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Posts tagged ‘Meditation’

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.

Reclaiming Our Natural Wellbeing – Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I considered how we’ve become disconnected from our embodied experience as human beings.  The more that modern culture has prized (and praised) a ‘left brain’ approach to living and learning, the more we’ve lost touch with the wisdom of our right brain/body.

By contrast, research on hunter-gatherer people suggest that they are more ‘whole-brained’, or I might say ‘whole-bodied’.  People who’ve lived with and studied the few remaining hunter-gatherer cultures have shared some fascinating insights into a way of life that appears to support better wellbeing than we enjoy in contemporary western culture.  So what might happen if we were more connected to our right brain/body? (When I use this phrase, I mean the whole body).

We might add less stress to our experiences. The thinking mind can be a great tool, when it’s the right one for the job. But when we have an unpleasant experience, we often add an extra layer’ of difficulty with thoughts that escalate our distress. This is sometimes called ‘discursive thinking’ in the meditation tradition. If we can stay with our experience in the body, the difficulty tends to pass through quicker and with less suffering. (This is often taught in mindfulness courses).

We might be more present-moment oriented. Instead of constantly thinking about what resources (money, possessions, relationships) we need to store up for the future, we might concentrate more on what we need for just now. Of course it may still be important to provide for the future. But perhaps we can balance this by inhabiting trust, and by having more modest ambitions. If we have fewer wants, these are more easily satisfied and we are more likely to enjoy the wellbeing of being happy with what we’ve got right now.

We might enjoy work more. I was fascinated to read that in a hunter-gatherer culture that still exists today, they don’t have a word for ‘work’. They cheerfully get on with a range of necessary activities, but they don’t label any of these separate tasks as ‘work’. This seemed to mirror a discovery I made myself about not labelling activities as work – I found it really liberating, as it began to erode a belief I’ve picked up that work has to feel hard and unpleasant if I’m doing it right!

We might stop chasing ‘happiness’ as a goal. In our culture, we seem to have created a mythical destination called ‘happiness’ that once reached, we can dwell in permanently. But in reality, we all experience a constant flow of feelings that arise and pass. Being able to enjoy present-moment feelings of joy or peace, without trying to nail them down, is to experience true wellbeing. I reflected more deeply on this in an old post Finding Happy Ever After – Right Now.

We might feel more whole, more fully human, and more at ease with ourselves. Research tells us that suppression of emotions reduces wellbeing rather than improving it. I’ve seen the enormous value of self-kindness practices in helping people to re-connect with these cut-off parts of themselves, and the confidence and resilience that then emerges. I’ve learned in teaching these practices that our right-brain imaginative capacities are a huge ally in accessing this capacity: often people feel unsure about how to connect with self-kindness, and then discover that in using their imagination, they can find a creative ‘way in’.

We might be more peaceful. In my own experience, the more connected I am to all parts of myself, the more I can connect with others peacefully, without the need for defensiveness or control. I find it fascinating to reflect on the escalation in human conflict since we started farming and separating ourselves with territories that we need to defend. For me, the concept of the Love Mode vs Power Mode is really helpful, which I touched on here.

We might regain our connection to the earth and halt some of the damage that we’re doing. I’m by no means innocent of engaging in non-eco-friendly practices, but my awareness is growing of the ways I can reduce my own impact on resources. Perhaps if we collectively felt more connection to our environment, some large-scale care for it might become possible.

As to how we find our way into these changes… I’ve known for a while that meditation helps the right brain/body to come back online. I haven’t just read the theory, I’ve experienced an explosion in my own sensitivity, curiosity and creativity (all ‘right-brain’ traits) as my meditation practice has become more established. And of course I’ve witnessed the journeys of people who come to my classes.

I suspect that the practice of meditation helps us attain more balance by calming down the left brain that wants to be constantly figuring everything out verbally. In the meditation space, there is more room for the wisdom of body sensations that we are usually cut off from. It’s not a quick path, but it’s one that (I believe) can gradually lead to healing and wholeness, not just for ourselves, but also for the natural world that we are a part of.

If you want to explore meditation, you can find my recordings on this site under Meditations

What Is Mindfulness?

I’m often asked the question ‘what is mindfulness?’.  I don’t believe there is one definitive answer to this question.  What you’ll find here is just one possible answer, based on the way I have received and share the practices of mindfulness and self-kindness…

Mindfulness means being with our experience in a gentle, accepting way.  When stressed, we have a tendency to be stuck in our heads, thinking and problem-solving.  With mindful awareness, we learn to inhabit our direct, sensory experience in the body, and this gives us more choice in how we respond to difficulty.  Through learning to be with all of our experience – even the difficult parts – we build emotional confidence.  I share mindfulness with a strong emphasis on kindness and compassion (including self-kindness, which is extremely powerful in helping us cope with difficulty).

What are the benefits?

Research shows that mindfulness reduces stress and improves wellbeing.  I can personally say that it has helped me feel much more calm and positive in the face of many life challenges. Mindfulness isn’t a quick fix, but it does have profound & lasting benefits when you make it a habit.  

So how does it work?

Mindfulness is practised by engaging in regular meditation.  But it may not be what you associate with the word ‘meditation’.  There are sitting practices that can be done while being guided.  These include focusing on the body, the breath or feelings of kindness.  There are also ways to bring mindful awareness to whatever we’re doing, and this all counts as meditation.  Over time, meditating regularly starts to have a positive impact on how we are generally.  It’s a bit like training to get fit: when practised regularly, it has a cumulative effect, re-wiring the brain to create new neural pathways.  Although practising meditation will greatly enhance the benefits, it is possible to start becoming more mindful of your habitual responses by using mindful awareness tools in daily life.

What’s the best way to learn?

Most people find that some guidance is helpful initially via a class or course of some kind.  This can be especially helpful if you think you’re ‘no good at meditating’.   Being able to access regular sessions helps with motivation to keep your own practice going.  It can also be useful to connect with other people who are learning. You can get CD’s or downloads with guided meditations to listen to at home.  My recordings can be found on the Meditations and Mini-Meditations pages of this blog. 

If you’re not quite ready for regular meditation, but you want to develop a more mindful response to worry, stress and overwhelm – you can still learn to live more mindfully in everyday life.  I share ideas on how to do this in my Monthly Tips posts.   Although it’s true that sitting meditation enhances the benefits of mindfulness, you can also develop your own set of tools that can be used whether you meditate or not.

Are all classes the same?

There are different types of courses and classes.  My approach is helpful for stress, but is not intended to provide support for debilitating mental health issues.  If you have been diagnosed with (or suspect you may have) a mental health condition such as depression or an anxiety disorder, you can ask your GP about a referral to a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course (MBCT) – this is different from the classes I offer. 

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:

My post Which Meditation Should I Do?

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