I started meditating a few years ago but never really stuck to it (my mind reassured me it didn’t need it). After a spell of feeling a bit depressed and wondering whether I needed a new lover/car/house/job/pair of shoes to make me happy, I gained a fairly stark insight that the way I thought about things was in itself the greatest single threat to my peace and happiness. From that point onwards I was determined to do something radical about it.
My mind ‘minded’ meditation at first and I couldn’t get it focused. No sooner had I attempted to position myself into some sort of imitation lotus, than it wandered off to thoughts about what I was going to have for dinner. After about 5 minutes of being lost in all thoughts of planning my day, I actually noticed I was thinking and brought my focus back to the breathe. Then I focused on my stomach and observed the breathe moving in and out. This of course prompted a chain of thinking about whether I was focusing in the right place and whether it might be an idea to move my awareness up to my chest or even shoulders. My thoughts went off into indecision for a couple of minutes. When I noticed that and brought my mind back to the breathe in my stomach I then started wondering whether it was the end of the meditation yet. My mind jumped into an internal dialogue about whether to look at the timer on my phone to see how many minutes I had left. In an instant I was saved by the bell.
So that was it. I had meditated. Except it did not feel like I had entered some zen-like inner realm. I was instead up close and personal with the workings of my own monkey mind, observing how it jumped from thought to thought, leaving little trails of banana skins that my awareness could pick up (eventually).
The advice that is usually given to fledgling meditators is to approach any meditation practice with kindness and patience. After only ten minutes I was already bored and frustrated with myself and wondered what the point was. I found it helpful to know that there was no right or wrong and that I could, if necessary, bring myself back to my breathe from my thoughts again and again. I learnt that patience was a key skill that my technology-addled brain was a little unpractised at. Like anything you want to accomplish, patience with yourself is fundamental. Being curious was also an attitude that I was advised to cultivate to keep my mind focused. Needless to say, I wasn’t very curious to start with. During the morning meditation my mind was more concerned about leading me down the scheduling thought path until I realised that the I of me was thinking about plans and not actually planning them. The I of me had become aware that it was generating some thinking. And so the light came on.
Despite having the insight that I was not my thoughts, the commitment to meditation was a labour of love throughout which persistence was key. I diligently set my alarm for ten minutes each morning and yet during each practice my mind convinced me that it was so necessary and important for my day to spend that ten minutes planning my schedule that focusing on my breathe was some sort of wasteful new age preoccupation (cue my mind, the politician). It was only some time later and in retrospect that I realised that this was also a thought chain which my mind had used to seduce me into staying with it instead of focusing on the breathe. Like any campaigning politician, it was as though it was scared of losing power over me and was employing tactics to stop me deserting it.
The more I practised noticing my thought patterns and mental idiosyncracies, the easier it was to bring my awareness back to the breathe. I also realised that this was a major part of the practice and that I wasn’t ‘failing’ because I had to keep refocusing. The very fact of being an observer of my thoughts then started to stick a little more each time in each practice. After some time spent committing to my mindfulness practice, I started to notice that I was also starting to observe my mind during the day when at work or in the car in traffic. Whereas normally I would let my thinking mind run unbridled and without question, I started to look into it a little more, in the way of a gentle and curious child approaching a small insect.
I became familiar with my mind and its foibles: the planning, the decision-making (or indecision-making); the anxiety; the wondering; the rumination, the jumping from one train to another like some sort of slick action hero. As with any developing relationship, as I got to know my mind better, I actually started to find these traits quite endearing. I would notice when I had ‘gone off’ in my thoughts. I would also notice the level of ‘charge’ of some thoughts – whether they were anxious or victim-centred, for example. If there was something troubling me or making me anxious it was almost as if my mind would put a little red flag on the thought process and play it over and over again so that I would not forget to pay attention to it. I came to be more observant of these sort of thoughts and how they showed up in my body as well. They would often come with a tightness of the chest or a holding in the stomach. The feelings that accompanied them were often so compelling that they convinced me that the thoughts were urgent and true, which made me even more seduced by what I was thinking. The worry about going into my overdraft made me fear for my survival. The unrelenting concern over the mistake at work made me fear shame and the thoughts about the friend not returning my call made me fear rejection. I came to see my own internal dramas play out in the theatre of my brain.
Having become increasingly curious about this unravelling process of awareness, I was ever more present to the feedback between thoughts and feelings. The survival fears made me feel small and disempowered, which generated more worries about lack of control over money. The shame about making a mistake made me think about getting another job. The feelings of rejection made me look for all the ways that I had been a ‘bad’ friend so that I could in fact reject myself a little more. The more I observed these unhelpful thoughts, the more I was able to see what the mind-emotion patterns were offering me. They were like sumptuous dishes which sizzled sensationally, tantalising me to follow them like some sort of brainwashed Bisto kid but which, when consumed, made me sit on the loo with my head in my hands.
Having stuck with a short meditation practice every morning over several weeks, one of the breakthroughs I had was to gain the insight that thoughts are not facts. They are passing phenomenons that take on form and then disappear, much like clouds in the sky. We have choices as to whether we want to follow them, act on them or just let them go. For me, this insight was very empowering. As a former court advocate, I love assessing the merits of an argument so I deployed some of my erstwhile advocacy techniques to unpick some of the more ruminatory thought chains. I started to treat the fear of lack of money thought chain as a witness. I conducted a thorough cross-examination of it. If the premise was that I had gone into my overdraft and was £10 in debt, did it follow as night followed day that I would lose the house? I put it to my mind. I saw the flawed logic. If I had said that to a judge in closing submissions I would have been shot down. Yet I had been convinced by my own mind for many years that these sorts of thoughts based on flawed premises were true.
As I went about my day to day activities I started to use techniques that I learnt from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to stop myself going down the mind-emotion slippery slope. One of these is the ‘emergency breathing space’. As part of this technique, when you notice the downward spiral of your thinking, you’re required to pay attention to your body, to what you’re thinking about, to any emotions and to any associated physical feelings. You then focus on your breathing for about a minute. After that you notice how you are feeling by bringing your awareness back to your body again. It can be done in the car, in your bed, at your desk or as you’re walking down the street. It is a small but powerful way to centre yourself if you feel that you are starting to get anxious or that your mood is slipping.
For me, the more I noticed my thoughts the more I came to notice how the body reacts to them and vice versa. Having been a bit of a cynic about yoga, mindfulness and Qi gong in the past, I now find that using small mind-body techniques are a means of getting your blue light sabre out and zapping yourself a bit so that you keep calm and centred. I now try and mindfully check in with my mind and body again and again throughout the day so that I can keep balanced and centred as I go about my daily life. It helps me to deal with the normal threats to mental peace that are so often presented: difficulties in relationships, lack of money, wondering if you’ve put the bins out etc. The important thing to remind yourself is to be kind to yourself in the practice of noticing. The mind stirs up your inner realm because, like a well-intentioned but misguided parent, it thinks its protecting you. The reality is that most of the time things are never as bad as you believe them to be; that if they are bad, things always change and that there are always creative and positive solutions to perceived problems. In addition, the stories that we all create in our thoughts about events, situations or people are often just that: stories as fictitious and unrealistic as a Jackie Collins novel. It is a good idea to watch some of your thoughts as though you are watching a Jennifer Aniston romcom – engaging in the moment but worthy of being forgotten very quickly.
So I leave this post by inviting you to start to become a thought Jedi. Luke Skywalker did not save the universe by picking up a light sabre and casually toppling Darth Vader. It took years of practice, co-generational perserverance and about four hundred films (and I have no doubt that there will be another one). I have been meditating for some time now but I am still learning. I expect it will be a lifelong voyage. The practice is inevitably one of falling down and getting back up again on an almost constant basis. However, even a short commitment to shining a spotlight into that crazy mind that we all share can generate so much more peace, contentment and resilience. If you start, I commend you to stick with it and to become a friend to that craziness instead of shunning it because it’s ‘out of kilter’. The mind has a negativity bias – it’s how it’s learnt to survive threats to human existence. Accept it for what it is and practice present awareness. May the force of inner peace be with you.