Meditation is a practice that can change your life so much so for the better, than when you read about it, or rather the benefits of it, it can be easy to dismiss it as being too good to be true. It helps with stress, can improve your sleep, give you better focus and creativity, and gives you better perspective day-to-day. When you start doing it, you start to think – why on earth did I not do this before?
The main obstacle, especially for alpha women who are busy at work, busy at home, is that it seems impossible to find the time. And I can definitely relate to that, having spent about five years intending to go to meditation classes but never actually making it past the front door.
Your initial enthusiasm also may depend on your first experiences with meditation. Mine unfortunately involved a mosquito-riddled hut in Kerala, where the teacher kept saying ‘reeeeelaaaax’ periodically in a completely exaggerated manner. There was no inner peace, only outward laughter.
Despite these initial off-putting experiences, I knew that the time had come for me to try meditation not because I wanted to, but because I needed it. I kept finding excuses to do work when I should be resting, and at night, my brain kept fizzing when it should have been calm and mellow. Camomile tea didn’t work either.
The perfect foil to all of those excuses we make as to why we can’t do meditation, I found, was the brilliant online meditation website and app called Headspace.
Emma Watson tweeted her support last week:
Co-founded by Brits Andy Puddicombe and Richard Pierson, Headspace is packaged as ‘meditation for modern living’ and the fundamental idea is that it will help de-stress you and improve your mood.
Andy knows his stuff too – at the age of 22 he went travelling to find out more about meditation, and ended up becoming a Buddhist monk, after which he returned to Britain with the one aim of making meditation accessible to as many people as possible.
So how did I fare?
Confession time. I signed up to Headspace a few days ago but hadn’t yet set aside the time. There are no excuses - signing up is really easy, and you can do a 10-day trial for free. Luckily, Headspace pre-empts you might do this, and so sends you an email prompt.
There are four animations voiced by Andy that you have to watch before hand, and as I’m about to roll my eyes and mutter ‘get on with the relaxation already’, again comes the pre-empt that I’m probably rolling my eyes. This level of awareness from Headspace makes a difference because just as you’re about to put a barrier up and walk off in a huff, they gently explain why you may not want to do that.
The films impart pieces of advice that stay with me during the course. The biggest one is that meditation is not a competition; nor is it a race to see how quickly you can relax. During day four or five, when I was particularly stressed out and felt unwinding took longer than it had done in day three, I thought back to that message.
How it works: the meditation is a pre-recorded video session with Andy talking you through each stage.
The first few minutes are spent just breathing, which helps to regulate the heart rate, and self-soothe the body. As I release my shoulders with each breath, I realise how much tension I am holding in them.
The next step is to focus on the sounds around you, and this is a key part of focusing your mind. I had always thought meditation had to be done in absolute silence, but once you pay attention you’ll notice that beyond the sounds of the city, there is birdsong and the rustle of trees in the wind. It’s an exceptionally easy way of reconnecting to nature in an urban area.
After that, Andy guides you towards focusing on the body, mentally ‘scanning’ for any aches and pains.
I started the session wondering how on earth I was going to get through ten minutes, but when it finishes, I’m kind of sad.
Believe it or not, the chronic stiffness in my neck seems to have dissipated. I can’t wait to get started, and I’ve downloaded the free Headspace app to my phone so I don’t have to lug my laptop around with me. The session seems to pass much more quickly, although I find my mind wanders a bit more.
I’m getting more familiar with it now, so my mind instantly wanders when it knows it should be paying attention. Headspace pre-empts that, and Andy gently reminds you to bring your mind back to the movements at hand, so breathing, listening for sounds and so on. The idea, he says, is not to squash bad thoughts or only have good ones, but to be able to look at everything you’re thinking without judgement. Hmm, might be tricky.
By day six, I understand what Andy means about judgement. When you do meditation it gives you space to think, and you may find that one day you’re a bit more stressed out than the other. But rather than thinking: ‘oh crap! I’m stressed out! What am I going to do!’, the idea is that you acknowledge the feeling and welcome it into the room without freaking out about what you have to do about it. The other really helpful technique is regarding pain. When you’re scanning the body mentally, Andy asks you to fix upon the point of pain and give it your full attention. Incredibly, once you start doing that, it doesn’t feel so bad.
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This is the day I realise how my meditation is affecting how the rest of my demeanor. There are moments on the underground – specifically when my face is in someone’s sweaty armpit that I recall the clear, calm space that meditation created within me. I also manage to apply the ‘no judgement’ policy when I get mad at a friend, which defuses the situation quite nicely.
The final day is spent in the most testing of environments – at my parents house, preparing for a family wedding. There is a lot of noise but I manage to lock myself away and begin my meditation. All of the lessons I’ve learned along the way start to take on a more practical element, and by the end of it, I’m relaxed – so relaxed in fact that my mother suspiciously squints at me. “Have you already started hitting the wine?” she asks. “No,” I reply, “it’s something much, much better.
Conclusion: I'm a meditation convert. Headspace is really intuitive to how modern life works and what problems that may present, which makes this easy to do and easy to continue. I have a while to go before I can apply meditation to every aspect of my life, but even doing something about it makes me feel better and progressive.
The Goal Is Space, Not Silence
The late Swami Satchidananda, renowned for opening the Woodstock festival with his chanting, directed meditators to aim "see what is happening within you. "Become a witness ... be still and watch what is happening in your mind and in your body." Note that he didn't say, "shut your crazy mind up"-- because that's impossible. Meditation is about observing your thoughts, not about making them stop (although it's possible to slow them). When you can view those thoughts as separate from yourself (in your sitting meditation and, ultimately, throughout your day), you will inevitably be less storm-tossed by them.
Adore Sounds That Aren't Silent
After floundering during the start of that wobbly meditation, I finally got grounded by focusing on the noise and smells around me. Meditation teachers typically suggest finding a quiet place to sit, but the reality is even an-out-of-the-way corner is a whirlwind of ticking clocks, purring refrigerators, noisy neighbors, and yes, honking cars. Rather than try to fight them, I find it better to use these sounds to focus. The key is to hone in on the tones and vibrations -- in other words, to experience listening -- rather than to mentally ponder their source or meaning.
Showing Up Is Half The Victory
A meditation teacher once told me never to stop before my pre-determined schedule. "If you were planning to meditate 20 minutes, don't get up after 10," she admonished. You're trying to teach your mind that it doesn't always run the show. Letting it run your meditation time-clock is not a good way to impart this lesson. Nonetheless, if those 20 minutes prove agonizing, it's okay to plan for 10 the next time around.
You Won't Always Linger In The 'Gap'
Deepak Chopra uses this term to describe the space of bliss and stillness that we think of as meditation. But you can have a wonderful session without staying there. Consider your practice a success if you notice even once that there is space between your thoughts or mantra; this is the place where pure consciousness resides, and just seeing that it's there is sufficient.
Treasure Your Effort
If you judge yourself because your meditation isn't going the way you had planned, you are separating yourself from the higher, spiritual self that adores you. This is ironic, since connecting with that essence is the reason you're meditating in the first place. In its description of meditation, the University of Rochester Counseling Center recommends bringing "as much patience into the process as possible." Your higher self agrees, no doubt.
Watch For Spillover Into Your Life
Ultimately, the goal of a successful practice is not what happens on the cushion (or chair -- no law says that just because the ancient Hindus sat on the floor, you have to). The real purpose of meditation is to influence that other parts of our life, allowing -- through the increasing ability to separate ourselves from our rambling thoughts -- a flow of serenity and connection. If you notice that peace filtering into any part of your day, consider your meditation a triumph.