Meditation – what’s the point?
Meditation for hippies?
I’ve been teaching meditation for over thirty years in schools having learned it on a retreat, in the Himalayas, among saffron robes, looking out at eagles swooping across golden terraces of corn.
So far, so hippy right? That’s what people always used to think when I snuck meditation into my secondary school classes, but in a class of thirty children, every time I have taught it over those thirty years, all but 5 or 6 children would really love it, report that they felt more relaxed and calm
So now I teach meditation to larger groups of hundreds in schools. I smile when I meet the inevitable cynic; the science teacher who smiled politely and checked her Fitbit for heart rate and blood pressure skeptically, only to, 10 minutes later announce to a year group of several hundred that her heart rate and blood pressure had gone down, even in such a short time.
There are so many misconceptions about meditation that no wonder there are hippy, Buddhist caricatures of it. Let me shatter some myths and put the record straight.
- You need to chant or gaze at a candle – you can, but you don’t need to. Most people just focus on their breathe coming and going.
- You do not need to sit in perfect lotus position – you do need to sit or lie in a way which leaves your lungs fully able to expand and contract
- You need to stop your mind – unless you are the Dalai Lama you are unlikely to quiet your mind for very long. Instead, every time you are distracted by a thought, a feeling or something outside yourself like a noise or disturbance, you just come back to your point of focus
- You have to be good at it to work – Meditation is a practice, not a destination. You will never be good at it, nor bad at it for that is not the nature of being human. We have moments when we can focus, moments when we are lost, moments when we feel calm, moments when we feel rage, but we will start to notice that all these states come and go and so we don’t become so upset by them.
So what’s the point of doing it, of naval gazing when there are more active and productive things to do?
Meditation can increase your ability to focus – whether you are focusing on work, on your child, on your running, over time, meditation will help you lasso your attention back to where you want it when it starts to gallop off.
Meditation calms anxiety – Whether we usually suffer from anxiety or whether we only get it before a big race, or at this time of covid, meditation actually changes your biology. Your amygdala is the part of your brain which spots threat and so triggers a stress response. New neuroscience scans have shown that after meditation for only 15 minutes the amygdala is calmer, and if you practice daily, the amygdala actually shrinks so that you are less likely to be stressed. Bessel Van Der Kolk works with trauma survivors and found yoga and meditation to be very effective in calming PTSD.
Meditation makes you feel more content – contentment is out ability to accept what is, to accept when we feel sad, when we feel scared, when we feel weak and when we can accept what is we find contentment which Martin Seligman’s research shows is much more long lasting than the quick fix of happiness we get from shopping or chocolate
Meditation saves us money – not just because it is free to do, but because we don’t need to seek contentment outside our self so much. We don’t need the new car, the new shoes, the better job, the newest phone, because we are happier with what we have.
Meditation releases endorphins – just as running does. As the amygdala calms, cortisol and adrenalin our stress hormones fall and so serotonin, the happy neurotransmitter, rises. At this time, when we are all more constrained, this is a way to find that calm which may not be available to you in the old way.
Meditation reduces self- defeating thoughts and behaviours – all those thoughts we have of failure, of not being good enough, about not being motivated, of being too tired, to poor, too old, not thin enough, well they have one thing in common; they are all thoughts. Meditation allows you to start to witness your thoughts rather than getting caught up in them.
When we get caught up in negative thoughts which can lead to negative behaviours, it is like when the sky is grey and we have forgotten there is a sun. Meditation allows us to see the clouds as temporary, we notice how they change, how sometimes they get darker, sometimes they disperse, sometimes they fly by, sometimes they bob, sometimes they are cute and fluffy, sometimes they are thunder storms. But as anyone knows, who has ever taken off in a plane, that above the clouds the blue sky and sun is always waiting for us.
The more we start to see our thoughts and feelings as clouds which just pass through us, the less power they have.
Meditation encourages acceptance – not just acceptance of our own thoughts and feelings as they come and go, but of life and those people we share it with. Yesterday I was doing a podcast; two tractors went by and my kids were screaming on the trampoline. It could have made me cross, could have made me resentful that I didn’t have the peace I usually like, but instead I was able to accept the imperfection of the situation. I wrote here about how it helps us to stay with the unknown.
Meditation encourages gratitude – because the less we react to the way things ‘should’ be and accept them as they are, the more we can appreciate what we have rather than missing what is lacking. So yesterday I could appreciate the farmers, driving tractors to produce food for us and could feel grateful that my children and healthy and well.
How do you do it?
Start small, 5 minutes at a time, maybe even try it as a family or with the other people in your house? Here are a couple of simple techniques to try either with your eyes closed or gazing softy at a still space or object. Remember, your mind will wander off and when you notice that it has, just come back to the exercise you were doing. It is the returning to the practice that is the practice!
– Breathe in for 4, hold for 2, breathe out for 4, hold for 2. You can then extend it to breathing in for 6, hold for 3, out for 6 and hold for 3.
– breathe in for the count of 7 and out for the count of 11. Keep the pace of counting the same on the way in and the way out.
– put one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy. Picture a balloon which has the neck in your neck and the big, ball bit in your tummy. As you inhale, picture the balloon under your belly hand inflating, letting your tummy push out, then your chest hand move out. Then as you exhale, deflate the top hand on your chest and then the bottom hand on your belly.
Watch the breath
– notice the sensations of the breath as it crossed your top lip, feel it in your nostrils, then at the back of your throat. Follow it down as it moves your chest and belly, then follow it out again. So try and stay in touch with the sensations of the breathe throughout its journey. Try doing this when you are running.
Use a mantra
– Hallelujah, Noor, Om, are all different sounds used to invoke a sense of calm. When you say them aloud you will notice that they all have a similar sound, so take the one you like and inhale, saying the word on the exhale over and over again.
Focus on sound
– start with focusing your attention on distant sounds, then nearer sounds, then sounds in the room, then sounds in your body. Don’t judge or label the sounds, just hear them.
I’ve been doing online live meditations, join me in the next one here.
Or if you can’t make the lives, then all the video and podcasts here.
Meditation has been around for many thousands of years and since it arrived in the west, has been seen as a hippy teenager, shirking work and avoiding reality. However, now our science has grown up enough to see what those wiser than us knew, that meditation is one of the cheapest, most accessible and one of the most effective ways of developing mental and physical well-being and health.