If you discount the countless times I used to get stoned, I was 26 years old when I took my first fully conscious inhalation and meditated for the first time.
The stoner’s path just wasn’t an option for me. After being completely hooked I had finally given up a couple years earlier—it had stopped being fun and its function had become to make me feel normal, which seemed pretty pointless. As when I’d given up anti-depressants a few years earlier, I knew I had to discover who I was without all that.
I was on a mission to find ecstasy, or at least some peace of mind. The non-drug route was now appealing, if only because getting off my head had provided just fleeting respite from ‘me’ so far. After extensive immersion in losing my mind I had to concede that there were still as many downs as ups and I still hated myself.
Could meditation really offer relief from the depression and anxiety that wrecked each day? As the Buddha had observed, life was suffering, and I needed a way out.
So I started meditating.
I wondered exactly how I would find the time to meditate in a day that was already too short. There seemed only one way to do it. With a rare display of conviction I set my alarm clock 40 minutes earlier than normal. This was how it would be.
I remember the first time I meditated. I was hungover. I listened to a guided meditation on a CD. As I cycled to work later that morning, the colours and textures of the world were different. Richer, more detailed, more real. Maybe I was still pissed. Whatever, it was enough for me to figure that perhaps there could be something in this after all.
In those early days I was shocked at the sheer volume of shit that my mind insisted on spewing forth. It was a continuous tidal wave of mental and emotional sewage. I was amazed. Is this really what is happening whilst I attempt to go about my daily life? No wonder I’m screwed. The thought that peace of mind was an actual attainable thing seemed ridiculous as I cowered under this mental bombardment.
While frustrating, I had glimpses of what could be. Though hard to stomach, the notion that we can choose how to respond to our thoughts had been planted like a seed in my mind.
I recognised how this could be a remedy for the victim status I occupied in relation to my own mental activity. I dared to envision a day when this was no longer the case. I trusted what I had heard in regard to this being possible, and gambled that waking up 40 minutes earlier for the rest of my life was a price worth paying for that freedom.
The time I invested started to pay off. Sitting on that cushion I learnt not to judge the quality of my thoughts, but to simply experience them, recognise them for what they were, allow them to be, and let them go. In time, the intensity and imposition of these thoughts would slowly begin to subside.
With more time, I started to recognise how thoughts emerge from nothingness, that they appear for a while in awareness, and then dissolve back into the same void from which they came. I realised their transitory and illusory nature.
I spotted their cunning plan: to hijack my emotions, to fool me into believing they had substance and they were real, to trick me into thinking my thoughts and feelings were ‘me’, that my brain vomit should affect my mental state.
As much as I could, I stayed present. I learned how to feel but not respond to the sensations, emotions and thoughts that came.
I wasn’t blocking anything out. It wasn’t about trying to control the contents of my mind, but to let whatever it was just be, without invoking an emotional response. And if there was an emotional response, I tried to just hold that in my awareness without judgement too.
I was able to nurture a space between the arrival of a thought and how I responded in relation to it. In time that space made it’s way from my cushion to other parts of my life, and it continues to grow. Not smoothly though. Fuck no. Sometimes it feels like nine years of meditation was for nothing. But these downers pass, like everything else.
Sometimes I experience astonishing things. Waves of ecstasy. Compassion. Love. A strange and intense spinning sensation. Clarity. Insight. Focus. Having thousands of arms like a Buddhist deity. Often it’s the best half hour of my day.
I’m convinced that the activity of our mind that causes us so much trouble is like clouds in the sky. When we meditate it’s like sitting in a plane that’s taking off. As that rising plane pierces the clouds that shield the sun, we pierce the veil that keeps us from experiencing the clear blue sky of our untainted minds.
At other times I feel tired, frustrated, sleepy and blunt.
I learnt that actually none of this matters. What is important is to just do the practice. Witness the contents of awareness and let it be. Meditation is not about achieving anything, it’s the process of observing and letting go.
Ok it’s about time somebody said it. There is way too much stupid, weird and wishy-washy language banded about in spiritual circles. So much in fact that I don’t like to use the term ‘spirituality’ at all. Its useless to me. Wasted. Irrelevant.
It’s so easily associated with so much stuff that is lacking in critical thinking, removed from reality and alienating to people not participating in the ‘spiritual’ arena, what ever the hell that is.
Yet, at the same time, we also understand the term ‘spiritual’ to indicate the highest of human qualities. It implies wisdom, depth, and compassion. A commitment to something larger than oneself. The great men and women of our time are often said to have these qualities.
I lament the fact that the word ‘spiritual’ has so many uses and meanings. I’m sure many people who would benefit from engaging with practical teachings about the mind and how to live a meaningful life are put off by a weird world of tarot, angels, mediums and astral realms.
Walk in to a bookshop and go to the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s not to say that some of these things might have some value, and could be really interesting to explore but can’t we just use another name for them please? ‘Spiritual’ language, while perhaps sometimes inspiring, often just isn’t applicable to the reality of our daily lives, and frankly it’s often embarrassing to use the ‘S’ word.
Frequently its vocabulary serves to reinforce a framework and perspective of the world that is akin to religion: long on preaching, short on relevance, and all too often requiring belief in something that may or may not exist.
Of course spirituality in its broadest sense is about many things, and many interpretations of these many things. For me though, what I wish the core of spirituality came down to is this: developing compassion for ourselves and others through gaining insight into the nature of our minds.
I think it is important to define spirituality in these terms because in doing so we get down to what is most universally applicable and important. We make it secular in nature and more relevant to those who might benefit from its insights but have no time or interest in fluff. We strip away all the indulgent and seductive aspects of spirit and make it human again. Apposite and of use, right now.
What greater ideal could there be than to be at peace with our experience of the world? And what is it that filters our experience of the world and determines the quality of our mood and perception of ourselves and the world? Mind. So it strikes me that if what we truly want is to be content and live well, we have to start with our mind.
This definition of spirituality is essentially an enquiry in to the nature of who we are and how we work at the most practical level. It’s a secular definition that should alienate less people and could apply to everyone.
It brings us together, ‘spiritual’ and ‘not spiritual’ folk alike, demonstrating that these definitions do not really exist: we all want to make the best of our minds and our experience of reality.
It’s all spirit and no fluff. It requires no belief in anything you can’t see or can’t prove and it’s concerned with our real lives, right now.
We cried in bitter anguish, we cried in utter bliss. We felt the devils anger, and the sweetness of a kiss. We meditated for so many years. Had therapists and many tears. We got drunk on beer and wine and whiskey and vodka and life. We got high, and we got low. We felt the heat and the ice.
We got sober. We ran away. We found the fields and the jungle and mountains and the cave. We drank the wicked brew and saw our lives break open. We travelled the world across land and ocean. We learned to be mindful, we learned to be still. We learned to forgive, just a little.
We did so much. And how we tried. And how we cried. We cut. We loved. We fucked. We sunk in to the ocean. We danced among the stars. We lied and we cheated, we collected many scars.
We tried to make things right. We tried to be good. We tried to live up to the expectations of others the best we could. We tried not to care. We tried to conform. We tried to be free. We tried to just be.
We tried to find the answers but we didn’t know the questions. We tried to find our way but we didn’t have directions. We sought protection from the world but we had no protection from ourselves. We were our worst enemies, not anybody else.
We tried to find god or spirit or love or nature or ecstasy or something. Anything, bigger and greater than ourselves and our parents and our education and our politicians and our culture and our society. Something to hold on to. Just something we could cherish and belong to. Something worth living for.
We never stopped searching. We kept on believing tomorrow might just be worth living an extra day for. But tomorrow never came. It’s still always today. And I’m still me and you’re still you. And we still want to change but we don’t know what to do. We still wish we were someone else. We’re still waiting to be saved.
When will this stop? When will this end? When will we get there? Does ’there’ even exist?
After all these years we’re still broken. Perhaps it’s unspoken, perhaps it’s not quite so much as before, but we’re still, frustratingly, achingly sore.
We still hate ourselves. We still feel weak. We still lack power when we speak. We still dream big, but our doubt is bigger. Too scared to try to actualise dreams, still scarred by painful memories of previous failures. Too self aware. Too hurt to care. Too clever but not quite clever enough. Too intimate with our minds and our flaws. Still unable to open doors.
Still unable to love. Still jealous. Still children, still seeking approval. We try and fail to be grown up. Trying and failing to be a success. Confused as ever about what we want from life, and still no clearer what any of this is for.
But there is no ‘off’ button, and we will go on. Learning, sharing, hoping, daring. Giving up, trying again, holding on, letting go. Finding ourselves, while getting lost.
1) Meditate first thing in the morning
It’s a simple truth for most people that meditating first thing in the morning is easier. You might be tempted to leave it for later in the day but meditating in the morning means you’re working with a more rested and empty mind.
It also means you set yourself up well for the day – the commute to work will not be so bad and you won’t be such a grumps in the morning. Hell, you might even feel really happy!
2) Start doing yoga
The whole original purpose of yoga ‘back in the day’, was to prepare the body for meditation. Despite involving just sitting on your ass, you might have noticed that meditation can actually be physically quite demanding, with aches and pains a real distraction.
Yoga is the perfect compliment to meditation because it opens up the hips and strengthens the core, meaning you can sit for longer without pains creeping into your neck, back, knees, shoulders, and wherever else.
If you currently sit in a chair, you may find that yoga can help you transition to sitting in a half or full lotus position, perhaps facilitating a deeper experience.
3) Don’t get attached to notions of good or bad meditations
This is a biggy! It’s easy to think that meditation should be this or that. Especially if we read books about spirituality or blog articles by meditators, it’s easy to think that we’ve failed if we don’t experience oneness, bliss, love, light, enlightenment, energy flows and other such clichés.
This is not what meditation is about. Meditation is about the practice of observing and allowing the contents of your awareness. If you simply do this you’ve succeeded. It doesn’t matter if you feel grumpy, tired, hungry, sexually aroused, harassed by your thoughts, or united with the supreme godhead, meditation is about observation and letting go. Simples.
4) Go on a retreat
Going on a meditation retreat might seem a little intensive but it’s a great way to discover the power of meditation. When I attended my first ten day silent Vipassana retreat I was amazed how positive the affects were.
I felt more creative and inspired than ever. I was happier and more relaxed. I felt more positive about the future. Sure, the long hours spent meditating might involve a bit of discomfort but the potential ROI is big.
5) Listen to a guided meditation
If you just can’t get into it and you’re frustrated by your wondering mind, don’t worry. This is all part of the process at certain stages. Having said that, you might find it helps to gain some extra direction through a guided meditation or a binaural beats sound recording, rather than just meditating in silence.
This is how I started, and though I discarded these tools after a while they helped to first get me into my practice.
6) Go to a local meditation class
Forget books and talks, there’s no better way to learn how to meditate than to meditate. Going to local classes exposes you to different styles of meditation, forces you to actually do it, and connects you to other meditators.
You never know, you might even find some of them are nice people who become friends and motivators for your practice. At times for example, I’ve really enjoyed going to Buddhist classes as the teachings about the mind are just so bang on. See what’s happening in your town or city and sign up to an introductory course.
7) Wear earplugs
This might not sound like the most profound piece of advice you’ll hear about meditation but I promise it’s a good one. I only started doing this recently and I wish I’d done it sooner.
The world can be a noisy place sometimes, with cars, noisy kids, domestic disputes and refuse collectors all doing their best to ruin the morning peace. There is an argument for being as mindful as possible while you meditate to this soundtrack but there is also a lot to gain from meditating in peace and quiet.
Find some decent foam earplugs and discover how much deeper you can go. This is also a godsend for meditating travellers on the move, who never have to worry about another crowing cockerel again.
8) Swim, shower or drink coffee beforehand
Meditating when you are sleepy can sometimes be frustrating and counterproductive. If this is a problem, do something to wake yourself up first, particular if you’ve just been sleeping. I always jump in the shower before meditating but coffee (don’t listen to your ‘coffee is bad for you’ yogi friends) and exercise will also do the trick. Swimming is particularly refreshing if you have access to a nearby pool.
9) Set your alarm clock early
If you’re not sure how to fit meditation into your busy routine, I have a simple solution: set your alarm clock early by the amount of time you intend to meditate for plus ten minutes. It might sound like a sucky thing to do but you’ll soon get used to it, and the energising affects of meditation first thing in the morning will give you back the rest you missed.
I used to recoil at the thought of such a thing but now cannot even consider leaving for work without getting my fix.
10) Try different styles of meditation
There are many styles of meditation out there, and while no particular one can be said to be the best, there’s sure to be a style that just works better for you. If your current practice is not really doing it, try some others. It could be just the refresh you need. I found moving to an open meditation instead of concentrating on my breath did wonders. Don’t endlessly try different styles though, find what works for you.
11) Meditate everyday
Whether it’s for three or 30 minutes, the benefits of meditation stack up the more you do it. Short on time? Woke up late? Doesn’t matter. Just do what you can – a little is better than none.
EDIT: Ok yep, this post actually doesn’t dive into the science at all, although it does summarise some scientific studies. I’m gonna revisit this again and get a bit more scientific-y another time.
Meditation rocks. If you can actually be bothered to do it more days than not, or even if you do it sporadically, there’s so much to be gained from hanging out on that cushion. Let’s face it though, it’s still seen as a pretty alternative practice by those who don’t close their eyes for extended periods of time except for when they’re sleeping, and for those of us who do, it’s tempting to keep our practice a secret to colleagues and certain friends, for fear of being called that most lazy of insults, a hippie. Or maybe that’s just me.
Thankfully meditators everywhere have a new ally. Science is on our side! Recent developments in research and in neuroscience in particular have shed fascinating insights into what happens physiologically and psychologically when we meditate, validating that ancient practice and demonstrating it’s universal worth.
Of course those of us who meditate know what good it does for us without have to turn to the ‘S’ word for validation of our practice, but it’s worth recognising what this research is telling us, partly because it’s great motivation to keep meditating, or maybe approach it with renewed vigour, but also because it’s great to have some handy ammo in case that ‘H’ word ever gets aimed at us.
Humans have known about the efficacy of meditation for thousands of years, yet in the west it’s only been relatively recently that it has started to catch on. Despite an increase in awareness of meditation, it’s still likely some of your friends will think you’re a nut for doing it, so here is what you’ve always wanted – a list of some of the profound benefits of meditation, as confirmed by those rational scientists. Who can argue with that? And if you don’t meditate, this is what you’re missing…
1) The mindfulness cultivated by meditation lowers levels of the hormone cortisol, of which high levels are associated with stress
2) The practice of meditation produces a relaxation response, even in new meditators, leaving you nice and mellow but without blunting the sharpness of your mind
3) Meditation actually causes physical changes in the brain, including an increase in the volume of grey matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, and the size of the right hippocampus. Why should we care? This is good because it’s thought larger volumes in these regions leads to the cultivation of positive responses and emotions, and increased engagement in mindful behaviour.
4) Meditation increases cortical thickness, which recent studies have associated with lowering pain sensitivity
5) Meditating strengthens the connections between brain cells, and increases ‘gyrification’ of the cortex. This enables the brain to process information faster. Furthermore, it was found the more years you meditate the greater these benefits.
6) Just ten days of intensive mindfulness training can lead to improvements in working memory, sustained attention, attention switching and depressive symptoms
7) Meditation activates the anterior cingulate cortex, enhancing your ability to control worried thinking
8) Meditation decreases elaborative stimulus processing, resulting in the improved ability to attend to the continuous stream of stimuli we are exposed to without getting ‘fixed’ on one particular thing
9) ‘Open’ meditation increases creativity and the ability to come up with new ideas
10) In one study, meditation reduced the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or death by 48%
Who knew?! If you want to be creative, less stressed, more chilled, kinder, healthier and a better thinker, you know what to do…