My first experience of meditation was at university. Out of procrastination more than anything else, my friend Steph and I tried a ‘body balance’ class at the gym, which seemed to be a blend of yoga, tai chi, and giggling.
Halfway through class, we were told to lie down and just breathe, with no further instruction. What is this, we wondered? A snooze? We can do this at home. This left little desire to relive what I referred to as ‘the expensive nap’.
Many years later, I signed up for yoga classes at the community centre near my work as an attempt to get some work-life balance (apparently the secret is actually just ‘less work’ – shocker!). I also hoped it would help me to unwind a little from my default anxious state.
Each session we would lie down in the dark and the instructor would get us to think about how our bodies felt, right down to the space between our toes. Not ever being told why this was relevant other than maybe a few minutes of relaxation, I didn’t take it seriously. I was either thinking constantly about work during these sessions, or falling asleep halfway through and waking myself mid-snore, startled and confused. The embarrassment alone stopped me signing up for the next term.
I determined that meditation wasn’t anything other than forced relaxation in a way I didn’t find particularly relaxing. What’s wrong with a bath instead, I thought? Though I enjoyed yoga, I staunchly decided that meditation wasn’t for me. I was too much of a thinker (or indeed, a sleeper) to concentrate on the soft, drawn out instructions. Little did I know that it was the perpetually moving cogs in my crazy head box that actually made me a perfect candidate for meditation.
In truth, I also didn’t relate to the spiritual element sometimes associated with meditation in yoga, and my logical brain yearned for something more science-based.
Cut to me a year later, and I am a nervous wreck. I walk to the train station like I do every morning, but with each step I feel heavier and more out of control. My mind has taken on a life of its own and I can’t seem to get a grip on it, or life in general.
I had learned to live with the midnight panic attacks, I believed if you weren’t stressed you weren’t working hard enough, I wrote off my inability to focus on tasks as my own uselessness, and was slowly on the mend from chronic fatigue following iron and b12 deficiencies – but though my body was healing, my mind was left behind.
I was guided back to the world of meditation by a methodical and kindly man named James, whom I began meeting with fortnightly to discuss my brain. James was a clinical psychologist, something I had always considered a luxury, or for people with what I deemed “more serious mental health issues”. But there I was, failing to function, and this person who was university trained, formally accredited, and who had not steered me wrong so far, said the word “meditation” and I knew it was time to give it another shot.
Around about this time – possibly by fate, possibly by Facebook’s strategic online marketing strategy – I came across a meditation event hosted by something called The indigo project. After some research, I discovered this was a team of psychologists that also ran a short course called ‘Get Your Shit Together’. Yeah, I thought. That’s exactly what I need. Further, a particularly well put together, healthy and responsible friend of mine claimed this very course changed her life. I basically had no choice.
Eight two-hour sessions later, do I have all my shit together? The short answer is no. Was the course an immense help? Absolutely.
During those eight weeks I learned that actually, no one has his or her shit together 100% of the time. Learning to accept that bad things happen, and that shortcomings will always exist, helped me to understand myself, relate to others, feel better about my accomplishments, and allowed me to stop beating myself up for my failures. Instead, I learned to expect regular plateaus, evaluate why things have turned out this way, and take practical approaches to fixing them through exercises in creativity, respectful communication, better control of my emotions, and even financial advice.
To find logic in the messiness of life was exactly what I needed, rather than the traditional platitudes from a picture-perfect Instagram account of the latest wellness warrior.
To see that the way forward is not self-critique of the messiness, but self-kindness to accept and endure it. To make time to support myself and calm my mind, rather than kick myself while I’m down, become overwhelmed and be afraid of failure.
One of those self-kindnesses is to shut off from the world, and just breathe. Something I had always struggled to do until I finally understood why I should do it.
Clearly the course didn’t just focus on meditation, but it probably could have. Research in neuroscience has proven that though the practice of meditation is mostly associated with a sense of peacefulness, it also has numerous psychological benefits. This was the science I’d been looking for in order to take the first step, and the science that The indigo project bases their work on (for more info, check out the list at the bottom of this post).
Sure, scientific research is all well and good, but now I’ll get back to what the other half of the Internet prefers – anecdotal evidence! Curated from the official Journal of Things One Person Experienced.
Unlike previous forays, the course not only taught me how to meditate, but why I should, and how I can enjoy it.
It’s been a few months now since I completed the course and this former skeptic still tries to meditate every day. It has gotten me through the busiest weeks, calmed my nerves in the face of new challenges, and to help manage pain from illness and injury. It has helped me to sleep when I am having stress dreams about work – or the more interesting stress dreams, where I am Claire Underwood from House of Cards. It has helped me to enjoy little things more, like taking a shower, riding the bus or walking outside.
Even though I still struggle every day, I take more time now to consider what I want and need, instead of just about what I don’t like, whether it’s more time for personal projects, more rest time, or more Kikki-k stationery (totes legit need).
I’m not a meditation guru or the picture of mental health. I do not emanate chilled feels while small forest animals flock to me. Flowers don’t sprout as I walk barefoot across grassy fields to my own Zen soundtrack. I don’t own a meditation pillow or a Buddhist bell, my technique is sloppy and far from perfect. I can’t meditate first thing in the morning, because I’m too busy suffering from the five stages of grief at having had to leave my bed in the first place. Those things would be fantastic, but it’s not me, and it doesn’t need to be.
I scan my body to the soundtrack of the busy morning bus in peak hour. Sometimes I escape to the unglamorous office bathroom for a few moments of quiet breathing. If the train is delayed, I listen to a guided 10-minute session from an app (I prefer Calm and Headspace). I enjoy visualisations from cheesy YouTube accounts before bed.
And that’s okay. I am not a meditation guru. I am me.
From that first expensive nap, through to the fumbling on the floor of ‘Get Your Shit Together’, to the most relaxing bus ride to work I’ve ever taken, meditation has grown from something I raise an eyebrow at, to something I struggle to live without.
I know it seems counter-intuitive but with all I’ve learned – and experienced firsthand – it is my continued hope that by taking at least 10-20 minutes out of every day to shut out the world, I will grow to become more a part of it.
Want to know more?
To those who may not know, let me summarise some of the benefits so your journey is shorter than mine:
– Neuroscientists have confirmed meditation causes the brain to physically change, as it activates the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system, triggering the ‘relaxation response’.
– Harvard research has shown that practicing meditation can lead to changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.
– This research also demonstrated that meditation helps the brain of participants to grow grey matter in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
– Participants also reported reductions in stress, which were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which plays an important role in anxiety.
– Neuroscientists have found that accruing 11 hours of meditation can lead to structural changes in the part of the brain involved in monitoring our focus and self control.
– Research from 163 different studies suggests that meditation can reduce anxiety and stress, with one study finding 90% of participants with clinical anxiety experienced significant reductions in anxiety.
– Numerous studies have found meditation to promote divergent thinking, aiding creativity and innovative thinking.
– Increased mindfulness through meditation has also been shown to improve communication and relationship satisfaction.