My left foot is asleep. I felt it go dead with a vague numbness punctuated by pricking pain. Not quite the pins and needles of a sleeping limb — that will come when I try to move.
I’ve learned what to expect over the past couple of weeks of 6.30AM meditation classes. For now, I stay as still as I can. I try not to think about it. Naturally, it’s all I can think about.
I shift an imperceptible amount in my cross-legged position to see if I can release any pressure on my ankle. I realise I am thinking about my foot and try to stop thinking about my foot. A clock ticks faintly. I focus on every ‘thock, thock, thock,’ counting the seconds to a minute. Another minute closer to the full half-hour.
My foot is going to hurt when I can move again. I start to panic in anticipation of the coming discomfort. The longer my foot is asleep, the more it is going to hurt. I focus on the feel of the breeze on my face. I find myself clenching my jaw with every exhale as I breathe through the ache. I try to relax.
The instructor’s voice interrupts my inner battle, calling us back from wherever we’d gone. I’m already here. I don’t think I ever left. I open my eyes, stretch out my legs and wince at the spray of sparks in my foot as my circulation returns to its normal freedom.
I feel like a fraud and like I’m doing this all wrong. My brain isn’t the kind of brain that goes quiet. Maybe this meditation thing isn’t for me.
Mindfulness in one form or another is a practice going back through the ages, crossing many cultures and religious traditions, but it’s fair to say it’s having a modern moment. Apps abound and there’s no shortage of dubious marketing claims that it’s the cure for whatever ails you. High profile celebrities, entrepreneurs, and politicians talk about meditating in a way that makes it seem like part of the secret sauce that keeps them performing at the level they do. (UK peeps… Nigel Farage does yoga. Which tells us… Well, it tells us you can do a mindful practice and still be a horrible human being. But probably a less stressed, more focused one.)
I struggled with meditation for a long time. I still do, after several years practicing. I imagine I always will. But over the years as I stopped and started and become frustrated by uncooperative limbs, I came to recognise the impact it had on me.
If I managed to keep it up for a few weeks or months, I was better able to manage my anxiety. It didn’t cure it, but it was like my baseline level of anxious thought was lower and I was able to recover faster when I did find it rising. I stayed calmer in stressful situations and was less reactive.
Then, like all my efforts at going to the gym over the years — in which I’d dutifully purchase a pass on January 1st, go for a week and then pay for a membership to instill guilty feelings in me for the next year — I’d stop my practice and my anxious feelings would creep back up.
Mindfulness is like maintenance for the mind as we navigate a world with brains that evolved in a different time and place.
I came to meditation through yoga, which, despite its contortionist marketing-fueled image of yogis in hyper-mobile positions, is first and foremost about mindfulness. As a Yoga Sutra roughly translated puts it, yoga is a practice that cultivates the ability to calm, direct, or restrain the fluctuations of the mind.
The story goes that the exercise part of yoga that many associate with the practice — you know the ones on Instagram, where they’re balancing on their hands precipitously close to face-planting on rocky ledges — actually began as a way for the yogis to build strength so that they could sit in meditation longer. Much of the eight limbs of yoga — the ethical and philosophical part of the practice that goes beyond the Lululemon leggings — relate to the mental side of things, not, it turns out, how to get shapely glutes.
Like many westerners, I began doing yoga as an exercise class. If it weren’t for developing a love of the physical side of the practice, I’m not sure I would have given meditation much of a chance.
Of course, I’d heard about mindfulness for anxiety and I’d tried several of the mental health apps flooding the marketplace. But whenever I tried to sit still, my brain and body noped out of the experience pretty quick. I have one of those over-active, over-thinking minds that never seems to stop (hence the anxiety). I didn’t think I was doing it “right.” And I was bored.
However, preferring to go through life in a calmer state as opposed to a panic-stricken one motivated me to persist. Over time, I began to understand a few key ideas that made meditation and mindfulness work better for me.
To the uninitiated, it can seem like a confusing world. There are various spiritual traditions intermixed that might make it seem like it’s not for you. There are numerous apps, styles, traditions, gurus, and books. (So much so that scientists worry the marketing and tools are outpacing the science behind what actually works and why.) It’s a large investment of time spent on something that you’re not sure is doing anything.
But, although you should be skeptical of the claims that meditation is a cure-all, there is a picture emerging of real benefits for helping with things like anxiety and depression. It’s certainly worthwhile to explore.
Yet getting started can be a minefield. While studies are demonstrating how meditation changes the brain, key questions remain about why it does. We need to understand the why to understand the practical side of things: What’s the best way to meditate? How do you do it? How long should you do it for? How often do you do it? When will you see the benefits?
Despite the hype, we don’t really have good answers to these questions. Science has yet to find the right ‘dose’ for mindfulness, though interest and studies in the field are exploding in recent years due to its promise.
For now, it’s a personal journey, (and perhaps, as an introspective practice, it always will be). Experiment and explore the different styles and methods to see what works for you.
If we know so little, how do you even get started so that you’re not just wasting time?
The first thing you need to know is that there are no prerequisites to meditate. You don’t need to ascribe to a certain religion. You don’t need to find a guru. You don’t need to sit like a monk and have your foot fall asleep.
Some traditions are a little more cloak-and-dagger, requiring one-on-one training with a master who might provide a unique mantra and guide your ‘path to enlightenment’. While it can help to have a teacher you can get one-on-one with for more personalised feedback, there’s no real reason why this is necessary to get started. (And, the ‘guru’ power trip has its own drawbacks as scandals emerge.)
Begin by viewing what goes on in your mind with curiosity and openness. This (deceptively) simple awareness of your thoughts is the starting point.
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Understanding what meditation and mindfulness are
Think of meditation like mental training, in the same way that going to the gym is body training. There are different kinds of exercises that you can do for your mind, as there are for your body.
Mindfulness is a type of this mental training that focuses attention on what is going on right now, without making any judgements about it.
Mindfulness is “maintaining attention on present experiences and adopting an attitude toward them characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” — Scott Bishop et al.
It’s about focusing your attention or internal monologue on what you’re experiencing right now and letting whatever that is just be what it is.
So, you’re training your brain to pay more attention to what’s going on now — not to dwell on that stupid thing you said yesterday or that important meeting you’ve got coming up tomorrow. It’s also about creating a bit of distance to the content of your thoughts, a bit as if you’re watching them like you would a movie.
Two common ways to stay present that you can explore are open monitoring and focused attention.
Some of the traditions: Vipassana, Insight, Walking, Integrative body-mind training, meditative practices like yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong, apps like Headspace.
In open monitoring, it’s all about experiencing what’s going on through a focus on things like your breath, body, or senses. When your mind wanders — and it will wander — you bring your attention back to what you’re experiencing right now.
An easy way to try open monitoring mindfulness is through a walking meditation. As you walk somewhere, pay attention to every step you take. Doing this barefoot on sand or grass and noticing what every step feels like is all you need to do.
Another common open monitoring practice is a body scan, where you move your attention to various parts of your body, paying attention to things like how your feet feel on the floor, or whether you’re tense anywhere, like if you’re clenching your teeth. You might even purposefully clench parts of your body and then let them go, and keep focused on how that feels. Guided body scan meditations are very common to help with this process.
Powerful reminders to live in the moment
As someone prone to anxiety, being present is a challenge for me. My overthinking mind is often dwelling on the past or…
Some of the traditions: Samatha, Mantra, Japa, Transcendental, Loving Kindness (Metta)
With focused attention, rather than locking in on what you’re experiencing, you have a specific focal point to come back to that doesn’t necessarily relate to your experience. You’re still working on being present in the here and now, but scanning your body is a different mental exercise to coming back to something like a mantra. The mind ‘rests’ on the focus.
Mantra meditation is a common form of focused attention mindfulness. Mantra is a Sanskrit word that means “free the mind.” Traditionally a mantra might link to ideas of something sacred, but, in essence, it is a phrase or sound that you repeat in your mind and it can be whatever you want it to be. When you start to get lost in thoughts that aren’t the repeated motif, go back to repeating it again.
One of my ah-ha moments in meditation came through mantra meditation. Some traditions will repeat a mantra a set number of times (108, or in multiples of 9), out of a belief in the sacred nature of the number. Mala necklaces are a tactile method of counting the repetition. They’re made up of a number of beads or knots that the meditator moves subtly between their thumb and forefinger as they repeat the mantra.
Now, I personally don’t put any stock in the magical property of numbers to grant wishes (although, Graham’s number is rather mind-blowing). But something about giving my hand something to do helped me to maintain my focus in my early days of meditation.
Another lovely meditation in this tradition that I return to often is loving-kindness meditation. With this one, your focus is on thinking something nice for someone you’re thinking about. The first one I learned was: “May you be happy. May you be healthy and strong. May you be peaceful.” There are variations, where you might start by thinking about someone close to you, then an acquaintance, then someone you’re kind of meh about, then someone you find difficult. The focus could start with yourself and end with sending the wish out to the whole world. There is some promising research that loving-kindness meditation can boost your mood and can be beneficial for people who have experienced trauma.
Some methods and practitioners combine both open awareness and focused attention types of mindfulness in their practice. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an eight-week group-based programme that began in 1979 and is now among the most studied methods, is a popular example.
Again, however, the truth is that we don’t fully understand the underlying mechanism of why meditation helps, so we can’t say for certain what it is about the method that is helping. Is it changing the way we relate to our self and our thoughts? The deep breathing? The sitting quietly? Focusing on a single thing? Focusing on present moment sensations? Getting off of our damn phones for twenty minutes in the day?
We’re starting to get more of a clear picture of the different effects of the different styles, which I’ll write more about next. While the science is ongoing, it might be best to focus on the common goals of the different practices.
Mindfulness trains the brain to be present. When thoughts intrude or the mind wanders, the common instruction is to bring it back to the present focus. There is often a common focus on seeing thoughts and feelings as things that come and go, and being non-judgemental of whatever is there at any given time.
There’s obviously more to it than that and geeky nuances to get excited about, like the difference between concentration and other meditative states and what we know about the ‘self’ inside our heads. But as a starting point, the exercise of continually bringing your attention back is the start of this mental training.