Meditation

 

I’m feeling like I’m running behind on everything at the moment. I’m behind with my blog reading, behind with my emailing (so sorry, all those friends to whom I owe a reply), I haven’t got Bloglily’s prize in the post yet (so sorry, dear Bloglily) and I’m behind on my research. Naturally, I have today caught the cold that the boys have been carefully incubating for the past few days. This is not surprising when my husband has been going around in a little germ cloud not so very unlike the rain cloud Eeyore had hovering above his head. There are a million and one things I ought to be attending to, but I’ve been watching episodes of Frasier with my son instead and taking life very slowly. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it and I don’t much like it, but chronic fatigue has taught me that when everything makes me feel like I ought to speed up, slowing down is the sensible thing to do. It’s also the time when I try to do more meditation. If you’re like me and the kind of person who has an antsy sort of brain, one that won’t shut up at three in the morning (or indeed at any other time), who is prone to self-doubt, negative thinking and easily caught up in the web of worry, then meditation is a very useful tool indeed in the struggle to stay serene. It’s by no means an instant cure, and you have to be disciplined and practice it a lot, but I certainly think it’s worth the trouble.

 

When I first began meditating I thought it was all about clearing my mind of thoughts and relished the prospect of being able to exert my usual iron will upon myself. This was the first in a long line of mistakes. Meditation is all about being kind to yourself, by giving yourself time and space and pause in which to be restored to how you really feel about whatever is currently bothering you (there’ll always be something). No one can halt the stream of consciousness that flows through the mind, but you can take a step backwards from it, and not be drowning in its tide. So meditation begins by shifting the focus of consciousness to the body, which is going about its usual bodily business and just existing, no matter what you might be putting it through. Some people find it easier to start by feeling their feet on the floor or their hands on their knees, anything that reminds you that eighty percent of your self is not caught up in some mental dilemma. But the classic entry into meditation is through the breath, by becoming aware of it either as you breathe in and out through your nose, or by the rise and fall of your lower diaphragm. Any kind of agitation usually goes hand in hand with shallow breathing, so your breath will probably be all over the place for a while. This doesn’t matter. It’s not about breathing ‘right’, any more than it’s about thinking ‘right’. What it is about is being a calm witness to your existence, when something unexplained and dimly perceived is giving you a hard time on the quiet. But slower, longer breaths are undoubtedly helpful, so I always imagine breathing out through the soles of my feet or my kneecaps to begin with, as that draws the breath down deep. Pay more attention to breathing out, as breathing in is a reflex; you don’t need to worry about that. Expel air until you feel like there’s nothing left in your lungs and you will breathe quite naturally from lower in your torso. You can just concentrate on your breathing if that feels comfortable, but often I’ll visualize some place where I feel at peace and safe; it gives my mind something to do while I’m settling down. You can listen to music, if you wanted, or just listen to all the sounds in the house and street around you. It doesn’t matter, anything goes.

 

When the mind begins to wander, as it inevitably will, this is not a cause for concern or dismay. In fact, it’s just what you want it to do. Without reacting to the thoughts that cross your mind, you want to see what’s going on there, as if you were watching from the other side of the glass. You want to note what’s on your mind, and how it’s making you feel. There are two levels of emotion; on the secondary level you’ll find all the stuff that causes your thought to whirl in pointless circles and provokes all the worries and fears that are familiar enemies. That’s not what you’re interested in. What meditation might help you find is the primary emotion that feeds into those restless, repetitive thought patterns. It’s under there somewhere, in the way that creepy-crawlies lurk under stones, and is most probably one of the following: anxiety, grief, distress, rage, guilt, or numbness (which is a feeling too). Once you’ve worked out what it is, then the good news is that you don’t really have to do much more than acknowledge it. The bad news is that it is not always easy to acknowledge it, not least because it’s probably something you didn’t want to feel in the first place, hence all that circular thinking. But it is remarkably healing to just hold on to that emotion and recognize it. To own it fully and without shame or self-reproach. After all, every emotion is valid, and none require justifying to ourselves. Here’s the cutoff point: that emotion requires no justification to the person who feels it, but it will do if you then want to explain it to someone else, or want that person to act upon it. Mental health is all about possessing exactly what we feel, ethical behaviour is all about not dumping those feelings on innocent bystanders (which is much harder to do than it sounds and one of the reasons why all those books and plays get written).

 

Fundamentally, meditation begins and ends with this practice of being fully present to yourself, feeling what you feel without judgement or alarm, being a good witness to your life. If you’re me, though, the temptation is always to try to make sense of what’s going on, to understand what provokes certain emotions or certain patterns of behaviour. It’s a bit of a red herring (although in my case a wholly seductive one) because most anxiety stems from what Freud called ‘Nachtraglichkeit’, or the tendency humans have to worry about things after they have happened. It’s most noticeable in the case of trauma, which is exactly the kind of unexpected, horrible event that sends the sanest of us into a tailspin. Once a trauma has occurred, the poor person involved will probably feel pretty ghastly for a while, afraid to go out, afraid to stay in, unaccountably anxious, haunted by fears and pains and uncertainties. The mind is effectively cursing itself for not having prepared adequately before the traumatic event, and so it’s playing catch-up, trying to ensure now that it will protect the subject from any further engagement with danger, whilst in actual fact putting them through psychic hell. So when you reach that bottom layer of emotion, don’t worry; the chances are, it’s already happened. Following the same screwy logic of the mind, that unhelpful helpful part cannot be persuaded off the job with harshness. If you drive in the mental bulldozers, it’s only going to react even more severely to a perceived threat. So, you have to show it some gratitude, thank it for its impulse to save, assure it you understand its excellent intentions. Treat it like you would a friend who turns up at the wrong moment, because that’s exactly what it is.

 

There are loads of guides to meditation out there, and lots of recommended ways of doing it. What I’ve written above is the way I’ve made my own sense out of it all, and everyone will be different. I should also point out that I’m good at theory – always have been – but practice is another thing altogether. I struggle along, approximating my ideals, doing better some days than others. That’s all we can do. But I am persuaded that to give to yourself the gift of your full, compassionate attention is a step in the right direction on whatever journey you want to undertake.

18 thoughts on “Meditation

  1. Well ansty is a new term to me, but I certainly know what you mean. I’ve always found these techniques difficult. I think that not only am I too enquiring to let things be, but always in too much of a hurry. Even taking a relaxing stroll I keep finding myself slipping into a high speed scenario. It’s probably one of the reasons I blab on so much and find concision difficult. Anyway, thanks for the above and take your time. Now I must rush off and try to meditate!

  2. Wow, we are on the same wavelength today. I was thinking about posting about meditating, or at least mentioning it in my next post, because I have been in a Mindfulness Meditation group for about two months now, and I’m struggling along with it (ah, not judging myself, that is difficult), but finding it very satisfying. In my group we were just talking about uncovering strong emotions during meditation, and doing exactly what you talk about in the second paragraph of your post. There’s an acronym I use when an emotion comes up: RAIN, which is Recognize, Acknowledge, Investigate, Not identify. The last “N” is a stretch for the acronym, I know, but it’s about not personifying the emotion, but not judging it either.

    Anyway, I love this post, because I’m beginning a meditation practice and you’ve just laid out so beautifully much of what I’ve been thinking about lately! Thank you! I’ve bought Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book about mindfulness called Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, which is supposed to be great.

  3. Bookboxed – I owe you, big time. I’ll try and hurry up and do something about that! I understand all about moving too fast; it’s a familiar trait and its very difficult to change down a gear. I have to imagine a huge machine (like in a Bond movie in the villain’s palace) glowing with lights and reverberating, and slowly turn the switches off until it grows quiet and still. Just telling myself to slow down seems to have no effect at all! Gentle Reader – I’m a fan of Jon Kabat-Zinn and I do believe I have that book somewhere. I must dig it out! I’m delighted to be on the same wavelength as you, and rather wish I could attend the same meditation group as you – it sounds very helpful! I’ve never done a class and I imagine it might be quite encouraging. And I like your acronym; I’m already taking it up to use it myself.

  4. I have to say that the group has helped me tremendously–I have been meditating inconsistently for awhile, but the group helps with consistency, encouragement, focus and intention. Plus it’s a great group of women, which also motivates me to go! I do wish you could join my group; it’s so sad that we’re geographically challenged! Maybe you could start a group near you🙂

  5. I used to meditate and have found that I am at a point when I need it again. I learned how to follow my breathing – and deep breathe – the first time, and how to acknowledge my thoughts, without paying attention to them. It taught me that I am more than my thoughts, and my feelings – I am deeper than them, but they are important, also. As you say, I have to recognize and acknowledge how i feel, even the deeper emotions that we have put our circling thoughts up to defend from. I rather like how you described that!!
    As for doing too much – isn’t that a common symptom of our time? and watching Frasier with your son – that’s one way I spend time with my children, too, to just sit with them and be there with them. They love it too. As I do.
    I am sorry you have chronic fatigue, because it’s awful. I had a friend with it, and she never knew when it was going to hit. Take care!

  6. You mentioned meditating to me in my last blog post and I’ve been thinking it’s something I should begin…I have a feeling you and I are quite alike, despite differences in careers, location, family…we have the same kind of racing minds. I especially hate feeling “behind” on things…and I think my favorite feeling in the world is being “caught up.” This is a wonderful guide and I will use it to begin my meditation practice.

  7. Meditation is something I have always wondered about. I have tried it a few times, but I found it frustrating. I always suspected I would need to really commit to get to a place where it helps me. It sounds to me that you have come to that place and you are able to step away from the flow.

    I like your point that numbness is also an emotion. It is easy to forget this, isn’t it?

  8. I’ve tried meditation in the past, but haven’t stuck with it ever. I can see how it’s such a wonderful practice though! I do practice yoga fairly regularly, and I find that a meditative kind of experience, even though in class we aren’t sitting still for very long — but it certainly asks you to pay attention to your body, to accept yourself with judgment, to just exist in the moment. It does me lots of good.

  9. I agree with Dorothy that yoga and various kinds of sport can be meditative. Swimming for example, or walking in the forest. Anything that takes us out of our daily rush and haste, and allows us the quiet to listen to our bodies and just be, is meditative. Having said that, pure meditation, where we just sit or lie is optimal because it encourages us to address, as you so wonderfully put it, the creepy-crawlies, which are there but not always acknowledged.

    Lovely post, Litlove. Makes me want to take up the lotus position immediately and drift away into breathing.

  10. Gentle reader – it does sound a lovely group and that obligation to be consistent sounds just what I might require! I ought to see if there are groups in the area, but I have a fantasy group that involves my favourite bloggers and is followed by peppermint tea and lots of book talk! Bliss! Susan – hello and thank you for your lovely comment and your kind wishes. That’s exactly right – meditation does help me to see I’m not just my thoughts, and that in itself is one way to gain purchase on them. And children do love to hang out with parents just doing nothing much at all. I’m sure it’s good for all of us, really. Courtney – oh I know exactly what you mean about the delights of being ‘caught up’! I remember writing about meditation after reading the stream of consciousness you’d written down and wincing out of sheer recognition! I think we are very alike. Good luck indeed if you decide to try meditation. It has certainly helped me find a little inner calm on occasions. Emily – I write these things down as much to remind myself as to explain them to others! Meditation with small children would have to be done outside the house, I would think, and yes, it requires the kind of solid commitment that I don’t always provide often enough… but it’s a forgiving practice, thankfully. But you know, sometimes, on the right day and at the right time, writing can be equally soothing, as can playing with small children (when they’re in the right mood!!) So long as there’s something comforting, it doesn’t matter much what it is. Dorothy – yoga is supposed to be every bit as good for serenity as meditation, and I admire you very much for keeping that up. I’m so lazy that I always choose the option of least resistance and anything that involves lying down sounds good to me🙂 Charlotte – I do hope you got that time in the lotus position, although I agree – lots of activities contribute to spiritual well being, and so long as we all have something to fall back on in times of stress it doesn’t matter what it is. Oh those creepy crawlies! If only they would just go away of their own accord…. Bkclubcare – thank you so very much for your lovely comment! I’m delighted to now be introduced to your site, too.

  11. I was feeling a bit tense this evening and then I came here and read this marvelous post and I feel so much better. Thank you. I used to meditate frequently, nearly everyday for fifteen minutes to half an hour. I don’t know why I stopped. Why is it always so hard to do the things that are best for us, oh wise one?🙂

  12. Litlove, I feel more relaxed just reading this post. I’ve always been interested in the idea of meditation, but, like you, have such a busy mind (excessive rumination is what we call in medical terminology) that I’ve never thought I could be successful. But your lovely description gives me hope.

    Have you ever tried yoga? I do enjoy that, and seem to find being in the various poses helps keep my mind focused and relaxed as well.

    Wonderful post – thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  13. Litlove, I really like your ideas on meditation. The breathing makes a big difference and just letting those thoughts swim into consciousness without pursuing them or trying to make them fit our designs. Very difficult! I’ve also been thinking and reading a lot about anxiety lately and how helpful it can be if used in the right way. Experienced in the wrong way and it becomes toxic. But speaking of anxiety, I was interested to see that Julian Barnes’s latest book is called, “Nothing to be frightened of”. Of course I’m interested to see what you’ll make of it. Down here in Cape Town I’ll probably have to wait another few months for the paperback to arrive.

  14. I always feel like I am ‘behind’–not having things finished. And just when I catch up, there are more things that need to be done. It’s a vicious cycle, and I sometimes wish I was 10 again with nothing but long stretches of what felt like empty time ahead of me. I haven’t felt that in a very long time! It’s funny as you don’t seem like a person prone to self-doubt or negative thinking at all–you really seem to me very calm and ‘even’ actually. (Of course sometimes people think I seem calm when inside I’m a bundle of nerves, so there you go). Thanks for the insight into meditation. I’ve thought about trying it, but never really knew where to start.

  15. Count me in on feeling behind on everything lately. I hate that feeling and am always struggling to “let it go”. With regards to meditation, I’ve tried it and have found it difficult but I feel like it’s one of those things that maybe I’m just not ready for yet. I have been practicing yoga on and off for several years (the last few months I’ve been doing it weekly) and that offers me a lot of the peace that I seek. I practice hatha yoga and we focus on a lot of breathwork.

  16. Stefanie – LOL! I would be really wise if I knew the answer to that one🙂 All I can say is I know exactly what you mean – if I have a practice of meditation I feel much better than if I don’t, but I fall out of the habit very easily… Ravenous – excessive rumination is a lovely way of putting it! I have done a little yoga, but I am very bad indeed at sticking with it, although I think it is an excellent thing to do. Yoga and meditation are two sides of a very similar coin, I think. I like a writer called Moshe Feldenkrais who says that movement is the easiest route to shifting blocked emotions and thought, and I think he’s spot on there. Bluepete, I really like that thought that anxiety might have a positive side to it – I lose that instantly under the wave of panic! But you’re right – all experience can be put to good use with the right frame of mind. Oooh I’ve just heard about the new Julian Barnes book and will most certainly be getting it very soon (in fact I have a book token I might well use for it). I’ll let you know what it’s like! Danielle – Oh do I know what you mean. I watch my son at 13 and think to myself, you never have it so good again, in terms of freedom from dreary responsibility and tasks! I’m so pleased you think of me as calm. I am when I’m writing this blog, or when I’m talking about books. It’s the rest of life that’s more taxing🙂 iliana – we’ll be sisters in the struggle to keep on top of endless stuff! I think that yoga is pretty much the same thing as meditation only using your body more (so in many ways it might even be better for you!). I used to do t’ai chi and really liked that – also the same sort of principle of breathing with specific movement. So long as you’re looking after yourself, that’s all that matters.

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