With so many methods and so much advice around, learning meditation can seem like an anxiety-inducing task. But, says Kate Morris, who went on her own circuitous journey, all you need to do is breathe and let the right path unfold
My first attempt at meditation took place at a “retreat” in Glastonbury, which turned out to be a bed and breakfast infused with intense wafts of incense and decorated with Buddha sculptures and wind chimes. The proprietor, a woman in her seventies, talked emphatically about past lives and guardian angels, while buttering our toast.
I had come to seek peace, after a rough few years bearing children, with severe post-birth complications, and had signed up for a meditation course based on sacred geometry. It sounded spiritual and methodical, and it seemed sensible to have some guidance, but in fact meditation based on sacred geometry turned out to be surprisingly complex and mathematical. Our group was mystified; there were too many exacting rules to remember in order to reach a place of peace.
I left none the wiser, but continued in my quest to meditate, feeling sure it would help with my chronic exhaustion and insomnia which had become decidedly worse after having babies. (A new study has found that new parents face sleep deprivation for at least six years after their baby is born.)
A few months later, I heard a friend talking about a weekend meditation course she had attended in London. She was practising daily meditation and it was helping her sleep. Acem Meditation was developed in Norway in 1966 by Are Holen MD PhD and is very simple to follow. Like many forms of meditation, it’s claimed that the practice will leave you more relaxed, with increased energy levels. It’s a non-profit organisation and non-religious, which makes it feel profoundly authentic. I did not want to align myself with a religious practice and I did not have the discipline to teach myself, so this felt like a good fit.
We were each given an individual, secret mantra, a group of meaningless words to repeat during our practice and instructed not to empty our minds of thoughts but to let them come and go. It was a revelation to be able to repeat my mantra and return to it when my mind wandered too much. It felt fantastic to be finally meditating for real. One woman in our group claimed that she had solved an intractable problem while meditating with the group, which inspired me.
After the weekend, I realised that I was not going to be able to commit to the recommended daily session of 45 minutes – or two of 25 minutes; I tried and failed. However, I discovered that if I lay on my bed to meditate in the early afternoon, I would slip into a power nap and wake feeling refreshed and ready to face the rest of the day. Although I was aware that this wasn’t exactly correct, it worked for me, as feeling tired and not sleeping enough was my main issue.
Eva Skaar the director of Acem Meditation in the UK agrees that there shouldn’t be too many rules. “There are many misconceptions about all the requirements surrounding meditation – that you need to sit in a painful position, with no support for your back, breathing in a particular way, and so on,” she says. “You can sit in an ordinary chair, in bed or perhaps when travelling. If your health prevents you from sitting, you can lie down instead – although lying down is not as good as sitting because meditation is a (mostly) wakeful activity and it’s exactly this combination of deep relaxation and wakefulness that lies behind many of its effects.”
After a few months of meditating lying down, I gradually stopped altogether, occasionally using it at night if I couldn’t sleep. I only considered meditation again after a gap of eight years when I was advised to return to it after being diagnosed with breast cancer last September. It really helped to keep me in a relatively calm place while trying to get through the interminable waiting periods for test results that came and went. I gave myself permission to take the time out of life to look after myself and committed to meditating every day. If I was anxious I would meditate more than once. I sat or lay down on my bed, closed my eyes and repeated my Acem mantra or used a guided meditation on my phone.
What I’ve learned is that while having a nap is definitely not what you’re aiming for, there are several different ways to meditate, and they will all get you to the same point, more or less. It doesn't matter which one you choose as long as it works for you. Some days I use the Calm App (Apple’s best app 2017) which gives me something to focus on. You can pick a short, guided meditation on many different subjects, including “Mindfulness at work”, which focuses on productivity or communication, for example, essentially a short talk followed by a meditation session, and facilitated by a woman with a dulcet voice. Occasionally I will meditate at the end of a Pilates or yoga class, repeating my mantra while sitting in a quiet twisted pose. I’ve meditated on a park bench, in the bus, even on an airplane.
Meditating does help dissipate petty resentments and anxiety and it’s a good way of resetting your thoughts into a more positive gear. It also miraculously seems to make one more compassionate. In a perfect world we would all have access to a peaceful room, with soothing sounds and a massage chair to sit on, but that’s not always possible so try out a park bench or sit quietly at your desk chair. Then, take a deep breath… exhale and begin.
A MEDITATION PRIMER – BY POPPY AMBERG
Research from John Hopkins University in 2014, which showed that psychological stresses like anxiety and depression can benefit from mindful meditation, is encouraging not just for the 300 million people suffering from depression worldwide (according to figures from the World Health Organization), but to those impacted in other ways by the connection between mind and body.
The link between stress and physical illness has a profound effect on our daily lives, whether the stress is caused by financial, social, emotional or “ordinary” day-to-day worries. Research published in 2017 by Mashhad University of Medical Sciences in Iran links the destructive relationship between stress and our bodies, finding that “people under stress are more likely to have an impaired immune system and, as a result, suffer from more frequent illness” and highlighting a correlation between malignant cells and tumour expansion caused by stress.
Of course, the world is without a doubt a fiery pool of worry and pressure, and most likely won’t be changing any time soon. However, it is possible to change the way one reacts to these effects and improve focus, memory, sleep, emotional and physical wellbeing, by simply taking half an hour to oneself each day. It’s so simple it seems like madness. But it works.
The basic premise of Buddhist meditation (one of the oldest forms) is that one must observe our desires and emotions from a completely objective point of view, and ultimately observe ourselves, including our surroundings and what our senses are picking up. What you’re aiming for therefore is to observe but not interfere with what you feel, what you hear and smell; to accept these things and allow your attachment to them to pass on.
Meditation can be beneficial in pretty much every area of one’s life – and it’s surprisingly simple to learn. Here are five easy steps to get started:
Find a comfortable position wherever you are, re-adjusting cushions or taking off shoes or lying down – whatever works for you. However, if you are sitting make sure to keep both feet flat on the floor.
Set a timer. I highly recommend the mobile phone app Insight Timer which allows you to time yourself, as well as having various guided meditations on offer. It’s a great way to begin meditating. Set your timer for whatever you’re ready for, whether that’s two minutes or 20.
Take a deep breath and for the duration of your meditation focus on the breath. For controlled breathing, inhale for five seconds, hold for three and exhale for five. This will slow down your heart rate and help to calm racing thoughts or panic. Breathe like this for as long as you like and really try to enjoy the relaxation that will occur, allow yourself to rest and bring your attention back to your body with each breath.
Your mind will wander. Despite the stereotype that meditation is a kind of zoning out, in actual fact you are really zoning in. When it comes to wandering, intrusive thoughts, try to keep an objective point of view. Acknowledge any thoughts, feelings or judgements, accept them, do not feed them, and simply let them pass on as they would without our interruption. Every time you find your mind wandering, or you start to obsess about the noises around you, bring your attention back to your breath: the feeling of inhaling, smells, temperature of the air on your nostrils, the sensation of your lungs expanding. And in the exhale, feel the sensation of release, of the air rushing out of your nose or mouth, the notion of letting go and what that sounds like.
Keep going. Meditation can be frustrating and difficult but like most great things, it takes commitment. Try to meditate in the morning when you wake up, on the Tube, on the way to work, when you feel anxious or panicked about something or even when you feel low. Meditation is a real life-changer. Good luck!