I was meditating a few nights ago and my son was listening to an online course in game development. I generally try to meditate after he has gone to bed, but it was quiet and I thought I would give it a go a bit early. As I meditated, I could hear the training video from his room. I am so proud of my son and his willingness to learn! Anyway, my first reaction was that I would have to stop meditating. Then, I decided to see if I could meditate through it. I remembered Jack Kornfield mentioning that he had learned to meditate in a place next to a busy road and how thankful he was for the noise. At the time, this seemed strange to me. Now, I understand.
As I focused on my breath, I noticed the video sound disappeared. It then re-appeared. It seemed to come and go in the same way that my thoughts did – that is, as I focused on my breath, my thoughts and the video receded. As my concentration lapsed, thoughts and the video returned. It was quite insightful. I knew that focusing on my breath could still my thoughts, I hadn’t considered the same for external stimuli. I began contemplating how our minds might be more powerful at excluding than I had formerly considered. I then sat down to continue reading a book by Fritz Perls on Gestalt Therapy.
Fritz was discussing the “object” (foreground) and the background – how our focus moves between the two and how they are rarely integrated. When they are integrated, we are whole (there is a Gestalt). To the extent that the two are not integrated, there is neurosis. I began to consider my meditation insights. I imagined that I might actually be excluding things from the background – if I was doing such effectively, I wouldn’t even consciously know. We exclude things that are painful, induce fear, are overwhelming and for other reasons which might protect our psyche. While our initial efforts might be adaptive, what about when the original negative emotions are gone? Do we re-integrate (open ourselves) to the stimuli, or do we continue to block it? I would suggest that once we learn to ignore something, it doesn’t normally make its way to the foreground short of a traumatic experience.
So, what is next? I am going to explore integration of the background. There are a number of techniques in Gestalt and Mindfulness practice to re-integrate things happening in the here-and-now. I will be exploring these, but the first step is to open oneself to the present moment. This is meditation.
Most of us spend significant parts of our lives either dwelling on the past or planning (or dreading) the future. The exception might be when we are young and are living in that moment – remember savouring an ice cream on a hot summer day, wanting nothing else and to be nowhere else?
As we get older, this changes. We propel ourselves into an imagined future, as we live our lives mentally in what we want to exist. My first experience with this was when I started university and – as I worked so hard with my studies and jobs – I imagined myself finishing university. These visions kept me going when little else would. Sadly, what started as a strategy to accomplish a goal (many of our dysfunctional actions start off to address real situations in our lives, but outlive their usefulness) became an unhealthy pattern of living in the future.
Why is this a problem? Other than losing out on your experiences now – such as the attention of your child – living in the future is not terribly productive (how much of what we imagine actually happens?) Also, such projections can lead to significant anxiety, when the future we imagine is not a positive one.
What about the opposite – living in the past? Nostalgia can be comforting, for a moment, but can quickly morph into regret, bitterness and sorrow. Living in the past offers little assistance in making it through the rest of your life.
People present to therapy who cannot stay in the moment. They are depressed about the past or anxious about the future. How can the therapist help?
There are quicker ways to come into the present:
Grounding in the body. This involves exercises within the therapy session where the client is taken through attempts to focus on what is happening in their body at the moment.
Changing speaking patterns. This involves encouraging clients to speak in the present, not the past or the future (e.g. only present tense verbs). This can be difficult and cause frustration for clients accustomed to doing otherwise.
Initial attempts at facilitating a meditative state, perhaps utilising something like Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
There is a long-term (or perhaps better worded, a more persistent) way to come into the present:
Developing a mindfulness practice. Once a client is able to spend 20 – 60 minutes a day meditating, he or she will find that this state will start to work into other parts of life. This is the point. Mindfulness is not about a few minutes of focus, but focus that becomes normalised for the practitioner.
Do you live in the moment? Is the here-and-now your normal mode of existence?
Spend significant time reviewing the past?
Do you often find yourself feeling sorrowful about what has happened or what might have been?
Do you dread the future?
Do you find that normal things happen without you seeming to notice them (e.g. eating, spending time with family)?
Anxiety has a hard time taking hold when you focus on NOW. Depression loses it power when you find wonder around you.
This moment is all we really have. Make it your focus.
When I first started meditating, I thought I had to get it “right”. I thought that somehow I could completely focus and then I would have a startling epiphany – a moment of “enlightenment”. Many of us start out with these sorts of ideas.
First, some would argue that “enlightenment” is not an instant insight at all. Stephen Batchelor in “After Buddhism : Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age” argues that the Buddha saw enlightenment as a practice to alleviate suffering and not a mental epiphany that allows one to “break” with corporeal existence. I would say there are some merits to this view. One of the many difficulties I had with the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) was that after the Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he continued his existence for another 40+ years. This makes sense if enlightenment is a process, rather than a flash of insight. So, I have come to see meditation not as some mystical experience leading to immediate release, but rather as a practice, which takes effort and whose goal is release from suffering through this practice.
Second, in my straining to focus, I didn’t realise that the simple act of returning to my breath is the purpose of meditation. Rather than beating myself up over my inability to focus, I realised that simply realising my mind was drifting and returning my focus to the breath was itself meditating. I was not “failing” by wandering, I was “succeeding” by noticing and returning to the breath. How did this help? Rather than scolding myself when my mind wandered, I felt good at noticing and returning my concentration to my breathing. This self-encouragement has had remarkable effects on my meditation practice (including my excitement, rather than dreading or putting off my practice).
When your mind wanders, gently notice and return to the breath, over and over again. Each time being gentle with yourself and realising that this is actually meditation. You are not doing it wrong. You are not failing. You are taking the same path we all take. The “monkey mind” will calm, over time. Frustration will not help. Frustration will not motivate you. Being kind to yourself will encourage you. You are brave to explore the mind. Many live their whole lives without looking inside. You are an explorer. Be kind to yourself and keep going.
We all have those days where we can’t sit. Sometimes it is something physical, such as pain or injury. Sometimes, our minds want to be anywhere else. When I was new to meditation, I would just give up for the day! There are other ways to meditate than just sitting. There are practices for walking meditation, where you focus on your feet striking the ground (for example). There is eating meditation, where you focus deeply on the food, the movement of your mouth, etc. There is meditation while using the toilet (I will let you figure this one out for yourself). There is chanting (“OM”, “Om mani padme hum”, etc) meditation, where rather than focusing on your breathe or a flame, you chant to a rhythm.
One of my preferred options, if my sitting meditation won’t happen, or if I am in a situation where it is not practical (sitting at doctor’s office, on the train, etc) is chanting to myself while working along my mala. One of my malas is pictured here. I work along each bead with focus, inhaling on the bead and then exhaling and clearly chanting “OM” as my finger works into the space between the beads. This can have a very powerful effect on me. It is different from sitting meditation, but also a balancing, centring and calming experience.
Another practice that is helpful for me, especially when I am feeling too centred on my own ego, is loving-kindness meditation. I might mention that in another post.
I have used a meditation cushion since 2004, but I saw a meditation bench on Etsy and decided to give it a try. Honestly, I have never sat well with meditation cushions. I have tried to get my knees lower than my hips, but there was always discomfort. I wish I had tried a meditation bench way back then.
If you have not used a bench like this, you are basically on the front of your legs, with your knees on the ground and the tops of your feet flat on the ground. Your bottom rests on the bench, taking the bulk of your weight. This allows you to have your knees below your hips, which helps with blood flow. Having most of your weight on the bench, keeps pressure off your knees. The only very slight thing to get used to was having the tops of my feet stretched back behind me and this stretching sensation was only obvious the first time or two that I meditated on this new bench.
Another thing to note is that this meditation bench has curved feet – absolutely fantastic! This allows you to lean into the position which is most natural for you. I would strongly suggest that if you want to try one of these out, get the curved feet. If the bench has flat legs, you will be forced to shift your body to match the angle of the seat. After experiencing these legs, I wouldn’t buy another without this option, no matter how otherwise desirable it might seem.
What else? The legs fold up under the bench. When I was looking online, I wasn’t too excited about the look of the hinges but it allows me to fold up the bench and put in my backpack, to easily take with me to solitary locations to meditate. This will encourage me to meditate more and the ease of transport is a huge plus. If I had bought a bench that didn’t fold, I wouldn’t think of taking it on holidays. This bench will be one of the first things I pack.
I have found my old meditation blanket and have my malas next to my bed. I haven’t enjoyed meditation this much in years. Because I am in a good position and have no distracting discomfort, my practice has increased dramatically.
Find what works for you. Don’t assume discomfort is a natural or required aspect of your practice.
I began meditating before my son was born, because I wanted to be relaxed for him. I was 36 and had normal stresses, but wanted to be as positive an influence as possible on our baby. I wasn’t interested in religion (I had put religion behind me more than a decade before). I have found many benefits in mediation – clearer thinking, settled mind, a deeper perspective on life generally and troubles specifically, as well as many physiological benefits.
While I spent a number of years with om mani padme hum, lately I have found “OM” alone preferred. While meditating can be on one’s breath, visualisations and other stimuli, I find the pattern of chanting helps to settle my racing mind quickly and has effects that can last days (depending on how much I listen to the chanting).
If you are anxious and need out of your head, I would recommend the following: