Resourcefulness Meditation helps stop multitasking!
as featured in this extract from ‘STOP with the multitasking!’ by Molly Gunn in
Red (Consumer Magazine of the Year MAY
“Needing to help change my mindset, I pay a visit to Linda Hall, a practitioner who teaches ‘resourcefulness meditation’. This is, she says, a life tool for managing stress levels, slowing busy minds and aiding concentration. Her website claims that big companies like Deutsche Bank, Google and Hughes Aircraft found that ‘meditation not only made employees sharper, but productivity is improved’. Well, if it’s good enough for Google...
Refreshingly, Hall totally gets my problem. When describing my need to constantly do a few things at once, she highlights my use of the word ‘need’ and asks, ‘Why do you feel you need to do so much?
It’s a simple question, but I’m flummoxed. Why do I feel the need to do so much? Hall suggests that I set myself free of this ‘need’ by focusing on my feet touching the ground, in order to get out of my headspace and think clearly. And during the relaxing meditation session, an image pops into my head of me arriving home that evening with nothing to do.
Resourcefulness meditation is big on grounding – literally focusing on the ground you’re rooted to, instead of the clutter in your head. While talking to Hall, I realise that I even multitask by thinking too much. My mind is constantly a whirl of ideas and lists, rarely do I focus on the here and now. Apparently, focusing on the present moment, instead of the past or future is a great aid in feeling calm and relaxed.
With a handful of CDs to listen to during my experiment, so that I can take the skills learnt through meditation into my everyday, I leave Hall with a spring in my step. I even have a moment of clarity as I walk to my office. Usually, I would rush along the street making a phone call as I rummage in my bag but, instead, I concentrate on the walking itself. I slow my pace and take stock of what is going on around me. I notice the regularity of my breath and the feeling of my feet on the ground. Everything feels clear and remarkably calm. I arrive at the office, feeling renewed and fresh, instead of chaotic and rushed.
That evening, as I get home, I remember my vision of having nothing to do. As I walk in the door, I take Bregman’s advice and turn off my phone. I play with Rafferty one-on-one without the TV on or me checking my emails. And I really do have more fun than when I’m distracted. After I put him to bed, instead of tidying up the detritus around the house, I sit down at the kitchen table and have a glass of wine, while my husband cooks dinner. The result is that we have a chat – a proper, interesting conversation that isn’t fragmented because I’m doing something else. This makes me feel extremely close to him, and, despite not clearing up when I usually would, everything that needs to get done, does.
The next morning, however, as I rush to get Rafferty’s bag ready for the childminder, while also having breakfast and thinking about what I need to take to work, I realise that multitasking is so ingrained, it’s going to take a stellar effort to eradicate it. So I stop, breathe deeply, focus on my feet touching the ground and proceed slowly.
Throughout the rest of the week, I am converted to this new way of life. I bat away the need to do more than one thing at once – sometimes deftly, other times with difficulty. It’s hard work changing habitual behaviour, but the more I practise restraint, the more I view those ‘multitasks’ as unnecessary distractions: email checking, Facebook browsing, mulling my to-do lists. All these became unimportant. Generally, I feel my shoulders lower and my stress levels drop. I’m getting greater enjoyment out of everything. I’ve even found myself enjoying the washing up, by focusing 100% on it. Multitasking? Pah! The real skill is monotasking.
5 Steps to stop multitasking
1 Instead of rushing through many tasks, decide the one thing you want to do first and only do that. You’ll find you enjoy it more.
2 Turn off your phone a few times throughout the day and check your email and messages in one go.
3 Resist the urge to surf the internet, answer calls or chat to a colleague while working. You’ll get your project done quicker and more efficiently.
4 Think about the task in hand, even if it’s just walking along the street. Notice the small things, like sounds, smells, and scenery.
5 Throughout the day, stop to focus on your breathing and your feet touching the ground. Bring yourself back to the here and now and you’ll instantly feel calm”
© Redonline.co.uk / MAY 2012
How Meditation Is Changing With The Times
First published by Positive Health On-Line Magazine, June 2013
Far reaching changes brought about by recent advances in technology and science have created fundamental shifts in the way meditation is perceived and practised. The enlightened age of the internet has made the world a much, much smaller place, changing the way we access, communicate and share information, enabling millions of us to research and discuss ideas and share experiences with each other across the continents. Plus, where once we may have looked to spiritual gurus for the meaning of life; now neuroscientists, psychologists, molecular biologists and quantum physicists are the new explorers in human consciousness.
More resources available
With a wealth of information at our finger tips on the World Wide Web, we have tended to become more discerning; rather than take on a ready-made belief system, we like to research things for ourselves and make up our own minds. A diverse range of free resources are available on-line to help us do this, from Wikipedia, TED seminars (1), interactive webinars and courses, to YouTube videos and APPS.
Our meditation habits are changing too. Increasingly becoming ‘time poor’, many of us meditate in front of our computer screens or on our iPods, choosing short guided meditations to accommodate our busy life styles and brief attention spans. Meditation is finding its way into the fabric of our ordinary lives; we can subscribe to daily doses of inspiration delivered in meaningful meditational ‘thoughts for the day’ via Twitter, or pop into Selfridge’s new Silence Room and meditation space to take a breather whilst shopping in London’s busy Oxford Street. It’s even possible to enter meditative states without any effort at all through binaural beat brainwave entrainment technology (2); you just don a set of headphones and listen to white noise or music to synch your brainwaves to alpha (3) or theta (4). Meditation is cool, so cool that websites for Freshers’ health at university offer meditation Chillpods.
Changing attitudes and approaches
Increasingly freed from its association with doctrine or dogma, meditation is now seen as synonymous with stress management and general good health. For several years large corporations such as Google and Deutsch Bank have been offering ‘in house’ meditation classes to employees to counter stress in the workplace and improve productivity. Meanwhile, smaller companies are starting to provide the calm of a designated ‘quiet room’ for their staff to escape when the pressure gets too much. There has never been a more apposite time for meditation skills to be integrated into everyday life. For the last twenty years or so, ever growing numbers of meditation instructors have been quietly working in the background using secular teaching methods that aren’t aligned to one specific ‘school’ or belief system. Their approach usually comes from personal experience, drawn over the years, selecting what has worked best for them, frequently combining an equal mix of spirituality and pragmatism.
As a meditation teacher myself, I’ve often thought that our particular culture is not best suited to some of the more structured or rigorous meditation disciplines that, after all, originated in very different climes to present day Western society. Generally speaking, our culture identifies with the individual rather than the collective, and has a somewhat less sturdy constitution than found in the East. It tends to suit a softer, more fluid approach that’s less demanding both mentally and physically and allows people to explore for themselves what spirituality means to them as individuals.
The call for meditation to be taught in secular, accessible ways that people can easily relate to and absorb into their busy daily lives is particularly strong nowadays. The popularity of Mindfulness meditation (5) is one such example. Originally a Buddhist practice, ‘mindfulness’ has been adopted by modern psychology and explored through scientific research. Oxford, Exeter, Bangor and Aberdeen universities all offer degrees in mindfulness, whilst large research centres in the US such as the Stress Reduction Clinic in Massachusetts, and the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre, Los Angeles, dedicate themselves to its research and teaching. It’s entered mainstream healthcare as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, the latter, now available on the NHS for a range of health issues including depression and anxiety disorders.
Learning essential life skills
Originally self-taught, I started meditating back in the Seventies. Over the years I explored a variety of approaches with different teachers, gradually gathering together what worked best for me. Somehow, the idea of following a particular meditation ‘master’ or system never appealed, possibly because my training in Fine Art as a painter taught me to think for myself and seek my own truth. Now, in my sixty-first year, I still feel it makes sense to place trust in your own experience and keep your own counsel.
Meditation skills are, essentially life tools and could, one day, routinely be taught at school to provide children with an understanding of the natural resources available to them and the positive benefits they provide for health and well-being. Children are chronically over-stimulated nowadays with sensory overload from a battery of electronic devices; classroom stress and difficulties in concentrating have become epidemic. A growing number of schools across the US are teaching mindfulness as a life tool for self-awareness and an aide to concentration. In the UK, there are training workshops for primary school teachers to teach youngsters relaxation meditation and creative visualisation. Meditation is being taught to children as young as four and up to sixth form age, with encouraging results. Studies in the US and Canada show that pupils who engage with just a few minutes of meditation each day are more attentive in class, achieve better grades, and are less aggressive and disruptive generally.
A secular route to spirituality
A secular approach to meditation, by no means precludes spirituality, it leaves room for choice, which for me, is important since it encourages autonomy and allows people to be truly authentic. I believe that spiritual practices need to be open to the process of evolving organically if people are to relate to them and find them accessible. Surely they are there to support people to navigate the rocky terrain of being human, rather than people being there to maintain a spiritual practice.
For many, the concept of spirituality is only associated with organised religion or New Age beliefs and sits outside their day-to-day experience rather than being a natural aspect of it. Unfortunately, the term ‘spirituality’ itself is often misunderstood because it can seem to come with so much baggage. My own sense of spirituality is that it’s rooted in my being human – with all the challenges, self-doubt, joys, and highs and lows that brings. Far from being ethereal or separate from the everyday, it comes out of the rich and often messy soup of the here and now and all that makes us who we are. And, just as spirituality can be linked to self-growth, meditation itself is a means for self-development. For, as soon as we clear a space to quieten the mind and body, we come to meet ourselves and what we bring to that moment in time.
Meditation involves tapping into fundamental resources: the innate resources already within us, and those in the natural world and the universe that surrounds us. It’s all about how we organise and engage our attention and awareness in any given moment. Many meditation techniques are interchangeable as life skills, integrating well into everyday life. In a nutshell, this is how I teach meditation. I’m passionate about how it translates to day-to-day living. Some years ago I decided to call my approach: ‘Resourcefulness’ meditation (6) as it centres around these inherent resources and the belief that meditative states are naturally occurring and available to everyone.
Using natural everyday faculties
As with most contemporary approaches, mine is a combination of Eastern philosophy and Western psychology. It borrows from mindfulness meditation as well as the more body-focused meditation practices such as yoga and quigong (7). Secular by nature, its ethos respects individual beliefs. Rather than imposing a specific structure to be mastered, such as breathing techniques, body posture or mental practise; the approach reveals positive ways of being in the ‘here and now’ through using the natural, every-day faculties of intention, focus and awareness.
The soft, sensory-based methods of Resourcefulness meditation work with the body and minds’ innate ability to rebalance. There’s an emphasis on body/mind awareness and simple, basic psychology to help people understand how their habitual thinking and behaviour patterns either support or hinder them, and how they can establish more useful ways of seeing things and being in the world. The approach supports the practise of mindfulness, compassion and acceptance.
Building skills for life
An important aim of my approach is to build an inner ‘tool kit’ of every-day skills that are easy to incorporate into day-to-day life. And because the gentle methods respect the needs of the individual in the present moment, they are suitable for almost anyone and may be of particular benefit for those who are ill or who have a stress related condition. Most of the basic techniques focus on how to modulate the body’s fight or flight (8) stress response and can be used as quick stress busters in everyday situations or crisis.
Perhaps surprisingly, in my experience, meditation practised in certain ways, can sometimes have the paradoxical effect of over stimulating the body’s Autonomic Nervous System (9) rather than calming it down. As a great many people learn meditation in order to manage a stress related disorder, and are therefore more likely to have a highly reactive Nervous System, it’s important to take that sensitivity into account. There are a range of conditions involving physical and mental health imbalances which require this kind of flexibility and subtleness of approach, including M.E./Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Like all worthwhile things in life, meditation continues to evolve. Seen nowadays as less of a rarefied practice and more a pragmatic life skill, it’s no longer necessary to change your belief system or follow a respected ‘master’ in order to be able to meditate. Contemporary psychology, having in the past borrowed from meditation’s rich storehouse of philosophy and practice, today plays a part in shaping meditation. In fact, many global-selling meditation CDs and downloads currently available are created by personal development coaches, psychology practitioners and clinical hypnotherapists.
Whilst some purists may fear the essence of meditation is being dumbed down or corrupted, personally, I see this cross fertilisation as a positive thing. It’s a rich melting pot of human experience, culture, wisdom and exploration of consciousness. There’s never been ‘one way’ or a ‘right way’ to meditate - it transcends all that.
Making meditation accessible to everyone
Meditation is probably the oldest form of self-growth practice. It’s possible without it, psychotherapy and the many psychology processes widely used in conventional and alternative health-care today wouldn’t exist as we know them. With the pace of 21st Century life speeding up, we need more than ever to have stress management and self-awareness skills that act like a common language which anyone can identify with and use. To de-mystify and secularise meditation, presenting it in ways that make it attractive and accessible can only be a good thing because it will reach, and therefore benefit, more people. Of course, traditional forms of meditation practice will continue to thrive, there is much to be learned and gained from them. There’s no good reason why the popularisation of meditation should take away from these ‘in depth’ practices – they will just become a more specialised option. After all, today’s contemporary music hasn’t brought about the demise of classical music and opera, it’s just provided new genres and more choice for everyone.
Within the next few decades, it’s likely that meditation skills will routinely be taught in down-to-earth ways and become an accepted part of the school curriculum. I predict that these skills will become commonplace life tools, absorbed into everyday behaviour, language and thinking habits. In its essence, meditation is an educative process. The number of times my students have told me of how it has changed their life for the better; just think what would happen if this were multiplied on a grand scale. The ripple effect would not only make a difference to how we live our lives as individuals, but on society as a whole and even percolate through into politics and global awareness. This could be one small but significant step towards bringing about some of the fundamental and positive changes our world so desperately needs right now.
- TED seminars: TED.com is a non-profit making platform for sharing ideas offering free video on-line talks and twice yearly conferences
- Binaural beat brainwave entrainment technology: A technology based on binaural beat frequencies or ‘tones’ that effect the sub cortical auditory system of the brain. The binaural beats (almost inaudible to the human ear) are embedded in music or ‘white sound’ to synchronise the brain into desired states. This scientifically proven technology is widely used to train the mind to enter deep states of relaxation, meditation and sleep.
- Alpha: Alpha brain waves occur when we are relaxed, calm yet aware
- Theta: Theta brainwaves are associated with sleep, deep relaxation (eg hypnotic relaxation) and visualization. It is believed they help to access the subconscious mind.
- Mindfulness meditation: A quality of attention/awareness on a moment-to-moment basis that is accepting and non-judgemental
- Resourcefulness meditation: A hybrid of mindfulness meditation and body-centred meditation with a soft, sensory based, holistic approach developed by Linda Hall. Aimed particularly at stress management, stress related conditions or illness www.ResourcefulnessMeditation.com
- Quigong: Qigong is traditionally viewed as a practice to cultivate and balance in the body’s Qi (chi) or ‘life force energy".
- Flight or fight stress response: A biological response to acute stress, preparing the body to fight or flee a perceived attack or threat to survival. Symptoms include raised heart beat, quickened breathing, suppressed digestion and production of the stress hormones, adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol. The body can get ‘locked in’ to the fight or flight response during chronic states of stress/overwork/overstimulation. Prolonged periods of being in the fight or flight state often cause imbalances in physical and mental health
- Autonomic nervous system: An involuntary part of the peripheral nervous system that acts as a
control system functioning largely below the level of consciousness. It’s divided up into two main branches – the Para Sympathetic which controls the body’s relaxation response and the Sympathetic which controls the body’s stress response
Meditation, for M.E./ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and related conditions
First published by Positive Health Online Magazine, May 2009
Meditation and M.E.
Meditation has powerful applications for many forms of illness including
M.E. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and other stress related conditions. It is especially good for
M.E. sufferers because it can be directly tailored to their current level of activity. From people who are bedbound to those who are getting back to working full time, meditation provides support in keeping the body and mind in the optimum healing state. I, myself, struggled with
M.E. for eight and a half years, and meditation played a significant role in my own recovery. The inspiration to teach meditation to help others with this much misunderstood condition stems from this challenging period in my life.
The stress factor and M.E.
Stress is now recognised as being an important factor in
M.E. and related conditions, both in events leading up to becoming unwell, and in the myriad of distressing symptoms themselves. Meditation can play a significant role in the management of and recovery from these conditions because it works on so many levels. Not only is meditation well known as a powerful stress buster, working directly on the autonomic nerve system, triggering the
relaxation response (i) , but it also provides a gentle means for self-development, addressing root causes in a non-invasive way.
When people clear a space to relax physically and mentally, they inevitably get more in touch with themselves and their own needs. Meditation provides a soft, fundamentally supportive structure in which this can happen. Embracing a philosophy of self-acceptance and non-judgement, meditation develops healthy levels of self-belief and self-worth. And the practice of
(ii) mindfulness opens up an understanding of the bigger picture, facilitating those ‘light bulb’ moments where things fall into place - often taking on a different perspective and more positive light.
Dealing with the challenges of M.E.
To make a connection with something bigger, through the spiritual aspect of meditation, can be truly life affirming when dealing with the physiological and psychological challenges of
M.E. All too often, the wide ranging distressing symptoms cause feelings of isolation and of being misunderstood. The world of an
M.E. sufferer contracts as he/she struggles to manage debilitating levels of fatigue and to make sense of bewildering symptoms, ranging from hypersensitivity to noise, light, heat/cold, social interaction, (even thinking); to muscle pain, digestive disorders, mind fog, blurred vision, dizziness and heart palpitations. In a very real way the
M.E. world becomes a much, much smaller and often frightening place, revolving around the illness and a desperate desire to recover. To feel part of a larger whole expands this world and brings about positive experiences that provide much needed support and the opportunity for change.
Providing a catalyst for change
At a basic level, it is experience that creates change. We can know for half a life time, for instance, what is good for us in theory, but this knowledge needs to be translated consciously, into ‘felt’ experience in the body, for real change to come about. This is because the body has its own system of learning - through a complex network of neural pathways, hormonal release and cellular memory. An integral part of the picture of
M.E. is that the physiology of the body has got caught in a stress pattern, and has normalised it. In other words it has
learnt to be in a chronic state of stress. We are by design, and thus by nature, creatures of pattern. This stress state compounds imbalances within all of its major systems, perpetuates the vicious cycle of being unwell and blocks the natural healing process.
Positive states consciously experienced during meditation can provide a catalyst for change. Meditation enables the body’s innate intelligence to recognise that it has choices, allowing it to explore and learn other ways of being, wherein its systems can rest, regain balance and flourish once again. In
M.E. it’s as if the body has forgotten how to relax; meditation retrains the body how to ‘do’ relaxation. It teaches it how to naturally access an optimum state for healing, where energy normally used up by the
M.E. system on maintaining the stress response
is channelled instead into allowing the body to heal itself.
Creating skills for life
In the spring of 2008 I launched a meditation course with The Optimum Health Clinic, a leading U.K. clinic specialising in the treatment of
M.E., whose integrative approach combines cutting edge psychology therapies with nutritional treatments. The course is called ‘Meditation For Life’, because it opens people’s lives up in a positive way and literally offers them skills for life. It teaches
Resourcefulness Meditation* a soft, sensory based approach to meditation, particularly suitable for stress related conditions. The body-focused techniques take into account the heightened sensitivity/stress response associated with
M.E. It teaches people how to live less ‘in their head’ all the time, and to establish, instead, a more grounded, comfortable relationship with their body. It encourages a more holistic approach to health-care by promoting a deeper awareness of the connection between the body, mind and emotions and their direct impact on health and wellbeing.
The course aims to teach meditation as a set of natural skills to:
- Engage with the present moment consciously, with acceptance, through practicing mindfulness
- Calm and balance the nervous system through grounding in the here and now
- Release tension, worries etc using intention, awareness and focus
- Gain awareness of the connection between body, mind and emotions, through developing cognitive and sensory perception
- Recognize, acknowledge and respect own emotional, physical and psychological needs through practicing mindfulness
- Build self-worth through observing negative ‘self- talk’, practising compassion and non-judgement, and the use of positive affirmations
All of this supports recovery, and helps maintain general good health once re-established. The ground-breaking course takes the format of an interactive conference call, linking people all over the UK and from abroad. It enables people to learn meditations specifically to help in their recovery in the comfort of their own home.
Improvements in general well-being and stress levels
Post course questionnaires show that after just eight weeks of practising meditation techniques and philosophy there are significant improvements in general outlook, anxiety levels and stress management in
M.E. sufferers. Students report they are able to be more positive about life and optimistic about their recovery. They feel that more choices are available to them, gaining in confidence and independence. Many are able to have more self-compassion and self-wisdom, learning to listen to their body’s needs and do things on their own terms. They feel less desperate to recover, trusting instead that recovery will come.
(iv) Grounding and mindfulness have been two of the most popular techniques. Students notice they feel calmer, less wired, tired and anxious, and find it easier to let things go and relax. By learning to monitor their state they can turn off ‘worry brain’, stop negative thought patterns, and go at their own pace. One has managed to reduce the frequency of her headaches through clearing her mind. Another, reports recognising the importance of stepping back with his mind and of being less intense when doing things.
Generally, there are also improvements in emotional balance. Participants find they are more in touch with their feelings and have increased levels of self-awareness and self respect; one student speaks of having greater core strength and of being able to withstand knocks. Overall, there is more inner peace and less being driven by high self-expectations and the need to do.
Sleep patterns have improved for some, becoming deeper and more natural; in one case a student has reduced her sleeping pills dramatically. Some find they have less sensory over-whelm and that their energy level and zest have increased.
Meditating in a group rates high among the benefits for many participants. It creates a sense of community where buddies can be made and the sense of isolation lessens. The very nature of meditation, with its philosophy of compassion, non-judgement,
mindfulness and focus on relaxation, creates a safe space where the meditator can feel held and supported. This extends beyond the group to individual practice. The feedback speaks for itself:
Meditation participants’ feedback
“I am able to focus down into my body and become aware what is going on and allow it to be as it is. What a wonderful thing! I feel really happy. I am OK with who I am and where I am in my life. I know that the meditation has put me in a place of peace and contentment. I am looking forward to witnessing all the other benefits that may be heading my way from this daily settling of my mind. Pauline McLeod, London
“I could feel my body coming down several notches and that felt such a blessed, wonderful relief.” Lucy Saunders, Bristol
“I felt so relaxed afterwards and quite surprised to feel energised. There was certainly an improvement in my sleep last night.” Ann Hardwick, Hartlepool.
“l feel that it is going to be a significant part of my healing journey. It has helped me get out of the constantly anxious ‘tired but wired’ state I had been trapped in for a while.”
Di Good, Sussex
“I've finally managed to walk as far as the village post-box for the first time in years... I've been making so many improvements since I started your course, and am so much more relaxed, it's wonderful.” Kate G, Dover
“And now for a small miracle.....last Friday I went to Laura Ashley for the first time ever!!” Carole
“I am meditating one to two times a day and really miss it when I don’t get to. I feel the meditation techniques have been a huge
influence of my recovering rapidly from ME.”
Gary Gill, London.
*Resourcefulness Meditation is a gentle, sensory based, non-religious form of meditation, developed by Linda Hall which can be especially effective with stress-related conditions or illness. (See website for details)
For information about the meditation group for people with M.E. developed with The Optimum Health Clinic
For information about the Optimum Health Clinics work with ME and related conditions
i Relaxation Response: Triggered by the Parasympathetic part of the Autonomic (automatic) Nerve System involving the slowing down of brain wave patterns and release of muscular tension: lowering heart rate, deepening breathing and improving digestion. The production of the stress hormone cortisol is reduced and levels of ‘feel good’ hormones such as endorphins are increased.
ii Mindfulness: The practice of neutral observation of the moment as we engage with it. It allows us to see and experience things as they really are rather than how they appear to be. It calms emotional and physical reactions to stress and gives room for psychological insight.
iii Stress Response: Triggered by the Sympathetic part of the Autonomic (automatic) Nerve System which takes the body into the Fight, Flight or Freeze Response designed to help the body survive in times of danger. The body’s entire system is put in a state of emergency: stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released, heart rate increases and blood is diverted from the brain and gut towards major muscles.
iv Grounding: The practice of sensing the connection of the body with ground. It supports and stabilizes the body and draws the centre of focus away from the head, allowing the mind to calm.
This article was originally published in PH Online May 2009 Issue 158 -
Meditation – A Way of Life
First published by Positive Health Magazine, August
All it takes is a willingness to be with yourself consciously, in the present moment, and to open..
My first memory of meditating was in the Seventies sitting crossed legged on a low wall alongside the canal running past Kingston-Upon-Thames Art College. Inside the canteen was busy and noisy as usual. In my late teens, a sensitive young painter, I felt the need for some personal space. Sitting a little apart from the others, with my back upright, hands resting gently on my knees, breathing evenly and slowly I created a pocket of calm for myself and things began to feel alright again.
Looking back even further to my early days I devised my own way of meditating through play, as we all can in childhood. Customising our garden trolley, trundling very slowly round my parents’ garden on the level with the flowers and insects, I entered an altered state, aware of everything around me: scents, shapes, colours, textures, movement; observing in a quiet reverie of wonder and calm.
Years later in my early twenties, my mother gravely ill with cancer, I would walk our family dog in the quiet of the evening, allowing my mind to open to the velvety darkness, sensing the shape and feel of the trees, sounds of birds calling, the indigo sky above, my foot fall creating a reassuringly ordered pattern. In these moments I felt part of something bigger and less alone. I believe it helped me begin to come to terms with her eventual loss.
As a painter, at work I often entered a meditative state, my senses heightened, allowing my creative subconscious to surface and my busy mind to recede. Opening to the sea of intelligence in the cosmos, I merged with a timeless source of inspiration.
So meditation was something I had done quite naturally from childhood; a way of finding balance and seeing through the darkness, long before I adopted a more formal approach to it.
Work After Art
Almost two decades later, no longer a practising artist I’d adopted a driven lifestyle, forgetting how to relax within my body, or feel at peace in my soul. Pushing myself hard during the day, and often fuelled with one drink too many at night, I filled time rather than used it. I had been a craftsman picture framer for ten years. It was punishing work. My body hurt at the end of a twelve-hour day, sometimes the skin on my hands wearing so thin that they bled, and I was developing chronic back pain from ‘workbench stoop’. It was a lonely occupation; I felt something missing in my life. A decision to change my career was to put me back in touch with my own needs.
I craved intimacy. I knew I needed to treat myself with a little more kindness, so I decided to eschew the isolation and drive for perfection of a craftsman, for a softer, more rounded me. Used to expressing myself through my hands from an early age, I now kept faith in them. I wanted to practise therapeutic massage. Choosing the Massage Training Institute, a leading organisation teaching an holistic approach to bodywork, I began training for my diploma. It was through this training that I learnt to respect the relationship between body, mind and spirit; to experience myself in a more integrated way. I don’t remember an exact start to my meditation practise, it just grew naturally from the process of centering and preparing myself for my clients. Focused massage itself induces a meditative state in the giver as well as the receiver, taking brain wave patterns into alpha.
During this time I began to sense the subtle energy that flows through and around us, a connecting matrix underpinning all life. It felt natural for me to explore this further, and I undertook a two and a half year healer training with the McNeil School of Healing. I found myself rediscovering what I had naturally experienced in childhood and later as an artist: an ability to listen to my inner self, and to open outwards to a bigger reality. It satisfied my yearning for balance, and to become part of a greater whole, whilst retaining my individuality.
Meditation gently found its way into my every day. From puberty onwards I had been something of a natural philosopher, occupying my mind with the deeper meanings of life; meditation fitted well here. Expanding my self-knowledge, it opened the door to wider, existential perspectives. It also afforded me a sense of inner space, and my body and mind drank this in. Over the years as my practise slowly deepened I took one-to-one Buddhist meditation tuition, started using sound, and enjoyed belonging to a wonderful movement meditation group led by Elizabeth St John, of the Association for Therapeutic Healers.
I continued adding colours to my palette, taking inspiration from both Eastern and Western teachings and not aligning myself with a religious source, I drew solidly from my experience as a massage therapist and healer. As well as using the breath for centering and awareness, I worked with the subtle energy system in the body through the chakras and also used visualization and positive affirmations. I began to develop my own dynamic form of meditation that suited my individual makeup. I loved the ‘active’ passive aspect of it. How simply focusing on the breath and being in the present moment, coupled with an attitude of allowing, enables a process of awareness to blossom, starting with the body, spreading to the emotional and mental, connecting outwards to universal consciousness.
Learning from Poor Health
In my late forties my health became seriously impaired, partly due to a legacy of driving myself too hard earlier, and to the effects of mercury poisoning from a mouth full of amalgam fillings. My system became overrun by candidiasis, an opportunistic yeast overgrowth in the body. This lasted several years, bringing digestive problems, leaky gut, chronic fatigue, mental fog, asthma and depression; to make matters worse, I was going through a difficult menopause. It was a painful and challenging time; a dark night of the soul. Here my meditation practise became my rock, providing the support I needed to face my fears and be with my limitations without resorting to mood altering medications. Helping me to grow with and from the experience, it confirmed my long held belief that we have the capacity for self-healing, if we give ourselves the opportunity.
I began to see meditation as a form of self-healing, on every level from the physical to the auric - a natural ability, inherent in our basic makeup, as a coping strategy for stress, an aide to recovery, a way of finding sense of the bigger questions of life, without using words, as an illuminator of our psyche.
A Universal doctrine
I now teach meditation and am passionate about it. I want to educate people to see it as a natural resource we already have, not a rarefied practice that takes years of discipline. You don’t have to take on a new spiritual belief system in order to meditate. All it takes is a willingness to be with yourself consciously in the present moment and to open to the experience of being part of a greater whole.
Meditation is something we can all do - our bodies naturally know how - it’s just that they get hijacked by our busy minds for most of our waking hours. In the West, where we seem to have long lost the balance between action and contemplation, meditation gives us an opportunity to understand on a knowing rather than a thinking level about how we operate in the world. By learning to observe ourselves as the moment unfolds we are developing a valuable life skill. I encourage my students to take what they learn in their practise into their daily life. It’s a way of releasing physical tension, stored up emotions, mental stress, and a means of being with yourself at deeper levels. Meditation can teach you how to draw support from within and facilitate a more mindful and positive approach to life; taking time with yourself, for yourself makes for good all-round preventative health care.
In my groups and workshops I introduce different approaches to meditation, encouraging the individual to find their own way. A broad cross-section of people come along; some are surprised at how easily they can be guided through meditations. Practising on your own requires genuine intention and focus. It’s a bit like the difference between driving your car, and someone driving you… it takes time. The rewards are worth the effort. It’s something you keep returning to because even when it leads you to places within yourself that are not easy to be with, meditation holds and supports you in the process.
A window on the soul, a coping strategy for modern day stress, whatever your belief system meditation provides a means of expanding and exploring your experience of being alive. This aliveness can embrace a spiritual perspective, which I believe to be a fundamental need of the human race. The ability to meditate is something essentially natural to us, which we lose touch with when we adopt the busy, goal orientated, distracting life style of the 21st Century. So much time is spent living in the relative dream worlds of the future or the past, we would do well to remember that both come from the present moment. The more we are able to live mindfully in this moment, the richer our future and our past are likely to be. It’s about coming back to yourself as a human being rather than a human doing.
This article was first published by Positive Health Magazine in August 2004.