I never thought I would be writing a blog about meditation. Let alone be doing it myself almost every day. Meditation for me brought up two images in my head: Buddhist monks in their saffron coloured robes, committing to lifelong spiritual development or western people *thinking* they are enlightened because they’ve bought a plastic buddha from the garden centre. Either way, not something I thought would be for me. But, after two stress-induced bouts of flu/burnout, something had to give.
Speaking about it with a friend, she suggested I try meditation, after having been in a similar position herself and finding it invaluable. I knew a bit about the history, how it is used in lots of religious and spiritual practices all around the world. I knew a bit about the science, how it is used to help people suffering with anxiety, pain, insomnia, and other illnesses. But I didn’t really know what it would be like to try, how much hard work it is, or how life changing it can be.
What is meditation?
Before I get into this, I just want to make it clear that I am no expert and I do not think I have “discovered” meditation. There are plenty of people on the internet way more qualified to talk about this than me and also people for whom meditation is still a highly spiritual and cultural practice and we must respect that. This is just about me and where I’ve gone with it as a mental wellbeing practice, which I hope is helpful for anyone who is struggling with brain sludge or just curious about how it might help them. Anxious disclaimer over!
It is quite difficult to define what meditation is as there are so many different traditions and practices. Even for me, as someone who is practicing for mental wellbeing and not spirituality, meditation isn’t just one thing. But I think, in essence, it is about awareness and learning how to just be as you are. It is about creating a little separation between you and your thoughts and feelings. Not shutting them down but just observing them as they pass through your head like jet powered buses, without jumping on board and letting them take you away from actual reality of that moment.
There are two common ways to do this:
1) focused attention meditation– where you focus on one thing e.g. your breathing, and continually bring yourself back to this when your attention inevitably wanders.
2) open-monitoring mediation– where you pay attention to the things happening around you but do not react.
But there are loads of ways you can actually do them in practice. So, if you have tried meditation before and didn’t like it, I would urge you to give it another go trying another way!
5 common misconceptions about meditation
I see you, cynical people scrolling through this like “blah blah, another person who just doesn’t get that I cannot possibly meditate.” I see you, because I was you. Here are a few misconceptions I had, and some I have heard from people I have spoken to about this:
1. “My brain doesn’t switch off / I don’t have one of those mindsets” etc etc etc…
This is the big one I hear all the time. But good news! Everyone has a hyperactive tangle of stuff for a brain! The whole purpose of it is to think, so why would it let you just stop? There are some practices which do aim for the complete ceasing of thoughts, but that must take some serious dedication and effort. It is so common to find your head so full of thoughts and feelings and obligations that you just want to throw in the towel and give up. In a culture based on doing and achieving, our minds hold attention for very short time. I like to think of my brain as a basket full of curious kittens (bear with me). I can keep them all in the basket for a little while but one of them is bound to start wandering off or falling over the side. So, it is my job to pick them back up and gently tell them no and put them back in the basket. And often I find that as I am doing that, another has started escaping, so I have to do it again and so on. But the more I do it, the more the mind kittens are happy to chill in the basket and the more comfortable I am just sitting in calm stillness.
2. “I don’t have time to just sit/lie there”
Hello, past me, how are you? Still feeling completely frazzled and like your head is on fire? Still not making time for yourself? How is that working out for you? Making time to do something for yourself is difficult. Even more so if you are directly caring for someone else. However, if you don’t carve out that little moment in your day, no one else will give it to you. It is boundary setting against the forces in your heads that make you think that your whole existence is about serving others. Some people start by doing just two minutes a day. Toast takes longer to brown than that! But even in that tiny increment, you are still making a habit of looking after yourself. You don’t even need to do it in the typical sit-down, eyes-closed way. You can focus in on your breathing whilst you’re in the bath, washing the pots, waiting for the train, walking in to work (my boss does this using the Headspace app), or whilst you are doing something creative like crafting, cooking or drawing.
3. “I can’t sit still and it makes me anxious”
Again, completely normal and super common. It is so rare we give ourselves time to just be, and when we do give ourselves some time to quieten all the noise in our heads, sometimes some stuff you haven’t wanted to think about bubbles up. Don’t worry about it, just observe how you are feeling, breathe deeply and keep your body calm. Also, fidget if you need to.
4. “They want me to breathe too fast/slow”
Perfectionism is not the goal. If you are following a guided meditation or doing a counting breathing exercise and it is making you breathe in a way that makes you feel panicky, stop. Either ignore what they are saying and go at your own pace, or count slower. Change it so it works for you. I am a huge advocate of 4-7-8 breathing which calms you down and is great for falling asleep, but sometimes holding my breath for 7 doesn’t work, so I just hold it for less time and work up to it. The most important thing is that you are taking the time to practice these skills for yourself and connecting with yourself.
5. “It’s just more mindfulness, hippy-dippy bullshit”
If you think that, you probably haven’t read this blog. But I also struggle with the term “mindfulness” because it has become so commercialised and a bit of a marketing buzzword. But it is not made up. We all know how toxic stress is, how it fucks up your body in ways you wouldn’t think possible. So, doing something to control that has got to be beneficial. There is a growing body of science which proves this. I did a bit of research and found these:
- Meditation reduces the amount of cortisol that was released when you are stressed.
- It has proven benefits for those suffering with anxiety and depression.
- One small study showed that when people meditate over an 8-week period, their genes change, helping to regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms, and glucose metabolism— ultimately helping to lower blood pressure. (study/article about the study)
- This article on Forbes links out to a lot of different studies that suggest meditation can preserve the aging brain; reduces activity in the part of the brain that is responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind”— which is typically associated with being less happy; improves concentration and memory; and more.
- I also found this blog on Psychology Today that links to loooads of studies about how it can improve productivity, increases self-control, boosts happiness, improves health and changes you brain for the better.
And some quick ones: you don’t have to chant (unless you want to), you don’t have to be religious or spiritual (unless you want to make it part of your practice), you don’t have to sit in a special position, and it’s not weird.
What benefits have I personally noticed?
I concentrate better, I am able to control my worries better, I am much calmer and happier in general. But I think the biggest benefit and the most important thing I have learnt from this is the truth in the old cliché “you are not your thoughts”.
“You are not the voice in your mind, but the one who is aware of it.”Eckhart Tolle
Separating me from my head jumble has helped me to see that my thoughts do not have to dictate who I am or how I interact with the world. I can choose the ones that I follow (because some thoughts are good!) and the let go of the ones that aren’t helpful or are downright lies I tell myself about myself. This has helped me feel more resilient, more in control and have a bit more self-belief.
3 ways I started to meditate
There are so many ways to learn how to meditate it is hard to know where to start. I am not super educated in all the different ways and types and terminology, but this is how I started to try it out. The most important thing is that you find out what works for you.
1. Download an app
You don’t need an app or a video to follow. I don’t always use one now. But as a complete novice who was a bit unsure about the whole thing when I started, having someone explain to me what I was doing and provide helpful prompts was really important. I can’t remember which one I used first but I can really recommend Insight Timer, which has a free course called “Learn How to Meditate in Seven Days” that works through different methods of meditating and finding that focus, so you can get a sense of what works for you. They have loads of different guided meditations on there too from different teachers for free which I use often (I really like Sarah Blondin and Dora Kamau). I also use an app called Oak when I can’t sleep that have a great guided breathing exercise. If you don’t want to use an app, this has a written explanation on how to meditate.
2. Mentally block out time
As I said above, my biggest thing was that “I didn’t have time.” So, I blocked out and committed my time, just like I do at work or when I need to do something for someone. This is usually ten or fifteen minutes in the morning before I get changed and ten minutes before I go to bed. Using a guided meditation was really useful tool for doing this as it gave me a rough idea of how long it would take.
I stuck at it. Meditation is definitely a skill, and like any skill, you have to practice and apply some willpower. Some days are shit. I don’t want to do it. I can’t concentrate. I feel silly. I can go weeks without doing it at all because I get so in my head about it. But other days are great. I feel so much better for making that time for myself. Even when I drag up some heavy stuff from recesses of my mind, it feels good to unstick it and try to let it go. The benefits are definitely cumulative too—the more you do it, the more it will serve you.
I hope this helps and that you give meditation a go,