Why am I writing this?
The reason for this post is to explain the 3 life changing lessons I’ve learnt since starting regular meditation a year ago.
I wanted to share some of the important realisations I’ve had, and why meditation is a useful tool for dealing with feelings of anxiety.
I think I’ve suffered from mild anxiety most of my adult life but never really had a name for it. Anxiety, like peanut and gluten allergies, was not something which seemed to exist when I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s.
Today, we are frequently reminded that we live in an ‘Age of Anxiety’, with a 2016 survey by the Department of Education in England, suggesting that more than a third of teenage girls now suffer from anxiety and depression. With the number of anxiety sufferers reportedly increasing, so the rise of the ‘Mindfulness’ movement has accompanied it.
To its proponents, ‘Mindfulness’ is the perfect antidote to the frenzied existence of modern living, in which social media and technology vie for our attention and distract us from appreciating the present moment. Whilst, to its critics, ‘Mindfulness’ is just another commercialised health fad, with unproven and over-exaggerated health benefits.
My personal journey towards ‘Mindfulness’ meditation was the result of slow burn, piecemeal exposure. I have a general aversion to fitness/health crazes and particularly anything purported to be a ‘Life hack’ and had long since mentally filed the ‘Mindfulness’ trend alongside Zumba, Jazzercise and other activities, which although beloved by millions, was probably not for me.
I’m still unsure exactly how it came to be, but at some point along the way, my interest in ‘Mindfulness’ was sufficiently piqued, and I signed up for the free, ten day trial with the Headspace app.
I had been exposed to some meditation over the years, through yoga and from listening to guided meditations as a teenager, but had found it only moderately useful.
In hindsight, the reason for this, is that the meditation practices I had tried were focused on relaxation as the primary goal. A focus which although useful, negates some of the more powerful benefits of meditation.
For example, a guided meditation in which you systematically tense and relax various muscle groups and breathe deeply, is likely to have a positive physiological benefit and encourage a state of relaxation. But such practices benefit mainly the body and can be entirely successful without any engagement of the mind.
My own personal development, and ability to deal with the feelings of anxiety, has been most positively impacted by the ‘Mindfulness’ type exercises which I’ve discovered.
In the next section, I will explain the 3 life changing lessons I’ve learnt after a year of meditation and why it’s been one of the most important skills I’ve ever learnt.
I knew the machine was broken but didn’t have the tools to fix it.
You are not your thoughts.
This was a phrase that I’d heard several times in the past and whilst my logical mind registered this, until I started meditating in earnest, it was just an abstract concept which I could not relate to.
Meditation has given me a tool to observe and recognise the thoughts and emotions which naturally arise in the mind and with some practice, I’ve been able to more objectively choose my interactions with them.
The car analogy from Headspace, (below), is a good explanation for how meditation works and resonates with me personally, because in retrospect, much of the anxiety in my life has derived from having pursued negative thoughts and emotions which I assumed were an integral part of my being.
We are generally quick to recognise when a thought or emotion arises but seldom dedicate that same attention to the absence of those same thoughts or emotions, and therefore have a tendency to place a greater emphasis on the existence of negative thoughts than their non-existence.
I’ve come to understand that negative thoughts and feelings are present and transitive in any healthy mind and with regular meditation practice, I’ve become better at watching the thoughts come and go, without necessarily engaging in them.
Talking to yourself
The second big realisation I’ve had since learning more about meditation, is that in the West, we are raised to believe that the optimal mode of existence is to be in constant thought.
The implied assumption is that since we are capable of thinking, we should make use of this ability every minute of the day. But this isn’t a universally accepted truth and may in fact be harming our mental well-being.
I became aware of this after reading Sam Harris’s book ‘Waking Up’. His observation is that when we are constantly engaged with our thoughts, we are effectively talking to ourselves every hour of every waking moment. He writes:
“Many scientists have been drawn to Buddhism out of a sense that the Western tradition has delivered an impoverished conception of basic, human sanity.
In the West, if you speak to yourself out loud all day long, you are considered crazy. But speaking to yourself silently – thinking incessantly – is considered perfectly normal.”
The danger of this mode of being, is that we assume our own inner voice and thoughts are the definitive perspective and that we are objective observers on everything we experience. This is simply not true.
We are interpreting our experiences through various internal filters in our brains which can distort and reinterpret inputs.
We often fall victim to confirmation bias in our thinking and negative thoughts and emotions which naturally arise in the mind, are instantly seized on and used as evidence to support the stories we have created for ourselves, and often carry around with us, for the majority of our lives.
When I stopped to listen to my own inner voice, I realised that although well intentioned in its efforts to protect me from pain, over the years, like an overbearing parent, it had morphed into a destructive force which constantly critiqued and berated me for mistakes, to a point where I was paralysed to even try for fear of failure.
As Sam Harris writes:
“Almost all our suffering is the product of our thoughts. We spend nearly every moment of our lives lost in thought, and hostage to the character of those thoughts. You can break this spell, but it takes training just like it takes training to defend yourself against a physical assault.”
We have a powerful tendency to develop habitual, destructive patterns of thought and stories which over time, become ingrained and accepted as some absolute truth of who we are. The real truth is that once we start to recognise and observe these stories, we have the ability to change them at any time.
Once I was able to hear the stories I was telling myself, I realised how destructive these were and decided that I didn’t want to listen to them any more.
It’s not been easy. But over time, I’ve been able to replace these negative stories with kinder, more positive ones which serve me better than the ones I’ve been listening to for most of my life.
I think therefore I am?
The third reason that meditation has had such a powerful impact on my life is that it’s provided me with a fresh perspective on the world around me and has led me to consider that there’s other areas of my life where I’ve been operating on autopilot or under assumptions which may not be correct.
Now that I’m more able to recognise thinking for what it is, I’ve been able to mentally separate thoughts from the idea of my ‘self’.
However, this in turn has led me to question what being ‘me’ actually means and grander questions about the nature of the self and consciousness.
My quest for answers has taken me on a learning journey through the fields of philosophy, religion and neuroscience, from fundamentals such as defining consciousness , to the split brain experiments and their implications for ideas about the eternal soul.
Some of these topics are incredibly complex and although I don’t profess to have reached any great conclusions about the nature of the self, I’ve definitely been awakened to a whole body of theories and ideas to which I had no prior knowledge.
Meditation has acted as a gateway to further self discovery and improvement and has opened my mind to the possibilities which exist if you are willing to step outside your own yard of understanding and investigate other ways of looking at the world.
Meditation is not something which suits everyone and it certainly isn’t a magic wand which will make every problem in your life disappear. To say that I no longer suffer from any anxiety would be untrue, but meditation has given me a tool to manage it better.
Compared to many sufferers, my anxiety is mild and I can’t guarantee that it will benefit others in the same way, but after a year of regular practice it’s certainly reduced the intensity and regularity of my own anxiety.
With the abundant commercialization of mindfulness, I definitely appreciate why people would be cynical of its benefits, but despite the myriad mindfulness apps and websites which require payment, remember that meditation doesn’t have to cost anything but a few minutes of your time everyday.
There are hundreds of excellent, free resources on the Internet and I will link below to some of the useful sites I’ve discovered.
If you’ve never tried meditation, it’s definitely worth considering. Who knows? You may also find it the most important skill you’ve ever learnt.
If you found this useful or have any meditation advice you’d like to share please let me know in the comments below.
My top 5 tips after a year of meditation
- The goal of mediation is not to eradicate thoughts
- The benefits accrue over time and don’t happen overnight. Sustained regular practice yields better results.
- Find somewhere to practice where you will undisturbed. It’s difficult to relax if there’s a chance of being interrupted.
- You don’t have to sit on the floor to meditate. If that position is uncomfortable, you’ll make far more progress if you sit comfortably in a chair. Over time, when you’re more familiar with the exercises you can consider graduating to more challenging sitting positions.
- There’s no goal with meditation. Just enjoy the process. Some days it feels easy to settle into your practice and other days it’s hard to calm your monkey mind.
What is Mindfulness?
Free guided meditations: