“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centred, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”- Thich Nhat Hanh: Vietnamese Zen master
How are you coping with the latest round of lockdowns due the ever-evolving coronavirus pandemic?
It seems we’re constantly being updated with dismal news. With the disruption to our daily routines many will experience a sense of uncertainty that causes feelings of extreme anxiety and stress.
So what can you do to manage these uncomfortable feelings that are likely spinning around in our minds right now?
One possible option during these challenging times maybe trying meditation.
Meditation can pay big dividends in reducing your body’s stress response during times of crisis.
However, meditation comes with a warning- it’s not as easy as you may think.
Bearing this in mind, hopefully this blog can go some way to helping you understand the pitfalls of meditation to watch out for.
What is the goal of meditation?
“Meditation isn’t about becoming a different person, a new person, or even a better person. It’s about training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective. You’re not trying to turn off your thoughts or feelings. You’re learning to observe them without judgment. And eventually, you may start to better understand them as well”. – Headspace
During this pandemic, a number of newbie meditators have regularly asked me for guidance around learning meditation. Many seem to get frustrated and question if they are going it all wrong. The most common request is for quick and easy ways to gain the benefits of meditation.
The basic concept of meditation connects the mind and the body. Its purpose is to help increase both physical and mental peace and calm, which also helps us to learn how to live more fully in the present.
It develops a deep sense of mindfulness.
Learning the art of mindfully staying present can be achieved in a number of ways.
One option is pausing briefly at various times throughout the day to connect directly with the present moment experience.
An alternative way to achieve the same outcome is through the traditional method of meditation.
Both options ask you come back to the present over and over again.
That is where the problem starts.
Coming to terms with learning meditation
No matter if you are new to meditation or a seasoned veteran, this reality of coming back again and again to the present moment is the biggest challenge faced by most meditators.
When I was first given instructions on how to meditate 15 years ago it sounded so simple.
Just sit down, get comfortable and bring your awareness to your breath. When you mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath and stay present.
What can be tough about that? Sounds easy!
A gentle bell starts the meditation practice. I close my eyes, and I find the breath and then…..
The bell rings to end the meditation and I suddenly realise I have spent the majority of the time deep in thought about anything and everything other than following the breath.
Numerous attempts in my early days had me believing I could not meditate. This simple task of following my breath seemed beyond me.
However, I persisted. I believed I could conquer meditation. The perfectionist in me saw a time, in the not distant future, when I could easily attend to each and every breath.
How did that work out?
Moving to the present day, I have come to the realization meditation can never be perfect. And that’s ok.
The reality of meditation
Many things influence the quality of the practice.
• Sometimes my mind is still.
• Sometimes my mind is busy.
• Sometimes my energy is agitated.
• Sometimes my energy is calm.
The reality is many things happen when we meditate. If you meditate in the morning, after awaking, the mind is generally calm and relaxed and meditation can feel effortless.
Alternatively, if we meditate at the end of a busy stressful day the mind could feel restless and distressed due to challenges of the day. It can feel tough to sit with the storm.
The key point worth remembering is there is no perfect condition that makes itself available for us when we meditate. Through every up and down in life we learn, via our training, to be open and receptive to whatever arises. We are not trying to change anything.
What I have learnt, from people I consider masterful at the art of meditation, is this quality of being fully conscious to whatever is happening. Their minds have the ability to stay with whatever is arising. They become curious about the experience without forming any judgements. They are just very receptive and open to what’s happening.
Confront the itch of discomfort
One of my teachers in Thailand had a very unique way of describing the challenge of staying present to life’s discomforts while meditating.
He suggested discomfort during meditation is like an itch that needs to be scratched.
Like anything we don’t like, we automatically try to escape. Scratching is our habitual way of trying to get away from the discomfort. The itch represents the agitation, the anxiety, the uneasiness of the moment.
We all know by experience it’s hard to let go of a habit that gives us immediate relief to discomfort. However, with that choice there is always a risk.
If we keep scratching the itch gets worse and the irritation will grow.
Meditation can be seen as learning to stay with the itch.
We learn how to settle with whatever we are feeling. This includes the urge to avoid the discomfort of the moment by scratching the itch. We are just open to whatever is going on.
As is normal, without guidance, we always seek quick relief via a course of action that is habitual. However, this approach is detrimental to addressing the root problem.
What causes the need to avoid the suffering?
This causes us to want to run away from all the unpleasantness and avoid the present moment?
Stop running away from the problem
Typically, we tend to bury our head in the sand as a form of avoidance. We are afraid to face our feelings and reactions to life situations that trigger us in a negative way.
There is a deep seated tendency to distract ourselves. We’d rather turn away from what we don’t like rather than face it.
Everybody feels a little itch some of the time. There this constant background of edginess or restlessness.
I personally feel it all the time. It becomes more apparent when I take my seat to meditate. This nagging urge to stop meditating and move on to more interesting tasks.
There could be a number of possible reasons for this.
An article called ‘The mindfulness conspiracy’ by Ronald Purser addresses this point by suggesting:
“By failing to pay attention to what actually happens in each moment, we get lost in regrets about the past and fears for the future, which make us unhappy”.
This may be true, however a more plausible idea would be to consider our need for a fixed reference point to make us feel more secure.
Finding security through uncertainty
The reality is nothing is permanent. Change is a guarantee that we seemed challenged to accept. We see this play out in various ways every day.
Have you ever entered a meeting room expecting to take the same seat as before? To your surprise that seat is taken. Now you have to think and make a decision. Where will I be safe?
We have no tolerance for uncertainty.
It seems insecurity is ego’s reaction to shifting reality and uncomfortable situations.
However, by learning to stay with the itch of uncertainty in a situation while meditating, we start to notice this energy starts to lose its threat. Rather than choosing to scratch, as we habitual would, we just stay present.
We no longer invest in trying to pull away from the insecurity. We find by enduring these troubling sensations we find clarity and freedom.
Practicing being present
One way to practice is to take a seat for a period of time and simply listen and become aware of your surroundings.
What can you hear?
Just listen openly to the sounds you can hear around you. Sounds that are close and sound that are in the distance. Resist the urge to judge the sound good or bad. Just acknowledge each and every sound that comes into your field of awareness.
For example I may decide to meditate in my living area. I start by scanning the environment around me. I may notice the sound of a ticking clock come into my awareness. Then my attention gets drawn to the humming motor of the kitchen fridge. Then I open my listening to sounds outside the room.
I may notice the birds singing or the distant sound of vehicles travelling the freeway. There no good or bad. Just sounds in the present moment.
The true meaning of meditation
If you repeat this exercise over differing days you start to get familiar with the quality of your attention. That is the true definition of meditation.
“Meditation is the act of becoming familiar with our thoughts and feelings in order to transform the quality of our experiences in relationship to ourselves and others around us”.
Some days your concentration is crystal clear. You have this capacity of attention that is present and alert.
However, other days you may find your mind tends to easily wander off into thinking. It is easily distracted from the present moment. This is not failure.
At these times, this is the perfect opportunity to strengthen your meditation practice.
At these times when you notice that your mind has drifted away you just gently bring it back to the object of your meditation. This could be the breath, sounds, sensations or feelings in the body.
The anchoring of our attention to an object is one of the most fundamental important actions we always need to establish to keep us present when we meditate. It helps counter our human tendency to move away from the present moment.
Without this reference point to return to again and again during our meditation there is the potential we will find ourselves easily distracted.
Take home message
If you’re feeling extra anxiety these days due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, you’re not alone. This pandemic has us all facing more stress and uncertainty than usual.
It also has many of us asking: How do we keep in control during a full-blown pandemic?
Meditation offers a great opportunity to help you become familiar with your internal narrative and find calm.
If you need help feel free to contact me for guidance to learn meditation.