareness and curiosity what these thoughts are. Planning thoughts, anxious thoughts, jealous thoughts, judgemental thoughts etc.
In this way we are having a radically different relationship with our mind. We see how we tend to create drama and problems through our thinking and as we grow in understanding, so we are able to make choices about the thoughts we want to believe and give attention to. By making careful choices through awareness, our mind chatter naturally calms down a little more. Instead of being pushed here and there by our thoughts, like a piece of straw in the wind, we are beginning to exercise some understanding and some control over what thoughts to believe.
Don’t worry, it takes practice but the rewards of understanding and befriending the mind are invaluable in decreasing stress and anxiety.
There are two ways meditation can be painful, physically and mentally. There is an idea that to be a successful meditator you need to sit crossed legged on the floor, perfectly balanced and comfortable and to be able to sit like that for hours. Well it doesn’t work like that for most people! The good news is that you can sit in a chair, or lie on the floor and use cushions to support you. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable, that your lower back is well supported and, if you are sitting, that the soles of your feet have good contact with the floor. If, during the meditation, you feel uncomfortable then by all means shift your position. Seasoned meditators use the physical discomfort to meditate on but as a beginner you need to feel comfortable and secure, so by all means shift your position.
Sometimes when you meditate the mind will bring to the fore painful thoughts and memories from the past. There is a temptation to ignore them and push them away, but if you can, ‘lean’ in to them and explore the thoughts, memories and narratives behind them. You always have the anchor of the breath or the grounding sensation of the feet on the floor to come back to as your focus. If ‘leaning in’ really is too upsetting, stay with the breath and just label the thought. And if it really is causing you distress then seek counselling or psychotherapy to help shine a light on it and gain some perspective.
Well, the idea of meditation is to calm the mind that constantly wants distraction and instant entertainment, so meditation doesn’t exactly feel like a laugh a minute! But it can be a very rich and juicy experience and if you are interested in your inner world, it can be fascinating. Sometimes it can feel as dry as dust but whatever happens in your meditation from sore legs to irritation that the workmen are noisy outside, this is what you work with and be curious about. So, what does irritation feel like in the body? What am I telling myself about the noise outside and how it’s affecting me? You are practicing and learning to accept the mind in the present moment and to be curious and playful with whatever you find. Even if it does sometimes feel dull, that’s fine. Stick with it. It won’t be the same every time.
Setting a simple intention at the beginning of your meditation can help:
‘Whatever I experience in my thoughts and my body – I will simply accept it.’
Try not to make your intention a ‘target’ like ‘I will feel more peaceful and calm’ because you might not and you will feel like a ‘bad’ meditator. You are simply observing and accepting whatever your mind and body feels like in the present moment. Far from boring, this can be an exciting and fascinating journey.
I can do it in a class setting, but not on my own at home!
There is no doubt that there is something very beautiful about sitting in a room full of other like-hearted people, meditating. The energy is lovely and it can really help you to stay rooted and ‘on task’. After all, you can’t exactly get your phone out and check Facebook! There is also something powerful about making the weekly commitment to attend a class that really helps you to stay focused.
Although meditating on your own can feel very different, it’s just as rewarding and beneficial. Again, you are not looking for the ‘perfect experience’ in meditation or for it to feel exactly the same each time. You are practicing sitting with yourself just as you are without judgement. Set a regular time to practice, either first thing or as part of your bedtime routine. Find a place that is quiet and comfortable and start with five minutes and gradually increase the time and frequency.
Meditating on your own also gives you choice about what type of meditation you would like to try – there are guided meditations or you can choose to just sit and focus on the breath. Choose whatever feels right for however you’re feeling and what you need at the time. If you attend a class and can commit to a meditation practice on your own for three times a week over a period of eight weeks, I guarantee you will notice the difference.
Finally, resist the temptation to be a ‘crisis’ meditator – only meditating when life is difficult. Keep your meditation practice going even when you’re feeling ok. That way when the inevitable challenges arise your ‘meditation battery’ will be topped up and you will have a wealth of experience and understanding to help you through the tough times.
I hope these tips can help guide you towards a deeper commitment to a meditation practice with all the benefits that brings. So, start with small steps and keep moving forward. You’ll be so glad you did!
*If you are on anti-depressants please do not reduce them unless you have first discussed it with a medical health professional.
Kathryn runs meditation sessions both online and in-house at The Isbourne. She also offers day and weekend retreats as part of Spacious Mind Meditation. Find out more at www.isbourne.org and www.spacious-mind.co.uk