Slow Meditation: Releasing The Pressure
There’s a lot of buzz about Slow Living at the moment, and it would seem natural to look to meditation to support this. But I’m wondering how many of us fall into practising what I think of as ‘fast meditation’.
This post was inspired by a brief online exchange I had with Carl Honore: when I mentioned this sense of haste in meditation, he astutely noted that “people are in such a hurry that they even want to slow down fast”.
So thank you to Carl for writing his book In Praise Of Slow, and for prompting me to reflect on my own journey towards slow(er) meditation. I’m not sure I’ve totally slowed it down yet, but I’ve definitely eased a lot of the pressure I’d been inadvertently bringing into my practice.
Meditation teacher Reggie Ray observes that when meditative traditions are adopted into contemporary cultures, they can take on the flavour of the dominant values of that environment. I recognise this from my own experiences.
When I’ve practiced in settings informed by ancient traditions, I noticed myself trying to get on the fast track to peace, growth or wisdom. I swapped chasing the goals of consumer culture for those of the meditative path: trying to master more complicated meditations, or get enough experience to go on increasingly intense retreats. There was a definite sense of trying to get somewhere, and as rapidly as possible.
Like many people, I started my meditation journey with an 8-week mindfulness course. Eager for change, I don’t think I realised that it was just a starting point – two months seemed like a long time, and if someone had told me that meditation is a path that can unfold over many years, I’m not sure I’d have given it a go in the first place. So the courses are a great place to start, to ease us into meditation. And it’s also really helpful if we receive encouragement to see the practice as an ongoing one, with no particular end point.
For me, meditation is about being with life more deeply. Bringing a sense of hurry to meditation can echo how we rush through life itself. As is often pointed out, the ultimate finish line we are racing towards is death. We can think of meditation as a journey, but as Pico Iyer explains, it’s ‘an invitation to the adventure of going nowhere’.
As we become more present to our embodied experience, we reduce the urge to constantly be somewhere else – in our thoughts, in the meeting we’re having next week, in the situation we screwed up yesterday, or in our fantasy future of ‘I’ll be happy when…’
I’ve been reflecting on how my own practice has developed over the years, shifting from quite a driven pursuit of trying to get somewhere, to something slower, more relaxed and somehow more deeply sustaining.
In the beginning, I needed to feel held by structure in meditation. I felt motivated and supported by having a weekly plan to do say, a 10-minute practice every day, following the guided recording. Meditation was so different from my usual mode of being that without these resources, I’d have abandoned it pretty quickly.
I did notice however that if I clung too tightly to structure, I started evaluating my performance, putting pressure on myself to ‘succeed’ in meditation. This success might look like practising daily in an unbroken run, or sitting for longer periods, or achieving a particular quality of awareness. I might look for evidence of results, to see if my meditation was paying off.
When this pressure got too much, my practice would lapse: it felt too hard, so I’d fall off the wagon for a while. And always, to start back up again, I’d need the wisdom of going slowly, to ease myself back in without putting high expectations on myself, or on the practice.
I’d remind myself that it’s fine to start with 5-minute practices, or to return to them if that’s more workable. I’ve found that five minutes of true presence is more restoring than slogging through half an hour just so I can tick it off my list, or give myself a gold star for achievement.
At one point, I noticed I’d become attached to a particular breathing meditation because I believed it would unlock the secrets of ‘advanced’ practice, and that was creating a sense of impatience. So I gave myself permission to go back to my beloved self-kindness meditation, which always feels less like making something happen, and more like deepening an ongoing relationship with myself.
I also began to explore some of the slower somatic meditations (which means body awareness). As I let go of goals and speed, I discovered I could access a ‘deep listening’ to the body which is subtle, but somehow restorative and transformative.
Somatic approaches tell us that the nervous system needs to go slowly, as it adjusts to gradual shifts – it may even reject fast changes by becoming overwhelmed. Going slowly is another way to bring self-kindness to the practice. As with all learning, it’s a balance between expanding your comfort zone, and not pushing yourself too hard and too fast.
I’ve also eased the sense of pressure by gradually letting go of some of the structure, as it began to feel natural to do that. Once it felt more familiar to spend time just sitting still, and noticing the constant flow of thoughts, emotions and body sensations, I found that I didn’t always need the guidance of a recording, or a particular focus of meditation, like the breath.
Eventually, the meditative qualities of awareness and presence began showing up in my daily life more, and so the line between ‘life’ and ‘meditation’ started to blur. Where I felt this shift most strikingly was in my experience of family holidays. While hanging out on the beach for a week with my husband and our son, I was dropping into the same meditative state I’d had a taste of on retreats – but without the hours of daily sitting meditation.
All my experimenting has helped me to build a practice that supports me and feels appealing, from day to day. Not measuring my progress has also meant I’ve learned to embrace every meditation experience as valuable, even if I don’t enjoy each session, or feel calm & thought-free. Without those expectations, there’s room for a whole dimension of aliveness that I was cutting myself off from, in the pursuit of something different.
I didn’t get to these experiences of meditation quickly, at all (I’ve been practising for over 10 years as I write this). Reflecting on the value of slowness in this practice, I’m so grateful that I’ve stayed with meditation even through the periods of wondering whether anything much was happening.
My journey has resulted in a huge amount of personal growth, and brought me to a much deeper sense of peace – but only because this process has unfolded slowly, over a period of years. And I’m still in that process. Now that I’m discovering the quiet thrill of being fully alive, I’m in no hurry to get to the end.
If you liked this blog, you might also like:
My collection of Meditations includes some short ones of around 5 minutes.
Pico Iyer’s TED talk The Art Of Stillness, and his book by the same name.