Sunday, 27 September 2015
Meditation for dummies
I've been meditating.
Despite having been brought up on Richard Foster's seminal book Celebration of Discipline (1978) I'd never quite got the difference between prayer and meditation, but the exponential rise in interest in mindfulness has put meditation back on the map for me (though now I'm not entirely sure what the difference between mindfulness and meditation is...)
I came to meditation after a sudden spell of poor health - nothing serious, but scary at the time - and what I realised was that I could, with a few small changes, be a lot more aware than I was of what was happening in my body and mind on a daily basis. The enemy of this mindful state is, of course, busyness; rushing through life without noticing that you haven't slept that well for a few nights, haven't been exercising or drinking enough liquid, say; are upset about something you haven't voiced, or simply that you haven't had enough rest, for example.
The challenge in taking up meditation, though, is to find more time. Because if you're going to practise it on a daily basis you have to find a time of day to do it, and stick to it, and to ring fence that time (and even only 15 minutes can seem long when you're a beginner). You also ideally need a quiet place to sit, which is surprisingly difficult in normal life. Sitting still and 'doing nothing' is counter intuitive since all our cultural training in the West is against 'being' (character, spirituality) and in favour of 'doing' (usefulness, productivity). So not only do you have the practical challenge of carving out time and space, and sticking to it, you also have the intellectual challenge of feeling that it's a waste of time anyway.
I was fortunate that a friend enthused about the benefits of meditation to such a degree that I felt I needed to at least try it. It sounds simple, but sitting quietly and still is really difficult, and the first and biggest obstacle is distraction. The first few minutes of sitting and consciously relaxing, feet on the floor, in a comfy chair (not falling asleep) is all about the thoughts of the day crowding in (what's for supper? why was that driver so aggressive? I haven't read the electricity metre yet...) but the knack is to be aware (mindful) that your thoughts are doing their own thing and to bring your mind constantly back to attention.
Ideally you need a mantra (repeated word or phrase) to bring you back. For me, this is normally an aspect or name of God (but anything could be substituted). I might say 'thank you God for today', or simply, 'Lord Jesus Christ' or perhaps 'give me your peace'. Every time you become aware your mind is drifting, the 'mantra' brings you back to refocus. Basically (and I'm very much a beginner) the whole 15 minutes is spent bringing your mind back from distraction to focus. Sometimes being aware of your breathing helps, as does conscious physical relaxation, from head to toes.
I've been tempted to give up because I'm so easily distracted and at first it's difficult to see any benefit, but recently I've found that things which were initially distractions (the late afternoon sun on the apple trees) can become aids to meditation. So, the train of thought goes: that view is beautiful, the sun is a free gift, God's a good giver, thank you God, etc. That leads you to gratitude as the focus of meditation.
What's the point of meditation? Research has shown that meditating can lower stress levels and help mental and even physical health. The reason I'm persevering (despite feeling I could be spending the time better, and the clamour of homework assistance, the unwashed dishes and ebay) is that I feel calmer and more able to deal with the stresses and strains of life; somehow more centered, with the feeling that it does not all depend on me. There's also the massive advantage that faith gives, in that any time and space made for God (which is where meditation kind of seeps into prayer) takes the focus off worry and onto the everlasting arms underneath everything.
So I'll persevere. I'll share my efforts with other meditating friends. I'll keep being grateful. I'll see what surfaces and what I learn about myself, and others, and situations I've been thinking about. Maybe I'll get guidance on the more tricky situations. And I'll see what effect meditation has on my otherwise rather wordy, frequently shallow and unfocussed, prayer life.
Four-thirty, cup of tea, chair by the window. Using an egg timer if I really have to (is it still only 4.36pm?). Frankly, if it works for Ruby Wax, there's hope for us all.