• Pat Irving


Maybe I'm overthinking it? But then again ...

Before I go any further, there’s something I should tell you: my relationship with meditation definitely falls inside the love-hate camp. I’ve tried – even succeeded, more than once, in establishing a daily practice. Then, for one reason or another, life gets in the way. I’ve used Headspace, Buddify, Sleeplessness (more Yoga Nidra than meditation), YouTube videos and various yoga subscription services. I’ve even attempted to simply sit on my own.

Recently, I’ve talked about meditation with a couple of friends who practise meditation every day. How they are and hearing them talk about their practice allows me to sense how it’s helped them. They’ve confirmed the benefits too. There’s a sense of calmness (irrespective of the stuff that might be happening or arising through meditation), and a willingness to greet what arises with a sense of objectivity and impermanence.

‘Just sit down and do it’, said one friend. So I did. For five minutes. Every fibre in my being rebelled. There was nothing about sitting that was comfortable. Body, mind or spirit. But getting armed with ‘The Mind Illuminated – A complete Meditation Guide’ from Culadasa (John Yates et al) and Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘No Mud No Lotus’ – and that ‘just sit down and do it’ kick up the bum – has given me the courage to allow thoughts to arise, knowing they are impermanent. Compassion has helped too. Self-compassion has been a bit of a theme for me for around eighteen months now and it’s a huge departure from constantly beating myself up for being ‘not good enough’, despite not ever actually knowing what good enough might be.

Meditation... it’s just sitting and clearing your mind. Isn’t it?

Well, no. It’s not.

I’ve not found meditation easy. In my head, every other yoga teacher has a diverse asana practice, perfect breath (even though I know breath isn’t perfect) and a calm, focused meditative practice which allows them to drop into a higher level of consciousness within a few rounds of breath. Or that’s what it looks like from where I’m sitting, as I huff and puff my way around dodgy knees, tight hips and sufficient back support that I don’t spend all of my time thinking about the pain in my body as I come to – and remain – seated.

The past few months have been particularly useful in starting to give some thought to why I want to meditate and developing and sustaining a daily practice.

The first chapter of the Yoga Sutras focuses on meditative absorption, with the first Sutra saying ‘now the teachings of yoga are presented’, while the second Sutra says ‘yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind’ (from the Edwin F Bryant Translation and Commentary). Bryant says that Patanjali prescribes meditative concentration to still the states of mind by keeping the mind fixed on an object of choice (I’ve used breath and candles, and I’m currently using a singing bowl).

The Yoga Sutras suggest that one objective of meditation is maximising a balanced, lucid sattvic state and minimising rajas (movement) and tamas (inertia), which are considered obstacles to yoga, but we need a bit of both to be embodied and that sattva should control what we need of them for healthy survival.

While I know I sleep better when I meditate, sometimes my aversion to sitting knows no bounds. I’ve found that if I can deal with the changing states of the mind when I sit, it’s less likely to prevent me dropping off to sleep, wake me in the middle of the night (or the early hours) with random – sometimes completely inane – thoughts. For now, improving my sleep is the reason I meditate but this might change in the future.

Coming back to ‘just sitting and clearing your mind’. It’s taken me a long time to learn that this is exactly what meditation isn’t.

It was during the Depth Yoga course with Lisa Sanfilippo that I learned that meditation is about developing your attention and managing attention and awareness. With this knowledge I can allow thoughts to arise, notice them (sometimes quickly sometimes not), bring attention back to the object (breath, sensation, candle etc) then see what happens when the next thought arises. It could be the same thought, it could be different. Some recent singing bowl meditation sessions with Rowan Carr reminded me to manage attention and awareness (and how much I have to learn).

The beauty of meditation – at my beginner’s level – is the wry smile when I notice my mind has moved off into the concerns of daily life rather than focusing on my object. This is where the need for compassion comes up. If I beat myself up for every transgression, I’d be a wreck.

So there’s two key issues for me: sitting and the stuff that emerges as I sit.

Are you sitting comfortably?

I first wrote about finding a comfortable seat two years ago. Aversion and actually sitting comfortably – to take attention away from the physicality of sitting – are my barriers.

Sometimes, everyone and everything gets in the way. I’ll promise myself to sit when I’ve done x, y and z, knowing that one of x, y or z is something that is a forever task (accounts, for example). Yet x, y and/or z would be so much easier if I meditated because I’m less distracted by the background chatter in my brain which contributes to procrastination.

So cultivating a little self compassion – and the use of different props – keeps me sitting even if my mind and spirit want to rebel. I’ve sat on chairs, used kneeling stools, my bolster, blocks, blankets, squashy balls and I’ve even laid down to meditate.

I’ve found what’s working for me at the moment, so that’s the first of my aversions addressed.

‘The inner workings of the mind remain murky … full of mental debris that clutters our thinking.’(Culadasa, John Yates et al)

Knowing that recent things might arise while sitting meant that Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom has helped. Rumi’s The Guest House has helped too. Greet the darkness, malice, grief and sadness with a bit of compassion, allow the thoughts to emerge and sit with them. Don’t push them away. There’s a lot to learn from what arises.

Starting to sit with the things that go through my mind when I meditate is cathartic. There’s things I’ve done throughout life (trying to float through life without causing fuss or seeking attention), but not actually working out – or saying - what I need. And there’s the stuff I’ve pushed back down because it’s too hard to deal with (which for me gets stuck at the level of my heart and affects my breath). It’s a mix of old stuff and new stuff.

I spent a good part of March worrying about Mother’s Day, my first without my mum, so my thoughts were worries. I worried for me, for my brother and for my sister. Less so for my dad for Mother’s Day. But then her birthday came and my thoughts were worries again – mostly for my dad. I spent a lot of time reminding myself that thoughts emerge and hold attention and that sometimes, if I can draw attention away, they have less control or even dissolve. There’s been a lot of reminders that thoughts are impermanent.

What does this mean in practice?

I started with five minutes. I’m now at 24. This might not seem a lot, but it’s progress. Twenty to 24 was a challenge and only happened in the last two-three weeks, thanks to Rowan and his singing bowls. One of our observations last week was the irony of Sukasana, ‘easy pose’ which can be far from easy!

Still sometimes my feet go to sleep, but I’m sitting for a whole 24 minutes, even if for the last couple of minutes I’m sitting with distraction. Sometimes I can get snippets of stable attention. Sometimes fleeting moments of bliss. Sometimes my mind wanders and come Hell or high water there is no bringing it back to focus on my breath or any other object.

Is it time to mention the dark side of mindfulness?

In the middle of all this meditative enquiry, I discussed meditation as a tool to help address insomnia during one of the insomnia workshops I delivered on World Sleep Day in March.

The discussion was fascinating in that we talked about the dark side of mindfulness. There was a mental health professional in the room (a seasoned meditator who regularly attends meditation retreats), who said she was surprised and heartened that I mentioned that meditation wasn’t for everyone, especially if, for example, there’s (repressed) trauma, psychosis or epilepsy in their history. And that mental health services have seen an increase in people who have practised meditation or mindfulness.

Essentially, the more I’ve learned the better I understand that typically we can watch thoughts arise, but we are not the thoughts that arise. However, not everyone can do this and they disassociate from their thoughts, especially if they are negative. For a very, very small proportion of people who meditate, the experience of negative emotions and thoughts can trigger break ups, psychotic breaks and an inability to focus. Morgan Dix wrote about these issues and ‘the emerging discussion around the shadow side of meditation’ in ‘What Is The Dark Side Of Meditation?’ in 2014.

Dr Willoughby Britton, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour at Brown University Medical School, in Providence, Rhode Island, has completed work originally called ‘The Dark Night Project’ and latterly renamed ‘The Varieties of Contemplative Experience’ which documents the shadow side of meditation. As part of this work she’s established a halfway house for recovering meditators who’ve suffered traumatic meditation experiences during meditation retreats.

Indeed Dix refers back to the religious context for meditation, saying that novice nuns and monks would not start a meditative practice until well into their spiritual training, when they’d put in the ground work necessary to proceed.

Now, people can go from the hyper-stimulation of modern life to the sensory deprivation of 10-day silent meditation retreats without the life experience or knowledge of what they might encounter within themselves. This is rare and it’s not to say such retreats don’t work, but there needs to be a solid foundation and preparation before attending one.

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A drive through the Lakes on a Bank Holiday Sunday (what was I thinking?), and getting caught up in the Keswick half marathon and behind a rather large camper van, challenged my sense of objectivity and impermanence as well as my sense of a balanced, lucid sattvic state (I’m an optimist). In other words, I had a stressed hissy fit once I reached the car park in Buttermere and swore at a driver who wanted my side of the road as well as theirs. So think on the bright side. As tourist numbers increase over the summer months, I’ll have plenty of time to take my practice into real life!

The above image is copyrighted to Gemma Correll

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