|Posted by Elfreda Manahan-Vaughan on April 6, 2018 at 2:45 AM|
Last week I posted about what it is like to go on a silent retreat and this week I thought I’d write about one of the more common questions asked of me when I am teaching meditation and Mindfulness to groups. Most of us, myself included, when we start out on a daily meditation practice want to know will it do for us what we hope it will? The answer to that question is complex, and the truth is, it depends. It depends on how much prior knowledge of meditation you have and if your expectations are realistic, it depends on how much time and effort you are willing to commit, and it depends on the quality of your meditations and whether you have been taught well and continue to learn. As Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson in their book Altered Traits say ‘Rather than just the sheer hours of practice put in…, it’s how smart those hours are’. They also state that without regular guidance we can plateau, and our progress stops. With all that in mind I will share my experience of having a daily meditation practice and what I have noticed and learned over my years of practice.
When I started out I was like most people, I meditated in fits and starts, doing around 10 minutes a day and sticking to it for a week or two before something would distract me and I would miss a day or several. I had read endless articles and books about Mindfulness and I knew a lot of the research said it was hugely beneficial for mental well-being and had a number of physical health benefits. One of those was sleep and back then I had chronic insomnia and regularly fell asleep during the day if I sat down for a few minutes. Most days I had to set my alarm at lunchtime to make sure I would wake up in time to go back to work. I often fell asleep whilst sitting in my car in shopping centres and car parks, and rarely stayed awake if I sat down in the evening to watch the television. At night it would take me anything up to an hour to get to sleep and I would be awake again before 4am and lie awake or get up long before my alarm was due. Most of those times was spent revisiting memories of past events and going over and over my worries to the point of having heart palpitations. I really wanted Mindfulness to be the answer to this problem as well as to my chronic ove-rthinking and worry. It was the answer to that and so much more.
It took a number of years before I decided to commit to a daily practice and when I did I was already doing twenty minutes or more a day. That quickly increased to thirty then forty minutes and now most days I do two hours or more of practice with a minimum of an hour if I have other commitments. The answer to my initial questions as to whether Mindfulness would help my sleep came fairly quickly and yes it did. However, I did also discover that the reason I wasn’t staying asleep was due to my sensitivity to noise and so ear plugs were necessary for that. It did however, end my night time worrying and pretty much my daytime worrying too and that came from my ability to notice my thoughts and to realise they are not real and will go away if I let them.
So, what’s a typical day’s practice like for me? I get up around 6am and I go straight to my meditation cushion (after a trip to the toilet, of course). My cushion is permanently in place as well as blankets to keep me warm as the heating may not have kicked in yet. I set my Insight Timer for one hour and fifteen minutes on an average morning and I sit. Most of my time, these days, is taken up with Vipassana meditation, which is open awareness meditation, although I play it by ear depending on what is happening in my mind. Usually the first few minutes is occupied with noticing my body. I might notice a twinge in my knee or that the blanket is tucked in funny or there’s a draft coming from somewhere. I notice my thoughts drift from one thing to the next and only respond if I think I really need to. On a weekday my thoughts will regularly drift to work. Over they years I have come to learn my patterns. I start to run through my day, checking in with my plan, reminding myself of where I need to be, times, things I need to bring and, more often than not, conversations I need to have. If I have nothing major going on then the thoughts drift into possibilities, I write blog posts, come up with ideas for new courses and get inspired solutions for client work. Unfortunately, this is not the time for this and so I usually intervene with some counting meditation or focused breath awareness to still my racing mind. In the beginning I resented these intrusions of thought, I tried to stop my habits by drawing attention to them not realising I needed to give them space to breath. My ability to plan was a defense against making mistakes, a protection against rejection, failure, and helplessness from feeling alone. My creative conversations and daydreamed solutions were escapism in difficult times to a fantasy world of my own creating, propelling me into a future of possibilities. These skills have served me well. Now that I know them I can use them to my advantage and just as Buddha welcomed and acknowledged Mara the demon, I acknowledge what these thoughts are trying do for me and I let them go.
My second pattern is to revisit past events that have caused me hurt or embarrassment. I go over conversations thinking of what I could or should have said. I think of ways to fix things, defend myself, apologise or make amends. As soon as I spot this pattern I laugh at my attachments to being liked, to being right and to not looking stupid. Each time the patterns reoccur I bring myself back; counting, the breath, sounds, my body, whatever is present in the moment. It’s not always so simple and often minutes have passed before I realise the blog post is written or the conversation has played out in numerous ways. If feelings arise I often change to Loving Kindness or Ho’oponopono practice as this is known to downgrade amygdala activity and the ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ process in the brain. If things are going well I can stay with this practice until the bell goes but other times I start to become fidgety, aware of numbness in my body, wondering how long is left, sometimes even peeking at the clock; which always seems to have seventeen minutes left. The restless meditations can be challenging but they are the most beneficial as they really challenge me to know myself and what is driving my emotions and thinking.
When I get up from my cushion I bring my Mindfulness with me throughout my day. Paying attention to my thoughts in the silence of meditation, has taught me to notice my thoughts before I react to them. I hear myself and internally laugh as I notice my neediness, my fears and my judgements. I don’t always stop myself as sometimes my motives become clear after the fact. I can see things for what they are now, my attachments to things having to be a particular way, my beliefs about the world, myself, and how I imagine my life should be. At best I shift my focus to what is happening right now and let them go and at worst I revisit them over and over again until I understand them or am distracted by some other more pressing problem. Therein lies another one of my patterns, the need to make sense of everything, the cause and the answer, but that’s the subject for another day’s meditation.
Is it worth it? I can definitely say, yes. Is it a challenge? It’s a commitment but one that pays dividends. I am happier now than I’ve ever been, and worry is a thing of the past. Over my hours of meditation I have discovered a still-contentment inside me that never leaves, it is present beyond the workings of my busy mind. It only takes moments to find it and to re-calibrate to that stillness that is me. In meditation these moments of pure silence and calm are what make it worthwhile. As Albert Camus said, ‘In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer’.
Thanks for reading. If you want more information about my classes, workshops or one to one coaching check out my website or get in touch, email@example.com, 00353868373582.
I hope our paths cross again in future,