A Happiness Journey

First came Meditation

Let me start with a quote from Buddha (that has no doubt been changed in a million ways since he said it, if he said it, but the essence is still poignant) “What have you gained from Meditation?” He replied: “Nothing.” “However”, Buddha said, “let me tell you what I lost: Anger, Anxiety, Depression, Insecurity, Fear of Old, Age and Death.”

 

Like many people, I suffer from the burden over ‘over-thinking’. I’m a pretty cerebral person and often get lost in my thoughts. One of the many downsides to this incredibly common phenomenon is that when I’m not 100% at peace (most of the time) I can get caught in the hamster wheel of rumination. Ruminating is simply repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion and it’s one of the similarities between anxiety and depression. When people are anxious there is a tendency to worry about all the many worse case scenarios and when people are depressed, the themes of rumination are typically about being inadequate or worthless. The repetition and the feelings of inadequacy raise anxiety, and anxiety interferes with solving the problem, often deepening the depression. Vicious Cycle!

 

What Meditation did for me when my anxiety was at it’s worse, was allow me to create some distance between the looping thoughts and myself. I wasn’t on the hamster wheel anymore, lost in the stories I was telling myself. I liken it to being sat on the hard shoulder of a freeway. All the cars zooming past are my thoughts going at a million miles an hour, but I’m not on the freeway, I am sat at the side watching them fly past. As I got better at meditating, I moved to the grass verge beside the hard shoulder, then gradually I could move further and further away from the freeway until I barely noticed the noise of the cars passing by anymore. I think this analogy is important because every day I hear people saying that the main reason they don’t meditate is because they can’t stop their thoughts or quiet their mind. Most people don’t realise, you don’t have to. We are thinking beings, our brains are designed to produce thoughts, so you don’t need to stop them, you just need to learn to detach from them. We are not our thoughts after all and they shouldn’t be permitted to control us.

 

What is Meditation?

The Eastern traditions have been practising meditation for Millenia and it can be found in the ancient texts of China and India, followed by many different schools of philosophy from Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Yoga to name a few. There’s a reason why it’s been adopted by so many, for so long!

 

Meditation is a training in awareness, combining breathing and posture, that leads to inner stillness. It teaches you to become the observer of your thoughts and to gain a new and healthy perspective.

 

What does it do?

Physically it calms your nervous system, moving you out of the Sympathetic fight / flight response to the Parasympathetic rest/digest response. The more you repeat the meditation, the more adept your nervous system becomes at maintaining the rest and digest state. It lowers your cortisol, steadies your heart rate, soothes the Vagus nerve and dramatically improves respiration. Emotionally and Psychologically it has been shown scientifically to help with conditions such as anxiety, depression, chronic disease, stress, and chronic pain. It improves resilience, clarity of thought, reflection, creativity, and mindfulness. There are many other ways meditation has been shown to benefit us, but these are just a few of the proven ones.

 

It’s called a meditation practice (not a meditation perfect) because it is something that requires repetition. It’s a skill and like any other skill, you can’t expect to just sit down to and be good at it, it requires daily practice. That said, one of the incredible advantages of meditation is that you can still gain a lot of the benefit from only having a very short daily practice. The most important thing is the consistency of your practice rather than the length of time. You can literally start with 5 mins every day and it won’t be long before you experience the benefits, then slowly build up your length of mediation from there. It takes time to build up the benefits to the nervous system so it’s definitely something you want to start, before you actually feel like you need it. Trust me when I say, trying to create distance from your thoughts is a million times harder when you’re in crisis mode, rather than starting when things feel relatively calm in your life.

 

What’s the difference between Meditation and Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the ability to just be present and fully engaged in the here and now. You don’t need to meditate to be mindful. You can be mindful doing the washing up, walking the dog, or taking the kids to school. The trick to being mindful is just focusing on everything you are experiencing in that given moment. The breeze on your skin, the sensation of the water on your hands, the way your clothes rest on your body, the birds singing in the trees etc. You’re very much plugged into your five senses rather than getting lost in your thoughts or in social media which always pull us out of the present moment and drags us off somewhere else.

 

What if I can’t sit on a cushion?

Meditation doesn’t need to be done sat on a cushion. Historically the monks would do their long meditations sat down in a seated position, I suspect because they were meditating for hours on end. They also did walking meditation and that’s still popular today. The yogi’s practice the movement part of yoga (Asana) to be able to limber their bodies up to prepare them for the lengthy periods of time they will be sat in meditation, usually coiled up like a pretzel in Lotus position. Tai Chi is a form of movement meditation that involves using slow fluid movements to connect to the energy currents of the body and the earth. You can lay down to meditate if sitting isn’t comfortable, but you do need to remain alert and laying down often leads to sleep so it’s not advised for beginners or the exhausted. You can meditate standing up in one spot or out walking if sitting isn’t your thing and there’s even a practice called Dynamic meditation which is an extremely vigorous and intense practice, not for the faint hearted! Ultimately, there is something there for everyone, I advise you try all the options and pick the one that works for you.

 

Posture

I prefer to sit on a cushion in easy cross legs, with my back propped up against a wall. I feel like all the energy centres in my body line up well in that position, I won’t fall asleep because my head’s not resting on anything, the wall takes some of the pressure off my back and stops me slumping, and having my hips slightly higher than my knees is easy on my hips. You can do all sorts of things with your hands, and again, these are worth experimenting with. The yogi’s use mudras (the finger poses) that all have various meanings. Very basically though, you can rest your hands on your knees, palms facing down, for a feeling of groundedness, palms facing up as a way of connection to the universe, or like the Buddhist monks, with your hands in your lap. Sometimes, if I’m not meditating for too long, and I know my arms won’t ache, I will put one hand on my belly to remind myself to breathe from my abdomen and one hand on my heart so I can stay connected with the beat that keeps me anchored.

 

The long and short of it is, the benefits to starting and maintaining a consistent meditation practice are so incredible that it’s worth trying to make it your own in any way you can. You literally can’t do it wrong.

 

Breathing

So you think you know how to breathe? Should be easy right? We do it thousands of times a day! Many of us breathe in the top part of our lungs, our chests lifting and falling. The more stressed we are, the higher up we tend to breath. The problem with this method of breathing is that firstly we’re not getting oxygen deep into the alveoli throughout the lungs which our organs need for fuel, but also we’re not activating the Vagus nerve which helps to calm the whole system down. The Vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, meandering its way down from the Brain to the Abdomen, interacting with most of our organs along the way. Ever wonder why you get sick to the stomach or tension in your gut when you’re stressed? The Vagus nerve is one of the main culprits here. Breathing into the belly is a way to keep the nervous system calm and nourished. It allows rich oxygenated blood to flood your system and affects the Vagus nerve. Breathing is also the most popular anchor that people use to focus the mind. Having a focus point in the body is an amazing way of pulling yourself out of the mind. It’s the key method to separating yourself from the thoughts. If you focus on the breath rushing in cold through your nostrils, and then the feeling of your warm breath as it tumbles out over your top lip, it’s really hard to do that at the same time as plan what you’re going to have for dinner! Every time you notice that you’ve been carried off away on the current of your thoughts again you just keep bringing yourself back to the anchor of your breath. Basically, that’s meditation, just bringing yourself back to your breath over and over again. Some days you’ll notice you need to do it more than others but that’s ok. It’s a practice and progress is rarely linear.

 

Guided Meditation

The way I started out on my meditation journey was using an app on my phone and I still use an app regularly. I personally use Insight Timer which has thousands of guided meditations of all different time, voices, noises, and topics to suit every person and it’s completely free. At first a guided meditation felt like training wheels until I was ready to go out on my own, just me, my cushion and my breath. Now I love a guided meditation because I love using someone else’s voice as my anchor.

 

So, with that I invite you to go out and find your meditation wings. Whatever you choose it will change your life. I have never met anyone who regretted making meditation a part of their life and I swear by it. I definitely know when my practice has begun to slip because all the self-critical and judgemental thoughts start to sneak their way back into my brain. It’s also one of the ways I honour myself by carving out time in my day just for me. Even more important if you have a family and kids who need so much of you.

 

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2 thoughts on “First came Meditation”

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