My brush with this thing called Meditation
In the past meditation has seemed such an alien subject, something “hippy dippy” meant for those who are not quite grounded in the real world. Just the word “Meditation” evoked images of toga clad monks in temples full of smoke with incessant tapping on a hollow wooden shell and droning of a chanting mantra in the background. Or a wild dirty straggly haired thin bony hermit sat in a dark dank cave with a self-imposed ban on any creature comforts and no contact with the outside world or indeed reality all in the aim of reaching bliss. Whether this is true enlightenment or a dehydrated, starvation induced psychosis was difficult to establish. My first brush with meditation, if you think of it in a wider sense of a state where the mind is quietened, was with yoga. Those flashes of stillness and focus whilst breathing and moving. My mind for an instant nowhere else but in my body, on my mat, in that moment. The sense of quiet in savasana at the end of a yoga session as I notice the sensations within my body after class before drifting in-between the awake and asleep state. After years of having dabbled in many different disciplines of physical activity all of which fell to the wayside after a few months, somehow my love and loyalty to yoga remain and I have suspect this is in part related to these fleeting moments of stillness during the moving meditation that is yoga.
My next more studied experience of meditation came rather unexpectedly in the form of Mike - my one time counsellor / life coach / saviour of my sanity and later when with his careful gentle guidance I rediscovered my true self he became simply known as “Guru Mike” by me and all my friends who subsequently also sought help from him. His sessions of “therapy” which were so completely different to any other I had thus far experienced made total sense and taught me to view myself, the world and my part in it completely differently, giving clarity and perspective. As part of the sessions and homework he would always provide a CD recorded in real time with a guided meditation (to be fair to this day I am not sure if this is meditation or hypnosis but given the effect it has in drawing my attention and quietening my mind rather than making me cluck like a chicken I am going to go with the former!) The signal of “sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath” combined with the start of a specific piece of music, his picking up a microphone and the click and whirl of him starting the CD recording even now has an instant effect on my body and mind. It is a trigger for my muscles to relax, my breath to slow and steady, my attention to draw inwards to my breath, to the subtle moving shapes and colours on the back of my eyelids. It is a learned ‘off’ switch to my frantic mind which I still turn to when I become lost and caught up in the busyness of life, swept away in the tornado of thought, this cue can still ground me. With this in mind I started to think maybe this is not all a farfetched Tibetan hermit crazy thing after all! Maybe there is something to this thing called meditation. This led me more recently to a 6 week beginner’s meditation course with the Southampton Buddhist Centre. I arrived with apprehension not really sure what to expect - lots of incense, maybe being forced to sit still for hours on end.... it was 2 and a half hours a week! But in reality they were very normal people, teachers who were warm and welcoming with cups of tea and biscuits. A group of students with very similar reasons for being drawn to the course; busy lives, feeling like we were treading water and had heard about this thing call meditation that might help. There was healthy scepticism within the group not just blind agreement that it worked. After each guided 10-15 minutes of meditation trialling different techniques from counting the breath to loving kindness meditation, we took a moment to explore how it felt before having small group discussions openly and honestly in a very safe environment about what effect (if any) it had. This varied from “absolutely nothing” with feelings of disquiet and frustration that we felt nothing; to “it felt good to be still, to be quiet”; to “I was just falling asleep!!” There was also homework (turns out I am a stickler for homework assignments! Must be a remnant from childhood, must remember to explore that with Guru Mike at some point!) to try out what we had learnt at home.
By building up our practice starting with 5 minutes regularly every day, gradually increasing to 15 minutes every 2-3 days. This was not a strict imposition but the focus was on doing what we could, what feels right, looking to enjoy it, and let go (as best we can) of making judgements about what one should or should not be doing, whilst noticing that of course evaluating is just what our minds naturally do. There were other simple tasks to practice a brief ‘mindful pause’ as many times as we can - part of exploring the potency of being 'mindful' by giving your full attention to what you are experiencing in the present moment. We experimented with being mindful within the flow of routine activities that fill our life e.g. starting and stopping car, brushing our teeth, washing the dishes and practicing eating at least one meal mindfully. Lastly we experimented with sitting doing nothing for 5 minutes each day and paying attention to what happens. The last one is surprisingly difficult. I kept feeling oddly guilty for sitting doing nothing, at least when meditating I’m “doing something that is supposed to be good for me” but to actively ‘do’ nothing is such a foreign concept in today’s society where everything is “Go Go Go” and we forget to “Stop Stop Stop!” But there is definitely something to the old adage of practice makes perfect. Though I am far from perfect and a million miles away from reaching the supposed samadhi blissful state, I have discerned small positive effects - a moment in the car driving to work when I notice how beautiful the sun rise is as the light shines just so through the leaves of the soaring trees in a dappled light effect. When doing the washing up I notice the smell of the jasmine wafting through the window from the plant outside, to the simple pleasure of running my tongue over my minty squeaky clean teeth after brushing. Meditation is a vast and sometimes unfathomable subject and I must confess meditation for the love of it.... well I may not be quite there yet, but I am certainly intrigued enough to dabble with meditation for the exploration of it!