I started meditating in January of 2015 in a very intuitive way as a response to dealing with a tough situation, and it really did help me through. Then 8 weeks ago, I decided I would dive a little deeper and go for a more formal practice in the way of a class. I wasn’t sure the class was for me, but I had been recommended it and I do love a recommendation, so in I went.
Week 1 and I am sitting in a quiet room with 16 others. We are each given a raisin and asked to look at it as if we had never seen it before… we smell it, touch it, squeeze it, listen to it. 10 minutes into the exercise, I squeeze the crinkly brown thing between my fingers, hearing it let out a funny little squelch. I chuckle, which quickly turns into fits of giggles. I do my best to suppress my laughter so as not to ruin the experience for anyone else. I’m not sure anyone else is finding it as funny as I am. Even just holding the raisin to my ear feels funny. We are then asked to place the raisin in our mouths. I really don’t want to after I heard it squelch, but in it goes. The depth of flavour is intense – almost like I have never really tasted a raisin before.
One of the foundations of mindfulness, is that when you do something, whatever it is, do it fully. So, if giving my attention fully to tasting the raisin made its flavour more intense, imagine what other activities could be enhanced!? You see, had I been thinking about other stuff (getting caught up in past memories or future worries/imaginings etc.) I would likely not have really tasted the raisin to such a degree. The same will apply for when you are reading this article… are you really reading it, or are you thinking, eating, texting at the same time?
Before week 1 is even over, I notice how light hearted I have become and how much more I am laughing and having silly thoughts that set me off.
Week 2 and we are on to the 40 minute body scan, this means bringing awareness to the breath and the various parts of the body, segment by segment, and just acknowledging any sensations we find there without judgment or assessment. A lot of the group find this particularly challenging to sit for 40 minutes solid, since some are dealing with chronic pain, back aches and other disabilities. Mindfulness asks you to simply observe your pain or discomfort, whatever form it comes in, and be with it, instead of wishing it was not there. Not fighting it, but approaching it with a friendly curiosity. Confronting our pain takes a certain degree of courage, but can actually help change our relationship with our bodies, and with our pain, sometimes with dramatic effect. Not only do we have a 40 minute practice each day, but we intersperse it with smaller 3 minute sessions of focusing awareness on the breath, which I find fits in nicely with my toilet breaks! =D
We have also been asked to keep a pleasant experiences diary. This is pretty easy since there are a lot of them, from having an aromatic bath to drinking a silky smooth hot chocolate. On discussing our pleasant experiences in the group setting, we come to realise that a pleasant experience can soon turn into an unpleasant experience when we try to hold on to that pleasant experience and don’t want it to end.
Week 3 and we are exploring mindful movement, it’s like a very gentle form of stretching and exercise. I am used to quite rigorous exercise at a much faster pace, so its interesting to feel the difference when things are done at a much slower pace. The recording suggests that I lift my arm as if grabbing an apple. As I hold my arm in the air, I feel a cool breeze passing over my hand (no windows are open, this is just my internal reaction to holding my hand in the air – try it see what you feel!). I bring my hand back down to my side and feel my hand instantly go very hot like its being filled up with hot water, it carries on pulsating heat for quite a while. It’s such a strange sensation if you take the time to notice it. We also try walking mindfully, slowly sensing each footstep and really taking the time to walk and only walk. The biggest pleasure I find is to set myself free from doing anything else but walking. And this can be applied to whatever you are doing at any point!
I notice during this week that I am starting to have a greater capacity for sitting still. I have always struggled with sitting to draw, but now, what started as a rough sketch has turned into quite an intricate, detailed little drawing.
Week 4 and the group is really making progress, which is heartening to see. Progress can sometimes mean simply being kinder to yourself, instead of judging a situation or wishing things were different. For instance, when you feel you may have failed at the formal practice of keeping awareness of the breath (perhaps because thoughts kept plaguing your mind) seeing it as a failure is certainly a judgment of sorts. When actually those thoughts allowed an opportunity to become mindful once again when we see where the brain wandered and return to the present moment.
“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.”
Bob Sharples, Meditation and Relaxation in Plain English
We are also starting to recognise our patterns of aversion; the tactics the mind uses to try and convince us that sitting quietly and being present and aware is of no use, a waste of time, that we could be doing something more productive. I found I was falling asleep during practice, so I made a decision to meditate earlier in the day and sit up rather than lie down.
Meditating is a bit like taking a naughty dog for a walk. The dog is your mind, and if you give that dog a long leash, it will drag you around the houses and tie you up in knots. If you shorten that leash and keep an eye on the dog, you have a better chance of enjoying your walk.
Week 5 and we are asked to meditate on our thoughts and especially difficult or painful ones. This may seem like the opposite of meditating, since people have this idea that meditation means total obliteration of thoughts. But the point here is to observe the thought and then notice the corresponding feeling that arises in the body. Having practiced the body scan in week 2 makes it easy to now observe the sensations which arise as a result of the thought. I have had a particularly difficult situation this week (just in time for this practice!). I use it as a trigger and see what happens in my body when I think of it. I bring the thought to the forefront of my mind and dive into it. At first there is a heaviness in my heart followed by a squeezing pain in my chest, which rises quickly up through my neck and into my face, resulting as burning tears. It’s fascinating to watch my body’s reactions to my mind’s thoughts. Mindfulness allows us the space to observe.
I notice during this week, I have managed to find the courage to start a big painting, which I had been putting off. I find painting very daunting since in the past I have struggled with mixing colour, finding plain old biro sketches a lot easier to work with. The painting wont be finished for a little while yet, but when it is, I promise I’ll post it here for you to see =)
Week 6 and we are asked to take note of the top 10 negative thoughts we have during the day, then note how much belief we have in those thoughts. I honestly didn’t think I had many, since I’ve already put a fair amount of time into weeding them out and replacing them with more positive affirmations. However, it takes me a whole week to get the hang of noticing the subtle ones, since they can be so fleeting like trying to catch a puff of smoke. Yes, I still have thoughts about not being good enough, capable enough, or trusting my own decisions etc. but my belief in those thoughts is actually very low since I know just how capable I can be through past accomplishments. Mindfulness teaches us that thoughts are not facts and that when we observe those thoughts, we can create a space which then enables us the possibility to choose a different perspective.
Week 7 gives us a chance to discuss what works personally for us, since no two people are the same. Mindfulness is another tool in our kit and aside from the formal practice of sitting and meditating, we can bring it into practically any situation. For instance, having a mindful conversation, where we really listen, allowing for gaps in the conversation for words to digest. When I listen mindfully, I notice that I push my questions aside, and really listen. Or mindfully reading; did you manage to take note of whether your mind wandered whilst reading? I find that mindfulness for me, in a lot of ways, means slowing down a touch.
The final week is here and we are all wondering how we will go forward with our meditation practice. We watch a video on the course we have just completed, and strangely, watching the people in the video meditate, I notice for the first time how powerful they look. Like they are really in control of their lives. Like nothing can shake them. And if there is any motivation for carrying on the practice, for me it is to achieve this level of strength and stability.