“My top priority is for people to understand that they have the power to change things themselves.” Aung San Suu Kyi
Contemporary research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology now confirm what sages, gurus, monks and other followers of contemplative practices have known for millennia: With practice, we can train our brains and re-programme our minds to be happier, more insightful, and caring (both of ourselves and others) and ultimately live the life we choose.
What sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom in relation to mind matters, is that we worry about the future, feel guilty or resentful of our past and beat ourselves up about the present – ouch, no pressure then!
The primordial part of our brain that gives us our sense of threat (fight or flight response) has unfortunately not evolved in tandem with other parts of the brain. And thus anxiety about the day ahead or worry about a difficult conversation you had last week will have exactly the same effect on our minds (and therefore bodies) as it would have had thousands of years ago in the savannah preparing to flee from the teeth of wild animals.
We have no inherent way of dealing with this state of hyperarousal and for many of us the fight or flight hormones rushing around the body become a permanent state and feelings of tension, elevated heart rate, butterflies and sweaty palms are the default in our lives. We also know that this state of hyperarousal can lead to many ailments, hormone imbalances, poor sleep, headaches, muscle soreness and the list goes on. The upshot is that our overall sense of wellbeing is thrown off course in a big way.
In last month’s blog on an Introduction to Mindfulness I talked a little about how, by bringing our full attention to whatever activity we’re engaged in, we become the observer of our thoughts – this subtle shift away from reacting to those thoughts to paying attention, observing in a non-judgmental way, offers us some respite from the constant stream of self-talk (so often negative) which in turn gives us the space we need to see things for the way they really are. This will be a constant theme throughout the Mind, Body and Food Matters blogs as mindfulness and meditation can positively affect every aspect of our lives.
Despite the fact that humans seem to be programmed to focus on the negative, the great news is that, with practice, we can re-programme our minds. I’d encourage you to explore the possibility of being able to free yourselves of negative cycles of thinking and adopt a playful almost childlike quality to this spirit of inquiry. I’ve found that the key to living a more mindful life is to develop a regular meditation practice.
I first started a daily meditation practice about 5 years ago, really not knowing what to expect (having no expectations was, I soon discovered, the most rewarding and freeing approach!), but I knew that I wanted a bit of what I had observed other regular meditators had: more inner peace, self-acceptance and self-compassion, more compassion and patience with others, along with an ability to flow with life rather than pushing and striving against the tide.
Meditation is not a contest. Meditation is a practice. There is no right or wrong way of doing it. We simply pay attention to our thoughts, notice them, drop them and focus on the breath. Drop any need to know whether you are doing the right kind of meditation. The part of us that wants to know is the same part of us that has pre-conceived ideas of right and wrong ways.
As this is a practice, it’s helpful to choose a space that you can go back to every time; this could be a corner of any room in the house where you won’t be disturbed. Traditional meditation practice involves sitting cross-legged with a straight spine, if possible with the knees below the hips to form a firm triangular base, the crown of the head extended, eyes open or closed (choose what works for you). You can either place your hands on your knees palms down, in traditional yogic position with palms turned up forefinger and thumb touching or simply place them folded in your lap.
The important thing is to be comfortable so that your shoulders and face muscles can relax. If your hips are particularly tight or you have long legs, try using a larger meditation cushion – these come in crescent shape Zafus or full round Zafus. Alternatively, try a small meditation bench and kneel on a blanket – these are ideal if you are very tight in the hips and lower back or want to avoid any unnecessary twisting of the knees in a seated position. Equally, you can settle in a similar position sitting on a chair.
If you have experience of yoga, then you’ll know that the use of the breath is key throughout your practice. In the same way with meditation, once settled in a comfortable quiet place, begin by lengthening your breath. Draw your attention to your breath, inhaling and exhaling through the nose, gradually slowing it down. There are many different forms of meditation; and I would encourage you to research different methods, join a group or search for videos on YouTube that resonate with you. For me, keeping it simple is key. I like to simply focus on my breath, counting 1 – 10 on each exhale. If the mind wanders, which it will, simply notice it, let the thoughts drift away without judging them and come back to the breath.
Again, there is no right or wrong time to meditate. Traditionally, meditation takes place first thing in the morning and/or in the evening. I find first thing in the morning the most convenient as I can stick to the same time 9 days out of 10. Meditating in the mornings is also a wonderful way to start the day. I get up earlier than anyone else so I get that extra 30 minutes of sanctuary – just me, my mat and my cushion.
Start with 10 minutes each day (any less than 10 minutes and I found I wasn’t giving myself a chance to experience at least a feeling of deep relaxation) and set a timer so that you are not focusing on how long you have sat for. Practice for 10 minutes a day for the first 14 days and extend this to 15 minutes for the next 14 days. If possible, write down your experience of your new practice (it doesn’t have to be after every session, but it really helps to track one’s progress).
I learned pretty quickly that one doesn’t need to be a mystic or a monk in order to reap the rewards of this kind of practice; who wouldn’t want to be able to relax almost instantly, experience a greater sense of calm in difficult situations when you might have otherwise reacted negatively and enjoy an all-round greater sense of wellbeing?
Matthieu Ricard, who has been called the happiest man in the world, is a French born Buddhist monk who, after gaining his doctorate in molecular genetics, devoted his life to Tibetan Buddhism. He has a wonderful, clear teaching style and I love this video of him talking about “The Art of Meditation” in which he not only demystifies the practice, but describes in such a practical and compelling way, all of the benefits of a regular meditation practice.
I’d love to hear from you about your meditation practice, whether you’re trying it for the first time or have years of experience. Please share your thoughts on this wonderful free wellbeing tool that’s available to us all.
With love and wellbeing wishes,