They simply wanted to find a way to cope with life, to deal with stress–in their work, their personal life, and in their own minds. They wanted to regain the sense of openness they remembered from childhood, that sense of appreciation in actually being alive. But most of all they wanted to know how to deal with that nagging feeling that all was not quite as it should be, or could be–that feeling that there must be more to life than this.
Sometimes it was inspired and the thrill was exhilarating, other times it was painful and the result was humiliating. But somehow it didn’t matter. What mattered was going out there and doing it, not thinking about it, not worrying what others might think, not even being attached to a particular result, just doing it.
How other people use meditation? For many it’s the all-round stress buster, an aspirin for the mind. For some, it’s the foundation of a broader approach to mindfulness, an opportunity to touch base with what it means to be present and in the moment throughout the day. For others, it might be part of a personal development plan towards greater emotional stability, or integrated into a spiritual path of some kind. And then there are those who turn to meditation as a way of improving their relationships with partners, parents, children, friends, colleagues and associates.
At first it was assumed that it was simply the activity of the brain that changed during meditation, but multiple studies have shown that the structure of the brain itself can change, in a process known as neuroplasticity. So, in the same way that training the body can make a particular muscle thicker and stronger, so training the mind with meditation can make the area of the brain associated with happiness and wellbeing thicker and stronger.
Mindfulness means to be present, in the moment, undistracted. It implies resting the mind in its natural state of awareness, which is free of any bias or judgment. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? This is in contrast to how most of us live our lives, which is to be constantly caught up with all the little (and big) thoughts and feelings, and to be critical and judgmental of ourselves and others.
For some reason we’ve come to believe that happiness should be the default setting in life and, therefore, anything different is somehow wrong. Based on this assumption we tend to resist the source of unhappiness–physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s usually at this stage that things get complicated. Life can begin to feel like a chore, and an endless struggle to chase and maintain that feeling of happiness. We get hooked on the temporary rush or pleasure of a new experience, whatever that is, and then need to feed it the whole time. It doesn’t matter whether we feed it with food, drink, drugs, clothes, cars, relationships, work, or even the peace and quiet of the countryside. If we become dependent on it for our happiness, then we’re trapped.
How many people do you know who have that unshakeable sense of underlying headspace? Has this approach of chasing one thing after the next worked for you in terms of giving you headspace? It’s as if we rush around creating all this mental chatter in our pursuit of temporary happiness, without realising that all the noise is simply drowning out the natural headspace that is already there, just waiting to be acknowledged.
But when it comes to the way you think and feel about those situations, the starting point is to acknowledge that it’s the mind itself that defines your experience. This is why training the mind is so important. By changing the way in which you see the world, you effectively change the world around you.
There is something inherently human about striving to achieve something, and having a sense of purpose and direction in life is vital. But, if anything, meditation can be used to clarify and support that purpose, because what the practice will show you, in a very direct way, is that a lasting sense of happiness and sense of headspace is not dependent on these things.
For many people, the idea of doing absolutely nothing sounds at best boring and at worst positively frightening. In fact, we’re so busy doing stuff the whole time that we no longer have any reference point for what it means to be still, simply resting the mind. We’ve become addicted to ‘doing stuff’, even if it’s just thinking. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with watching television, listening to music, having a drink, going shopping or hanging out with friends. On the contrary, these are all things to be enjoyed. It’s just useful to recognise that they facilitate a certain amount of temporary happiness, rather than a lasting sense of headspace.
We now have e-mails and social media routed to our mobiles so we can be truly distracted all day. It means that now even the slightest feeling of boredom or restlessness is a trigger to get online and keep busy.
There’s another good reason for training in mindfulness. Because, whether we like it or not, we share the world in which we live with other people and, unless we want to live as a solitary yogi or hermit in the mountains, we’re always going to have to interact with others. So who benefits most from your increased sense of headspace? Is it you, or is it the people around you?
What you need to ask yourself,’ he continued, ‘is how much of your thinking is helpful, productive, and how much is unhelpful or unproductive.
Meditation, within a mindful context, was not about stopping thoughts and controlling the mind. It was a process of giving up control, of stepping back, learning how to focus the attention in a passive way, while simply resting the mind in its own natural awareness.
The blue sky is headspace, and it’s always there–or, rather, here. Meditation is not about trying to create an artificial state of mind, which I’d imagined headspace was. Neither it is about trying to keep all the clouds at bay. It is more a case of setting up a deckchair in the garden and watching as the clouds rolled by. Sometimes the blue sky would peek through the clouds, which felt nice. And, if I was able to sit there patiently and not get too engrossed in the clouds, then even more of the blue sky would start to appear. It was as if it happened on its own, with no help from me whatsoever. Watching the clouds in this way gave me perspective, a sense of space that I’d not known in my meditation before. More than that though, it gave me the confidence to sit and rest my mind in its natural state, not trying, not doing, just being.
But take a moment to imagine what it would be like to have that kind of freedom and space in your mind. Imagine what it would be like to be unconcerned with the volume or intensity of thoughts in your mind. Most of all, imagine what it would be like to have a place within your own mind which is always calm, always still and always clear; a place that you can always return to, a sense of being at ease or at peace with whatever is happening in your life.
‘Happiness is just happiness,’ he went on, ‘no big deal. It comes and it goes. Sadness is just sadness, no big deal. It comes and it goes. If you can give up your desire to always experience pleasant things, at the same time as giving up your fear of experiencing unpleasant things, then you’ll have a quiet mind.’
I thought that part of growing into a man was being able to deal with things in a detached kind of way.
‘Do you like it when someone makes you laugh?’ he asked. ‘Of course,’ I replied smiling. ‘What about when someone makes you cry? Do you like that?’ ‘No,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘OK,’ he continued, ‘so let’s say that I could show you how to never experience sadness again, would you like that?’ ‘Of course,’ I nodded eagerly. ‘The only condition is that you would also lose the ability to laugh as well,’ he said, suddenly looking very serious. He seemed to read my thoughts. ‘They are a package,’ he said, ‘you can’t have one without the other. They are like two sides of the same coin.’ I thought about it. ‘Stop thinking about it,’ he said, now laughing. ‘It’s impossible, I couldn’t show you how to do it even if you wanted me to.’
‘True happiness doesn’t distinguish between the kind of happiness you get from having fun and the sadness you feel when something goes wrong. Meditation is not about finding this kind of happiness. If you want to find this kind of happiness then go to a party. The kind of happiness that I’m talking about is the ability to feel comfortable no matter what emotion arises.’
One of the most important was that the emotion itself is often not the problem. It’s the way we react to it that causes the problem.
Emotions are the filter between ‘us’ and the ‘world’.
When we feel angry the world can look very threatening: we see situations as obstacles and other people as enemies. And yet when we feel happy, the world can appear as quite a friendly place. We view the same situations as opportunities and the same people as friends. The world around us has not changed that much, but our experience of that world is radically different.
Mindfulness is the willingness to rest in that natural state of awareness, resisting the temptation to judge whatever emotion comes up, and therefore neither opposing or getting carried away with a feeling. Meditation is simply the exercise that is going to give you the best conditions to practise being mindful of these emotions. And headspace is the result of applying this approach. Headspace does not mean being free from emotions, but rather existing in a place where you are at ease with whatever emotion is present.
So we come back to the idea of gentle curiosity: watching, observing and noticing what happens in the body and mind as these emotions come and go. Remember, the objective here is headspace, a sense of ease with whatever emotion is present. It means to sit on the roadside, watching the emotions pass, neither getting drawn into them because they look inviting, nor running away from them because they look frightening. The technique is not about trying to stop emotions from arising, in the same way that it’s not about trying to stop thoughts from arising. Like thoughts, emotions spontaneously arise. It’s how we meet these emotions, how we respond to them that is important.
At an intellectual level, we can also appreciate the value of so-called negative emotions. I often hear people say that were it not for a particularly difficult period in their life, they would never have gone on and done the things they’ve done–and that even if they could go back and change it, they wouldn’t. With the passing of time and with increased perspective, the experience of emotion can look very different.
If you’re the kind of person who is very resilient and optimistic, then there’s a good chance that the front left-hand side of your brain is very active. If, on the other hand, you tend to get quite anxious and caught up in lots of negative thinking, then it will be the front right-hand side of the brain which is more active. Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin found that after just eight weeks of mindfulness practice, participants experienced a significant change in the activity from right to left, which corresponded with increased feelings of happiness and wellbeing.
It’s a well known fact that stress has a significant impact on our health. In the past, doctors have found that the ‘stress response’ can increase blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and even lead to strokes, hypertension and coronary heart disease. It also impacts the immune system and has been shown to reduce the chances of conception. In contrast, meditation has been shown to evoke the ‘relaxation response’, where blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen consumption all decrease, whilst the immune system is given a significant boost.
It may well be that you feel as though your mind is all over the place, but that’s why you’re learning to meditate. It may sound obvious, but for some reason it’s easy to forget this fact.
To begin with we need to give the mind something to focus on, something to concentrate on. Traditionally these were known as ‘objects of meditation’ or ‘meditation supports’ and they were classified as external or internal. External supports might include techniques such as gazing at a particular object, listening to a particular sound, or perhaps chanting a particular word or phrase over and over again. This last one, known as a mantra, can also become an internal object, by simply repeating it in the mind rather than out loud. (Fear not, though, we won’t be doing any chanting–that’s really not the Headspace way.) Other internal objects of meditation might include focusing on the breath, bodily sensations, or even visualising a particular image in the mind.
Another way of describing meditation is to use the word ‘awareness’. So, if you’re unaware, then you are not meditating badly, you’re not meditating at all! It doesn’t matter whether you’re aware of lots of thoughts or of no thoughts. Nor does it matter whether you’re aware of pleasant feelings or unpleasant feelings. The skill is simply to be aware, that’s all. One teacher of mine used to repeat this like a mantra. He’d say, ‘If you’re distracted, then it’s not meditation. Only if you’re undistracted is it meditation. There’s no such thing as good and bad meditation, there is only distracted or undistracted, aware or unaware.’
When you sit to meditate it’s a little like watching this play. The images and voices are not you, in the same way that the play or the film is not you.
And it’s through developing that ability of passive observation that you get to experience the clarity and confidence to make decisions, make changes and live life more fully. Think back to the blue sky, this space that has always been there. Awareness is not something you need to create, as it’s always present. We just need to remember not to forget.
We’re so used to doing something, being involved in something, that it can feel a bit boring to just sit and watch the mind, especially if the thoughts are mundane.
But have you ever stayed with boredom long enough to look at what it is? Is it simply a thought or a feeling of wanting to be somewhere else, of doing something different? And if so, then why treat that thought or feeling any differently from all the others you observe in the mind? As you know, just because we experience a thought doesn’t mean we have to react to it, or act upon it. We’d be in pretty big trouble if we always did.
- Find a place to sit down comfortably, keeping a straight back.
- Ensure you’ll be left undisturbed during your meditation (switch off your mobile).
- Set the timer for 10 minutes.
- Take 5 deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth and then gently close your eyes.
- Focus on the physical sensation of the body on the chair and the feet on the floor.
- Scan down through the body and notice which parts feel comfortable and relaxed, and which parts feel uncomfortable and tense.
- Notice how you’re feeling–i.e. what sort of mood you’re in right now.
Focusing the mind:
- Notice where you feel the rising and falling sensation of the breath most strongly.
- Notice how each breath feels, the rhythm of it–whether it’s long or short, deep or shallow, rough or smooth.
- Gently count the breaths as you focus on the rising and falling sensation–1 with the rise and 2 with the fall, upwards to a count of 10.
- Repeat this cycle between 5 and 10 times, or for as long as you have time available.
- Let go of any focus at all, allowing the mind to be as busy or as still as it wants to be for about 20 seconds.
- Bring the mind back to the sensation of the body on the chair and the feet on the floor.
- Gently open your eyes and stand up when you feel ready.
We’re usually so caught up in our thoughts, so busy with the activities of the day, that we’re often unaware of how we’re feeling emotionally. This may not sound that important, but if you’re aware of how you feel then you’re in a position to respond to that feeling. Whereas if you are unaware, you will in all likelihood find yourself reacting impulsively at some stage during the day. We’ve all observed it–the mild-mannered businessman or housewife, seemingly well adjusted, standing calmly in line at the supermarket, and then suddenly losing it. Perhaps they get bumped by a trolley, or maybe their card is declined at the till, things that on another day they would brush off, but because of that underlying feeling, it all boils over and ends up in some kind of outburst.
The scientists found that the areas of the brain which regulate pain and emotion were significantly thicker in meditators compared to non-meditators. This is important, because the thicker the region, the lower the pain sensitivity. This potential for change in the brain is known as neuroplasticity.
One of my favourite examples is brushing the teeth. It’s a familiar activity, with a very obvious focal point and, as it’s likely to last no more than a few minutes, there’s every chance that you’ll be able to maintain a sense of awareness throughout. Of course, this is in contrast to how most people would normally brush their teeth, which is as quickly as possible while thinking about what to do next. The difference between the two scenarios needs to be experienced to be fully understood. Try it, see how it feels. You’ll probably find it easiest to be aware of one of the physical senses and use that as your focal point. So it might be the sound of the brush against the teeth, or the physical sensation of the arm moving back and forwards, or the taste or the smell of the toothpaste. By focusing on just one of these objects at a time, the mind will start to feel a little more calm. And in that calmness there’s every possibility that you might notice the tendency to drift off into thought, or to hurry to get on to the next thing. Or you might notice that you apply too much or too little effort to the brushing process. You may even notice a feeling of boredom. But all these observations will prove useful in their own way, because they will show you your mind as it really is.
We’re often so distracted by our own thoughts that we don’t even really hear what the other person is saying.
One woman who came to the clinic commented on how by using it with her baby, she now felt as if she was actually spending time with him. She’d said that before, even though she was with him, her mind was always elsewhere. But by being more mindful around her baby, she was now actually present for the experience.
You’ve been on a diet recently and have been doing so well, do you really want to eat the cake? Then again, you’ve also been working on being more kind to yourself, so perhaps you should eat the cake. You feel confused. You want the cake, you don’t want the cake. And so the day goes on, forever caught up in the highs and lows of all that’s going on around you. The one thing that remains the same throughout the day is that your thinking dictates the way you feel. In the absence of awareness, the realm of thought takes over.
Imagine that the piece of paper has lots of very small dots on it, going from one side to the other. Each dot is very close to the next one on the page. Now try drawing the same straight line. My guess is it’s much easier now. All you have to do is focus on getting from one dot to the next. You don’t have to think as far ahead as the other side of the piece of paper, but just a few millimetres to reach the next dot. All of a sudden it’s not so difficult to draw a straight line. And if we continue the analogy of the line representing your sense of awareness (and therefore your emotional stability) throughout the day, then this is obviously very good news. Rather than thinking of just being mindful during your ten minutes of meditation each morning (and then trying to make it through the next twenty-three hours and fifty minutes of your day until you meditate again) maybe start to think of mindfulness in terms of something you can apply throughout your day.
Do you remember how you felt upon waking? Now, as if your brain has been set to a very gentle ‘fast-forward’, simply watch as your mind replays the events, meetings and conversations of the day. This doesn’t need to be in detail, it’s more of an overview, a series of snapshots passing through the mind.
- Take about three minutes to go through the entire day, right up to the present moment.
- Having brought yourself up to the present moment, you can now return your focus to the body. Place your attention on the small toe of the left foot and imagine that you’re just switching it off for the night. You can even repeat the words ‘switch off’ or ‘and rest’ in your mind as you focus on the toe.
- Begin by counting backwards from 1,000 to zero.
- As a final note, it’s important that you do this exercise with the genuine wish to reach zero. Do not think of it as a way of getting to sleep, but as an exercise to keep you occupied and focused until your body and mind are ready to switch off for the night.
Neuroscientists discovered that, after just six weeks of mindfulness, participants were able to fall asleep in half the time than usual–averaging twenty minutes instead of forty minutes.
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: meditation only works if you do it! It’s only when you sit down and do it on a regular basis that you’ll see any benefit. So while the practice of mindfulness can be applied any time, any place, anywhere, there’s no substitute for a daily meditation session. Those ten minutes will give you the very best opportunity and conditions to become familiar with what it means to be aware.
If I treat someone badly, then when I sit down to do my meditation my mind will experience an unusually high volume of challenging thoughts.
The best time of the day to do your meditation when you are learning is first thing in the morning.
But probably the most important reason is that if you do it in the morning, it gets done.
So it’s the troublesome thoughts and emotions that we need to get to know the best. In order to know your own mind, and therefore experience life with a renewed sense of perspective, it’s important to always cross the finishing line, to complete the ten minutes, no matter what. By the same measure, on those days when you’re feeling great, as though you could continue for ever, it’s best if you stop when the timer goes off. This way you’ll develop a very honest and useful practice.
Meditation is a skill and, like any skill, needs to be repeated on a regular basis if it’s to be learnt and refined.
Trust your own experience and don’t just rely on other people’s opinions.
Mindfulness is about a fundamental shift in the way you relate to your thoughts and feelings. While that may sound exciting, or perhaps a little overwhelming, it’s done by repeating the exercise little and often. So this means practising meditation on a regular basis, no matter how you feel. Like any other skill, you’ll become more confident and familiar with the feeling of mindfulness the more often you apply it.
Tales from The Clinic
Meditate less on the anxiety itself, which when left alone has a tendency to just come and go in its own time anyway, and instead focus on his resistance to the anxiety. After a little while he started to notice how his obsession with trying to control the anxiety was actually driving the anxiety itself.
She found it difficult to sit and observe her thoughts without passing judgment. She said most of the thoughts seemed to be about the exercise itself, almost as though there was a running commentary on how it was going.
We worked mostly with techniques that encouraged a sense of kindness and compassion towards herself.
She says she feels as though she’s found something within herself that reminds her that she’s OK, no matter how she might feel on the outside.
He has insatiable appetite for something new. As long as he was involved in doing something, he felt OK. But as soon as he stopped, he felt on edge. He had built up an array of distractions that he could dive into. There were those that were socially acceptable, such as eating and drinking, and then there were those that he hid.
It’s not such a big deal, it’s just sitting down and taking ten minutes out to unwind, to appreciate the silence. Even if your mind is all over the place at first, being able to sit there for ten minutes gives you a belief and inner confidence that you can do it every time.
- Did you make time to do Take10 today? If you didn’t manage it today, rather than give yourself a hard time about it, simply remind yourself how important it is to get some headspace and schedule it in your diary for tomorrow.
- How did you feel immediately before Take10? Did you feel comfortable with that feeling?
- How did you feel immediately after Take10? Did you feel comfortable with that feeling?
- What was your mood today and how did it change throughout the day?
- Were you aware of the little things as you went through the day? Did you notice the temperature of the different parts of the body today?
- Did you notice anything today that you’ve never noticed before? If so, what?