It’s World Mental Health Day, which falls at the end of a rather crap week for me, but which weirdly has re-enforced some of things I’ve developed throughout the last few months, and reminded me why I did them in the first place.
What are you good at? What have you learned and practiced? I don’t mean through lockdown I mean in general? Nothing? How modest, but ok. What are you ok at? What are you good enough at? What are you able to do quite well and, more importantly, what is the one thing you enjoy doing no matter how good or bad you are at it?
When I was younger I took piano lessons. I say took, it was more a decision made by my parents for me and I wasn’t old enough to say no; they also managed to get me to cycle to my lessons at 9am on a Saturday morning come rain, shine, or snow, I must ask my Mum what her technique was!
I bought an electric piano a couple of years ago and, to my delight, found that I still had a basic level of knowledge and after a few weeks was able to play Fur Elise. I wasn’t great at it but it was good enough to make me smile and give my heart and soul a little lift. Then it’s on to the Billy Joel songs my Mum loves and next thing I know I’ve been sitting there for an hour thinking about absolutely nothing and having the best time.
It’s a little like the focus moments that sometimes arrive when you are working, or those glorious gigs that grab hold of you and make you forget anything else exists in the world, the ones where you and everyone else leaves grinning and happy and ready to take on the world!
Alas gigs aren’t happening just now and my mood for playing the piano ebbs and flows – although it’s a fair bit more ebbing than flowing – so as we continue to learn how to live in the middle of this global pandemic and with fewer distractions provided by the outside world I find myself turning more and more inwards, exploring my own self. I’m not alone in this of course and, as the deluge of articles and posts and instagram stories suggest, it’s also creating a marketplace. Adverts in my social media feeds are almost wholly now about exercising BETTER, living CLEANER, being MORE, and all of these notions seem to include downloading a new app and subscribing to THE program that will finally unlock your FULL POTENTIAL.
Ugh. It’s all so boastful, and all seems destined to push you into the path of comparison and right now it’s the last thing I think anyone needs. So, being somewhat contrary I’ve been looking at all of these things and decided to push against them. I do not want to compare myself to others (been there, done that, it’s not a nice place) and so thanks to the laws of physics, as I rail against the very notion of being told to live BETTER, CLEANER, MORE, to my FULL POTENTIAL I’ve head off in an equal and opposite direction.
Welcome to the world of good enough. Turning up is good enough, doing the thing badly is good enough, trying and never doing it again is good enough. It costs nothing, there is no subscription, and you can do it yourself! I know, this is nothing you don’t know, but maybe if there were more adverts that said things like that we would need World Mental Health Day at all?
For the first few weeks of lockdown I struggled with my attention span. I’d be ok for a while but would then drift off and spend hours of my day doing nothing other than flit between social media channels (something I had aimed not do at all back in January!), and the various tasks and chores of day to day life. Social media was ablaze with people learning sourdough (do you learn it?), knitting for the first time, starting up daily yoga routines and more. And there I was, striving to do nothing of much at all.
Now before I go on, to paraphrase Kottke, I realise what I’m about to talk about sounds a bit woo-woo bullshit (and like him, a younger me would’ve been rolling his eyes by now), but after taking a step back from social media and focusing on myself I found a couple of things that I did enjoy doing, and when I coupled those with my new ‘good enough’ personal mantra I realised I had something I could hopefully pick up and use, something I’d been doing on and off for a few years and which I was contentedly, already, good enough at, meditation.
My meditation journey started almost four years ago.
Like most journeys it’s had to endure all manner of incidents, changes of direction, endless roadworks, and the odd puncture, all played out to the soundtrack of the niggling voice from the back of my mind that continually whines “Are we there yet?” and, like many journeys, it turns out that it’s the journey itself that I’ve enjoyed more than the destination because, and it’s taken me a while to figure this out, meditation doesn’t have a destination.
A few years back, when I finally started to explore meditation properly, it took me a while to land on a method that worked for me. Every now and then I’d meditate, trying my best to make it a habit and doing my utmost to become good at meditating like, somehow, it was a competition, or a life skill that I could work on until I perfected it.
Yet the harder I tried to get better at meditation, the harder it got to meditate well, it became a chore, lost its effectiveness and slipped from being something that I thought was well embedded as part of my day to day existence, to something akin a passing acquaintance that I’d forget about for weeks at a time.
I can still remember the sensation of lightness I felt after the first guided meditation I had attended, and I was lucky to have been able to recapture that feeling a few more times on my own. One time I found myself sat on a rock halfway up a hill, the sun shining down, and quite happily zoned out during the meditation. It wasn’t until I tried to move that I realised I’d been sitting there, in a state of blissful calm, for about 45 minutes and I had a very numb bum! A small price to pay for that lovely state of being that relaxing into meditation can bring.
Yet the practice fell away from me and whilst I revisited it sporadically, spurred on by the knowledge that it was something done by people who I aspired to be like, ohhh and that it was also good for my mental health. But it never really stuck and I ended up falling back on the less fulfilling routines of self-care I had unwittingly been cultivating for most of my adult life, the usual social media scrolling, playstation playing, emotional eating routines all happily stepped up to fill the void. Meditation became something I did now and then, and more and more infrequently.
And then I stopped altogether.
The app I was using sat on my phone staring at me, but it had a few niggles that created just enough friction to stop me bothering and, for some reason without an app, without a guide, I found myself standing at the crossroads of the decision to meditate or not and, rather than get completely lost, I’d just turn and head for the same well trodden paths as before.
I was happy though and didn’t really miss meditating all that much, so it drifted away from me and joined the ever growing pile of ‘things that I’ve tried’ (don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of that pile and aware of how lucky I am to even have such a pile). Somewhere in my brain the idea grew that meditation was a useful tool for when I wasn’t too happy or feel overwhelmed and, as my life was (and still is!) in a good place, I had no real need for it anymore.
Yet as I took stock of my own actions over the course of the latter half of 2019 I realised that I wasn’t as happy as I could be. It’s a weird thing to realise that, despite being generally happy with my life, there were aspects of it that I didn’t like and so I set myself some aims for 2020. I didn’t realise it at the time but this was really about focusing inwards, as it’s entirely possible to look out upon the constituent parts of your life, see how good they are and presume you are happy because you should be, all whilst ignoring the little voice inside you.
When you start thinking about your own happiness it’s important to understand that that isn’t a selfish thing to do. You’ll have no doubt seen and heard phrases that suggest you have to learn to be happy with yourself, to love yourself first and foremost and I think it can be easy to presume that you do, just because so many other parts of your life are going well.
So there I was, with 2020 looming, and I was focussed on building new habits, thinking I’d lean on some things I new worked for me in the past (hello writing, hi meditation, howdy exercise!) – to try and temper the habits I didn’t like (bye bye endless scrolling of social media). Surely then I would achieve some form of satisfaction with myself?
Well it’s October, and we all know that 2020 has been a bit of a year and yet here I am, happier than ever and with a meditation habit again and it’s been a constant throughout lockdown, and the death of my father, and all the mental strain many of us have been feeling.
So, how did I do it?
It started with a snippet of advice I read somewhere, it’s been repeated in a few articles I’ve read since:
“Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.”James Clear, Atomic Habits
Looking back at how I meditated in the past I knew I would need some guidance, and whilst I’d used Buddhify in the past, I decided to look at some of the alternatives like Headspace and Calm. The latter is the one that stuck, offering daily 10 min guided meditations, and longer ad-hoc ones available whenever you wish. So, there was my first aim, start doing a daily 10 min meditation. Other apps are available.
The key for me was dedicating myself to this, making it an important part of my day and so I set up a 30 min part of my day that was for meditating. 10 mins to make sure I can relax into the meditation time, turning off notifications and alarms (and making sure the dogs have been out for a pee!), and then I can start the meditation app and, 10 mins later, my mind feels quieter, and I have another 10 mins to just sit in that state and let it rest within my mind.
That’s the plan at least. Some days I achieve that, some days I don’t, and some days I don’t meditate at all. Some days when I do meditate I can’t seem to focus, my mind wanders, and I lose track. Sometimes I’ll start a meditation and not finish it, some days I’ll restart it when I’ve finished as I realise I wasn’t really participating.
However, most times, even if my mind does wander I still feel some of the benefits and that, for me, is the entire point. I am not the best person at meditating, I don’t always finish it feeling refreshed and ready to take the world, and I don’t even do it every day.
But when I do, it’s wonderful, and that keeps me trying it, and the more often I manage it, the better I feel and the keener I am to repeat that the next day, it’s a joyous circle.
This past week has been a hard one, and I haven’t had the inclination to meditate until today.
It’s apt, given it’s World Mental Health Day, that as soon as I was done I felt that sense of calmness flooding over me and realised how much I’d missed this simple practice that I’ve developed over the past few months.
Meditation isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve always felt like trying it then try not picture the zen monk, sitting cross-legged atop a mist covered mountain, instead think of me, a middle-aged balding overweight man, in shorts and t-shirts, sitting in his office chair, headphones in, who spends half of his meditation time with his mind wandering all over the place.
But when it works, it’s a wonderful release, a freedom, and a lifting of unknown tensions and stresses and I’m so happy it’s now part of my own wonderfully selfish routine.
If you are struggling today, or any other day, there are resources available, people you can speak to, you are not alone. Reach out to any of the organisations in the link above, or drop me a line. I’ll help if I can.