‘Go away I’m MEDITATING!’ wasn’t something I expected to snarl at the knock on my bedroom door while in the throes of meditative bliss, but as it turns out, finding inner peace through this traditional Buddhist practice isn’t as easy as it looks. For something that from the outside looks like ‘sitting doing nothing’, learning to meditate is bloody hard.
I’ve signed up to Headspace, a project founded by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. It’s a social enterprise with a simple mission – to get as many people as possible to take ten minutes out of their day to sit in the here and now, decreasing stress levels and improving their mood. Except, as I’m discovering, being still and ‘in the moment’ isn’t something that comes very naturally.
I’m doing everything right. Sitting upright in my chair my feet rest lightly on the floor and my hands are still in my lap. As instructed by Andy, I focus on the various sounds of my immediate environment – the ticking of a clock, the gentle whirring of my laptop and the booming thuds and rattles from next door’s building site. I begin a simple breathing exercise, counting my inhalations and exhalations up to ten, then starting again at one. So far, so good. Except rather than feeling more connected to my body and the present moment, I find myself battling the urge to get up or to drift off in random thoughts. I just can’t concentrate, I’m fidgeting and it’s all I can do to resist bolting out of the chair and running outside to throw myself in the canal in despair.
And I don’t think I’m alone in this. How often do we just stop, and be still? When you think about how often most people are attached to phones, ipods, tvs, laptops, books or are simply lost in their own thoughts, it’s not difficult to see why stopping everything feels foreign. And meditation is far from ‘sitting doing nothing’ – I’m fast learning that the simple act of being present requires a delicate balance of relaxation and concentration. Too much relaxation and you’ll fall asleep, concentrate too hard and you become stressed and agitated. The endgame is a calm state of what’s referred to as ‘mindfulness’ – where you’re aware of how you feel in that particular moment.
Claiming that just ten minutes daily can help even the most time starved of people achieve profound life changes and a healthier, happier mind, the Headspace website is crammed full of guided meditation podcasts aimed at equipping you with easy-to-learn tools to learn ‘meditation for modern life’. The aim is to guide you through a short meditation session, no pressure, just so you get a feel for what it involves and learn the skills to bring a little calm into your life.
This couldn’t be more appropriate for an age in which stress has become a precursor to a whole host of nasty illnesses and depression is projected to be the number one global health burden by 2030. Mindfulness practice features at the core of some modern talking therapies – cognitive behavioural therapy in particular – which have become very popular in treating psychological disorders, but it’s not just mental health that’s affected. Research suggests that meditation can actually slow down the ageing process ; one study indicated it could even delay disease progression in patients with HIV. It seems that on top of eating well and getting enough exercise, learning to meditate could be one of the healthiest things we can do for our wellbeing these days.
With the aim of ‘demystifying meditation’, Headspace cuts through all the usual myths – that there’s not enough time, it’s impossible to stop thoughts etc. The focus is on the concept of short periods of mindfulness – simply becoming aware of your own thoughts and feelings – rather than having to shut your mind off in any way. At one point in the meditation, Andy instructs you to let go of any focus and ‘let your mind do whatever it wants to do’, and bizarrely it’s at this point that my hyperactive mind stops trying to leap and vault into a thousand different thoughts at once, and can’t seem to think about anything at all. I’m positively blank, and perhaps that’s the point.
So far I seem to have mainly spent the ten minute slot squirming anxiously on my seat and trying desperately not to think about chips…which is actually exactly what you’re not supposed to do. Instead of trying to stop myself from thinking and pushing thoughts away, I need to simply notice when I become distracted and bring myself back to the present. I’ve got some serious work to do before I can find my inner peace while omming in a field. Watch this space.