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Posts from the ‘Meditation’ Category

Which Meditation Should I Do?

Choice is great when it opens up our world and brings us a sense of agency and freedom.

And… at times it can feel paralysing when we’re unsure which option – of the many – to choose. In meditation, I’ve certainly had the experience of dithering for so long about which recording to listen to that I lose the motivation completely (or the time slot), and end up not practising at all.

With time as our practice develops, we gain more confidence in knowing which practice will best meet our needs on any given day. And we might not always need to listen to a recording.

But then there are those times we just don’t feel sure what would be most supportive. Here’s a menu of meditations for those moments.

These are the same meditations I’ve shared on my main page, but organised by how you’re feeling, instead of by meditation type.

It’s not an absolute ‘prescription’ to be rigidly followed, but a few ideas to help get you unstuck.

This list includes some very short meditations of only a few minutes long – for those days when you’re especially busy, or just feeling resistant to meditating.

GUIDANCE NOTE:  These practices are devised to support stress reduction, but are not intended to address debilitating mental health conditions or severe emotional distress.  Do not listen to these recordings when driving, or when concentration on another task is important for safety.

WHEN FEELING SCATTERED OR STUCK IN ‘BUSY MIND’

Relaxing Into Body Awareness (22 mins) – a body scan meditation with a focus on meeting experience as it is, softening resistance and relaxing into ‘being with’ what’s happening, with greater confidence.

5-Minute Breathing Space – slightly longer than a standard breathing space, a short meditation to help re-establish mindful awareness.

Breathing With The Body (16 mins, Recorded Live) – finding a grounded presence through embodied awareness of the breath.

IF YOU’RE FEELING OVERWHELMED OR FRAZZLED

Basic Breathing Meditation (16 mins) – a short practice for bringing mindful awareness to the breath.

Basic Body Scan (22 mins) – a meditation inviting awareness to inhabit each area of the body.

Support Your Self (6 mins) – a short meditation to bring self-kindness into your day.

FOR DEVELOPING GREATER AWARENESS

Opening To All Of Your Experience (Recorded Live, 19 mins) – a gentle practice of ‘befriending’ – opening more fully to all the various aspects of our experience: the pleasant, the neutral and the unpleasant. Welcoming these in on our own terms can be empowering and help develop a broad, calm and stable awareness.

Mindfulness With Breathing (20 mins, Recorded Live)* – Establishing and maintaining contact with the breath, as felt in the body. Led on a practice afternoon for those with some meditation experience, less guidance than some of my other recordings.

Mindfulness With Feelings (22 mins, Recorded Live)* – A mindfulness with breathing practice, opening to a range of feelings, including energy and pleasant feelings. Allowing all experience to arise and pass, held in the container of the breath.

*These 2 meditations can be done ‘back-to-back’ if you would like an extended practice of 40 minutes.

IF YOU’RE FEELING TENSE

Calming Body, Heart & Mind (Recorded Live, 14mins) – a practice to bring kindness to difficult experience, drawn from the approach developed by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer – see their websites for more meditations.

Supported By The Earth (Recorded Live, 20 mins) – A grounding practice to encourage mindful relaxation. Guidance is given for lying down, so please adapt as necessary if you are seated. (Excuse the audio quality, I think I was lying a bit close to the mic!)

Imagining Compassion (7 mins) – connect with an image of a person, being or place that helps you feel supported, soothed and cared for.

WHEN YOU’RE SHORT ON TIME

Body Check-In (5 mins) – reconnect with embodied awareness.

5-Sense Check-In (5 mins) – drop into Being in the body.

Finding The Positive (5 mins) – taking in what feels good about the present moment.

You can find additional recordings on the Meditations page, organised in the following categories: Self-Kindness, Mindfulness With Breathing, Body Awareness and Short Meditations.

For personalised support with your meditation practice, I run mindfulness workshops and classes in Heaton Moor (South Manchester), and a Coaching Programme via Skype.

 

 

 

 

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:

Quitting The Quick Fix: Mindfulness as a Lifelong Practice

3 Things We Can Unlearn To Boost Mindfulness

Keeping The Flame Of Mindfulness Alight

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.

Relaxing As Letting Go

The word ‘relaxation’ can be problematic. Have you ever had the experience of someone else telling you to ‘just relax’? If only it were that simple.

It’s true that practising mindful body awareness can lead (eventually) to a greater sense of relaxation. But it’s also true that a stressed nervous system needs to go gradually, and it might not let go of tension straight away. In fact, rushing things can have the opposite effect: trying to force ourselves to relax can put our complex body-mind system into a defensive state, rather than a calm one.

Meditation teacher Reggie Ray reminds us that the first step towards relaxing is to actually become more aware of tension. I believe that learning to do this with self-kindness, not judgement, is a crucial step towards freedom from stress. I love how Gregory Kramer explains that ‘relax becomes accept’. From this place of accepting ourselves just as we are right now, we can begin to let go of some of the things that prevent us from experiencing true relaxation.

With mindfulness, we learn to notice the additional layer of stress that we might be adding to our experience – this extra layer of tension is what we begin to relax first.

For example, we might let go of a role we feel driven to play, or an idea of who we need to be. We might let go of telling ourselves a story about how we should be, or about how life is. We might let go of being so hard on ourselves, or of the relentless rush and the unconquerable To-Do list. We might let go of some physical bracing against a body sensation or emotion that we don’t like.

We might begin, very gradually, to let go of habitual strategies that once protected us, but which now limit us; these habits might be mental, emotional, physical or behavioural, and they are personal to each of us. It takes huge courage to truly relax if we’ve spent decades practising vigilance against what might threaten us in some way.

So how do we actually go about moving in this direction?

Bringing awareness into the body (also known as somatic mindfulness), and lying down can both have a profound effect on nervous system regulation. When in bodily contact with the ground, we can connect with a sense of stability that a stressed nervous system really appreciates (you’ll have heard the term ‘grounding yourself’).

Lying down to meditate can also help with letting go of physical ‘holding on’, and in a wider sense it supports the practice of slow living: we weren’t meant to rush around non-stop, and our bodies know this.

As we build body awareness, we also begin to allow the activation cycle of stress to complete, leaving us feeling more peaceful – but this is a process that we need to give time to, even if what we’re aware of for quite a while includes tension or unwanted body sensations.

Paying attention to bodily experience is very effective for reversing chronic stress, but also can be challenging at first for those of us who’ve experienced chronic stress – hence the need to go slowly and not try to force anything. Forcing things can lead to feelings of frustration and failure.

Instead of pushing for a ‘result’ from meditation, we can give ourselves permission to be just how we are in this moment (even if it’s anxious, sad or angry). This is actually key part of being able to relax in the fullest sense: suppressing our emotions creates resistance which works against our capacity to experience peace. As Arnie Kozak wisely points out, ‘Relaxation is a reliable by-product of mindful attention. If you aim directly for relaxation, however, that effort can actually get in the way’.

Given that it can feel challenging when we first begin to re-inhabit the body, I think it’s important to adopt a two-pronged approach that includes not just body awareness, but also compassion – I think of it as ’embodied self-kindness’. Whatever our preferred way to practice self-kindness, it’s a powerful resource that we can lean into when we don’t feel able to put our attention in the body. (You can find plenty of meditations and blogs about self-kindness on this site).

As I reach the end of this post, I’m reminded of the brilliant words of Danna Faulds in her poem Self-Observation Without Judgement, which I’ve shared below.

Sheila runs classes and workshops in Heaton Moor, South Manchester sharing mindfulness, self-kindness and body awareness.

Should I Sit Up Or Lie Down To Meditate?

This a question that comes up alot in classes, and it also comes up alot for me in my own practice too!  And with good reason.  Choosing a posture for meditation is in itself an exercise in being mindful.

This is because there are no simple, black-and-white, right or wrong answers in this area.  I realise this may not be what you want to hear if you’re looking for an ‘how to’ guide.  I used to love a good set of rules to follow (in any area of my life), but learning mindfulness is very much about developing inner wisdom and trust in our own instincts.  With time, we can become more responsive to what’s happening in our own experience.

Picking a posture is a good example of this responsiveness.  While I won’t give a prescriptive list of right or wrong, I’m happy to share a few things that may help you experiment while you find your feet (or bottom, or back…)

What do I need right now?

When you prepare to meditate (whether that means self-guided or listening to a recording), check in with yourself.  What do you need right now?  Some other considerations that may be useful are:

If you’re feeling resistant – what will make meditation feel more appealing/do-able?

If you’re feeling sluggish – what will support a quality of awareness?

If you’re feeling physical discomfort – what does my body need?

If you’re feeling emotionally fragile – what will give me the most support?

When you check in with yourself, you may discover that you need to sit in a chair, lie down covered by a blanket or make an adjustment for your particular body.  The wisdom of the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver comes to mind: ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves’.

Sitting and lying – what’s the difference?

Meditation is an awareness practice, and your posture will ideally support your ability to bring awareness to your present-moment experience.  There are a few pitfalls when it comes to picking a posture that can interfere with this, and a few benefits of certain postures that are useful to know about.

Sitting

One pitfall here is the belief that it’s the only ‘proper’ meditation posture, and to force yourself to stay in a position that feels uncomfortable.  Although we don’t necessarily avoid unpleasant experiences in mindfulness, if you add discomfort in your posture, you’ll be sitting with a whole load of extra distraction.  Plus meditation will seem like an endurance test, and you might stop doing it at all eventually.  Also if you find yourself slumping when you sit, it may be that lying down enables you to get a more supported posture.  Where sitting up is useful is that being upright brings a quality of alert awareness that can support curiosity.  Sitting in an upright chair is usually a comfortable option for most people – you definitely don’t need to sit cross-legged, and I would advise getting the advice of a meditation teacher (in person) before you do so.  Many of my own teachers who have been meditating for decades choose a nice upright chair when they practice.

Lying

When we first learn to meditate, we might need to lie down (and even fall asleep!), as we begin to seek the support of the ground and let go.  This isn’t a problem, but do be aware that over time, lying down to ‘relax’ could be a way of avoiding parts of your experience.  Meditation isn’t about escaping our thoughts, feelings and body sensations – but about learning to relate to them with more kindness and awareness.  When we lie down, we are more likely to drift off, and become less aware of thoughts, feelings and body sensations.  BUT – this is also where lying down can be helpful.  If you are experiencing unpleasant feelings, then lying down may help you to get in touch with them, without getting overwhelmed.  Feeling the support of the ground underneath the body in itself can be quite calming.  This is totally personal (for some people, lying down may not create a feeling of ease).  Body awareness may also be explored more deeply while lying down.   Personally, I have found that after many years of practice, I am now able to lie down to meditate without a significant loss of awareness or drifting off.

As you become more responsive to what you need in each moment, you’ll get to know which posture will support your practice on any given day.  And of course there is always the option of starting off a meditation lying down, and then transition (mindfully) to sitting for the rest of that practice – or vice versa.   A bit of both within one practice can give you the full range of benefits.

If you really want a rule, I’ll concede and give you just one to close with.  As any good teacher will tell you, ALWAYS ALWAYS choose a posture that feels comfortable for your body, and NEVER EVER stay in a posture that causes physical pain or distress.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like the following resources:

For a little more on posture, here’s a piece from Mindful Online called How To Find The Right Meditation Posture For Your Body

 

Quitting The Quick-Fix: Mindfulness As A Lifelong Practice

This year marks my 10-year mindfulness anniversary, since I first went on an 8-week ‘Mindfulness for Stress’ course. And I think I’m learning more now than I ever have.

When I embarked on the course, dedicating a whole 2 months to something felt like quite a big undertaking. We live in such a quick-fix culture, and with so many approaches that promise instant stress relief, I guess I thought that an 8-week mindfulness course must get me sorted by the end of it, right?

Well, thankfully I had access to great teachers who helped me realise that to really get the benefits, I’d need to approach mindfulness as an ongoing practice, not a quick fix.

As a mindfulness teacher now myself, I realise that we don’t believe that anyone who comes to a class needs ‘fixing’ anyway. It’s about becoming more human (not less so), and finding ways to live this human life with greater ease.

In my case, I’d tried so many quick fixes for anxiety during my 20s, but mindfulness is the only thing that’s stuck, and continues to ‘work’. It’s a total gamechanger.

And it doesn’t just ‘work’, it continues to develop, as I deepen my meditation practice. Even after 10 years, I’m still learning so much. About myself. About life. It’s helped me enormously so far, and yet in some ways I feel like I’m only just getting started, and I’m eager to keep exploring.

The first big shift for me was finding freedom from anxiety. Currently, my practice is helping me to open to a more joyful life. Looking at all the positive changes in me over the last decade, who knows how the practice might change me even more deeply, given another 10 years?

So I think it’s important that mindfulness doesn’t become something that we tick off and forget about. While an 8-week course is a great starting point, it’s definitely not an end point: mindfulness is a life-long practice. Remembering this can be really helpful once the course stops, because life doesn’t stop.

While there’s no defined end point to reach in our practice, there is a constant development. We don’t talk about ‘getting better’ at mindfulness, but rather ‘going deeper’ in our practice… getting to know ourselves more intimately, so that we can find increasingly greater ease and freedom, even when life is difficult.

This ongoing development is why I teach classes throughout the year, to support a growing community of people who continue to explore together and make new discoveries.

Some of these insights are that mindfulness isn’t about controlling our feelings, fixing ourselves, or getting rid of so-called negative emotions. Instead, it’s about becoming more comfortable with the full range of our human experience. This is a gradual – but transformative – process. It’s profoundly freeing. But reversing the patterns we’ve built up over decades can’t happen instantly.

So, if you have the courage to keep exploring, to commit to going deeper in your practice, then you’ll discover this freedom for yourself. If you ask me, it’s totally worth it!

If you liked this piece, you might also be interested in this one that emerged as a kind of ‘part 2’ – Committing To Self-Kindness