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.