A wise man once said:
“Sometimes I just sits and thinks,
and sometimes I just sits”
Now I don’t think that he was talking about meditation (actually I think he was talking about Winnie The Pooh) but he may as well have been.
For too long I have been at the mercy of my emotions. They rattle through my brain, unfiltered and unchecked, quite often ruining my day. They conjure in the mind such an endless list of past regrets, imagined slights, future fears and general unrealities that I decided it was time to do something about it. So, I set myself a bit of a challenge.
I decided that for the month of November I would sit and meditate thirty minutes every day. Now I know that sounds like a lot to begin with, most would recommend ten to twenty minutes for starters, but I know from experience that I can do up to an hour of sitting if I have to, so I knew I could handle it. The hard part wouldn’t be the sitting, the hard part would be finding the time.
The What, Where, How and When?
A few details about my practice. I opted to do vipassana meditation, as described in the excellent book Mindfulness in Plain English. It’s a straight forward technique where you concentrate your attention on your breathing, focusing on the sensation of your breath around the rim of your nostril. Whenever your mind wanders you just gently bring it back to the sensation, without judgement, and continue until your time is up.
To measure the thirty minutes I used a meditation timer on my phone that gongs when you’re done. Sadly it doesn’t appear to be available on the Google Play Store anymore, but there’s plenty of others on there to choose from if you’re in the market for one. They all pretty much do the same thing. You could also just use the timer on your phone, but I find it’s beeping a little harsh at the end of a session. A gentle gonging is much nicer.
When it comes to where to sit Swami Sivananda recommends having a special space in your house that you just use for meditation. Now most of us can’t do that, we don’t have the room, but I reckon that as long as it’s special to you somehow then it’ll do the trick. For example, this is my meditation space:
Now it’s just a bit of floor by my bed, but in my head it’s where I meditate, so it’s special to me, and really that’s all that matters wouldn’t you say?
As for when to sit, that was pretty much dictated by the outside world. It’s best if you have a regular time to sit – some recommend 4am as an auspicious time! – but in reality most of us have work, family commitments, a massive list of Things To Do, so you just have to sit when you can and make the best of it. For example, when I was on a day shift, the earliest I could commit to half an hour free was nine thirty at night, just before I went to bed. Not ideal, but it is what it is.
Now, I’ve managed to meditate properly just once, ages ago, and it only lasted for a few seconds (I was so freaked out by the sudden change in my mind it broke my concentration). The only way I can describe it is; you’re sitting in a room with all the lights off. You think it’s completely silent and completely dark, and then the power goes out! Suddenly there’s no hum from the fridge next door, no illumination from the standby light on the TV. It’s just that much quieter and darker than it was before. That’s what it’s like when your mass of thoughts reduce themselves down to just one; mental quiet.
I can tell you now, I didn’t get anywhere near that in my thirty days. I did however have a few ‘revelations’ that I’d like to share with you now (in the order in which I wrote them).
* Get rid of any distractions. Meditating by the front window when you’re waiting for a package to be delivered is not ideal. Every crunch of gravel will have you looking outside to see if it’s the postman.
* Something is better than nothing. Sleepy, ‘off road’ meditation (where your head bobs around like you’re in a 4×4) is better than no meditation at all.
* Despite your best efforts… sometimes all you do is sit and think. That’s ok. Don’t get down at that. Judging the ‘quality’ of your meditation doesn’t help you.
* Good and bad depends on your point of view. Loud noises might be a distraction, but they’re also good for waking you up when you start to nod off. So, silver linings. That being said though, trying to meditate on Bonfire Night with all the fireworks going off is challenging at best.
* Don’t make it hard on yourself. Trying to meditate after twelve hours of work is hard enough already. Playing three hours of Assassin’s Creed when you get back first, so that you don’t hit the cushion until 1am, is just making things difficult for yourself.
* Think about the lead up to meditation. Sitting down after you’ve just eaten a load of Pringles is very distracting. All you can think about is ‘More Pringles’!
* Location matters. It’s hard to meditate at work. The seats are hard, the head is sleepy, and you feel really self-conscious.
* Comfort matters. If you sit wrong on your cushion your legs will go numb; fact! But, at the same time, numb legs aren’t as bad as you think. You can sit through them.
* Little victories matter. If I’m concentrating on my breathing when the gong goes, and not making shopping lists in my head, I count that as a win.
* It’s ok to ‘get it out of the way’. Doing it just to do it doesn’t make it worthless, as long as your effort is sincere.
So what have I learned from my fifteen hours of meditation? Well, first of all, there is time in the day to meditate. Or rather, you can make the time. Turn off the TV, put down the book, put off sleep until later. It’s not as hard to do as you think*, and it is worth the effort.
*That being said, I am single. I can imagine trying to find the time with a bunch of people around would be more difficult. Not impossible, just more difficult.
I can’t say that I’m quantitatively any different now than I was before, any changes have been subtle, but I do feel pretty good mentally at the moment. Yes there’s been some frustrations, some flashes of anger, but I don’t think I’ve lingered on them as much as I would have done. Maybe I’m learning to let go a bit? Maybe I’m being more mindful of my moods, and heading them off before they get out of hand? Who knows? Maybe it’s too soon to tell.
A scientific study of long term meditators has shown that they have physically increased amounts of brain matter in the areas most associated with happiness and dealing with emotions (as seen on ‘Trust Me, I’m A Doctor’, with Michael Moseley). It also showed that for noticeable changes to occur you have to give it a go for a good six to eight weeks. So, on that basis alone, I’m going to keep going, see how I get on.
It’ll be the same kind of practice, just approached from a different mindset. It’ll be about long term goals now, not just completing a challenge. Hopefully it’ll be something that I can keep up in the days, weeks, months and years to come.
And, now that this blog post is done, maybe it’ll be a little easier too (as I can stop writing it in my head, lol).