Picture the scene; A cloud strewn mountain, a clearing with a lone tree under which a monk sits crossed legged, hands raised with middle finger touching thumbs in a circle, possibly chanting. An ancient ritualistic image, a mystical person channelling his inner … summat or other. This is meditation.
Picture another scene; a grey drizzle in Glasgow, a large room with the faint buzz from fluorescent lights overhead, people sitting in chairs, hands in laps, no chanting. This is meditation?
At the start of the year I started attending 30 minute guided meditation classes after work. A friend of mine had been going for a while and it’s been something I’d been meaning to try so I was excited to give it a shot and find my inner zen (or whatever it is you are supposed to find when you meditate).
I wasn’t really sure what to expect that first day. We were at the Kadampa Centre in Glasgow, a space in a modern building in the Merchant City, across from a Brewdog pub. Inside, and I presume that the architects planned for this in the first place, it looks a bit like it should be an open plan office. Instead there is a small kitchen area, a few shelves with books and ornaments you can buy, but the bulk of the space is dominated by the rows of chairs, all pointing the same way and, in front of them, a small raised platform behind which are three large golden statues of eastern origin.
The other thing that struck me when I walked in was a noticeable air of quiet calm, the same kind of hushed tones and tranquility you find in a deserted church. The few people in the space were chatting quietly, and it was with some reverence that we took to our seats.
A few years ago I tried meditating on my own. I did my research, read articles online and downloaded some apps for my phone. I found a quiet place, concentrated on my breathing, tried to acknowledge when my mind wandered, brought it back, concentrated on my breathing, slowly inhale, slowly exhale. Then the time was up, and I sat for a moment thinking, ok, so that was meditation.
I didn’t feel like it was very successful, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and despite trying it a few more times it just never really seemed to feel right, and I was sure wasn’t doing it properly anyway, I mean if I had been I would’ve felt calm and relaxed, yet all I could wonder was where was my zen? Clearly my mind was too busy, I know I think a lot so, I thought to myself, perhaps meditation just isn’t right for me.
Fast forward to today and, having attend several meditation sessions it turns out I just needed some guidance, and paradoxically, I needed to chill out about how to meditate.
The format the meditation sessions follow is pretty straightforward; the first 10 mins are spent discussing a topic that will be the focus of the meditation (dealing with stress, coping with anxious thoughts, etc), and then 20 mins of guided meditation where you sit quietly, eyes closed, focused on your breathing as you slowly inhale and exhale, before the teacher brings your mind to focus and talks you through visualisation mechanisms to help you process the topic of the day.
For example, for many of us anxiety comes in waves, so we are asked in the session to imagine ourselves bobbing around like a cork in reaction to the waves of ‘stuff’ that cause those anxious feelings. Then we are asked to imagine the waves stretching out over the space of a large ocean, as far as the eye can see. The waves start to flatten out as the anxiety waves are stretched out you realise your mind is calming as you look out to the horizon.
It’s also a lot easier to get into the right head-space when you are in a dedicated place, and oddly in a group of people I found it much easier to focus on the meditation itself, rather than the ‘how’ and, as I left the first session I had a distinct feeling of calmness and lightness of mind. It was at once unsettling and comforting, and I could swear I could feel that my heart rate was lower. I don’t feel that way after every session but I’ve had the same sense of calm often enough now to know it’s not a coincidence.
Alas I’m not attending at the moment as the after-work session now clashes with Bootcamp, but I’m still taking some time to meditate by myself when I can, this time with the help of Buddhify, an app that offers guided meditations on a variety of topics. I tried it a few years back and it never really stuck, but as I enjoyed the guided sessions I’d attend I decided to give it another shot and, as I’ve a better sense of how to meditate, I’m finding it much easier now.
It also has an added bonus of helping me with some of the aspects I’m working on through my counselling, so right now it’s timely that I’ve gotten the hang of this, even if only a little. Mindfulness may be the current in vogue terminology, and I’m aware of the irony of using an app on a smartphone to help achieve this, but the aim of the game is to help calm my mind and to find ways to step back and get some perspective (when Mr. Self Critic rolls in to town).
In our always on world, it’s also nice to just sit quietly and let everything fade away for a while. The world will still turn, the bills still need paid, there are plenty of challenges ahead of us so, if nothing else, meditating is helping me step away and learn to be alone with myself.