The first time I attempted to meditate, a calm voice (presumably my yoga instructor, but who can remember at this point) instructed me to “let my mind wander, and then escort it back into the present.” It was, in a word, impossible. My mind wandered, then leapfrogged over a fence, legged it to the main road, hitched a ride with a stranger, and ended up somewhere I can’t remember, but the idea of escorting it back at the time was laughable.
Plus, and I’m going to just be honest here, I never wanted to be one of those people. You know those people, the ones who are all chanting all the time, unfettered by the carefully-tightarsed societal constructs that neurotic people like me wear like armour. I’m the person who always flicks one eye open when a room full of people is instructed to ‘close your eyes’. I can’t help it. Five percent of me is an adult. The other 95 percent of me doesn’t want to be the only asshole with her eyes closed. I’m just not huge on having spiritual experiences in public. I love a good woo woo session, but I just never wanted to be one of those people having a cathartic weep in a gang of co-meditators. It just all feels a little Charles Manson and friends to me.
I have since learned that the wandering was a completely normal first response to meditation. There is this tendency to go really hard on ourselves for not being amazing at absolutely everything we try, which really just deters us from trying so many things, because who wants to be shit at [insert activity of choice here]? As it happens, it is a learned practice. Not learned in a week, or a month, but over the course of a lifetime.
I’ve since dabbled in a few forms of meditation. I tried the guided thingamajigs on YouTube, but found them cringey and slow, and often involving weird detours into crystal caves and other places I really struggled to think about without scoffing (not an optimal headspace when meditating, I think). I tried, and still do, kundalini meditations, which involve movement and sound, and appeal to me because they give me something to do instead of just being (more on that in a later post). I know the ultimate aim is really to learn to just ‘be’, but I’m a task-oriented person, and kundalini meditations bring out the overachiever in me, which sounds counter intuitive, but really it just got me ‘there’ in a more roundabout fashion.
If sitting down for an hour (or ten minutes, or two, even) doesn’t appeal, as it so often does not to me, I try to just do things with a little more presence. We live in a time when the word ‘mindful’ is thrown around like confetti, and it refers to many things: the practice of sitting still and focusing on your breath and thoughts, as well as the practice of bringing attention and presence to any activity in which you are engaged. It is, as a practice, now also backed by science, and is, to boot, a positively zeitgeisty thing to do.
You have to either be truly resistant to self-improvement or just residing under a bridge to have missed the following science-and-study-backed bits:
Meditation changes your brain.
Meditation makes you smarter.
Its effects rival that antidepressants for anxiety and depression.
There is a reason that everyone from Jeff Bezos to Ariana Huffington is talking about sleep and meditation as essential business tools, and on every platform they can find. If it is something you want to attempt, as so many of us seem to be doing at the moment, you will be attempting to do this for the rest of your life. Our minds, fickle things, seem best at wandering, but there is a great deal to be said for trying to notice when it does. And there’s not just one, but many apps for that (Headspace is the most popular, and an excellent place to start).
The Eastern and Western traditions come at mindfulness in different ways. In the Eastern, Buddhist, view meditation is an essential tool to achieving smrti, a mindful state, due in part to how it helps quiet the mind and suspend thought. In the Western traditions mindfulness centres around active thinking, like Heidegger’s “Besinnung”, a German word which translates roughly to “reflectiveness”, or in the classical Greek tradition, the Stoic notion of prosoché which refers to a continuous presence of mind, a sort of consciousness of everything that a person does, so that each decision is made with total attention.
Despite the differences, both have one thing in common: sidestepping mindlessness. And the key, in both streams, is to look at the world in a more conditional way, understanding that our perspective is only one among many. When we’re unsure and aware, that’s when things get interesting again, and when you are curious about detail and outcome. In fact the key to the entire thing (besides meditation) might simply be that everything looks different from a different perspective.
And how does it go for me today? Well, to empty my mind of all thoughts still proves elusive, but a session spent becoming aware of the physical sensations in my body and merely noticing the places my mind goes (without attempting to shepherd it in any way) often proves extremely therapeutic. Plus I now find myself sometimes spouting the sort of nonsensical yogi speak that would’ve once caused me to roll my eyes (I told someone to “witness the thought instead of acting on it” the other day), but it really made perfect sense to me at the time. It’s alright, I hate me too.
For me the real payoff was the week when I found myself up to my eyeballs in shit to do, which is usually the exact set of circumstances in which I wig out. Snappy, bitchy, anxious, the works. Instead, off the back of a (then) month long meditation practice I was undeniably chill, which is really all the incentive I need to keep going.