Tag Archives meditation

Lessons from my mother – part one: Learning to meditate productively (i.e. like my mother, not like me)

Posted on 6 min read
This picture is from my time in Sicily where I was in one of my ‘meditate lots’ phases. November 2016.

My first foray into meditation was accidental

As a child I discovered an engaging tomb on witchcraft in the school library.
I remember being captivated. Somewhere in the book I came across what I would now call a guided meditation. Although at the time I would have more likely described it as brain magic. So one evening, when my parents were out of the way and the house was momentarily quiet, I opened the book, settled myself on the carpet with four candles (my smoke alarm took exactly five tea-lights to set off), imaginary pets and my favourite cuddly toys and set myself to work with the enduring seriousness known to geniuses and small children.

I woke from my disorientating trace sometime later, terrified and in awe of the magical powers of my mind.

And then after returning the book to the library. I forgot all about meditation.

My mother’s first attempt to get me interested in meditation failed

Fed up of me complaining about my skin and mouth ulcers when I called her from university she sent me a CD of meditation tracks. I tried it out, figured it was wonderful. With incredible enthusiasm I lent it to a friend, who promptly had terrible nightmares. And then it was popped on the shelf where it stayed. University life came at me like a tornado and between complaining about my skin and the consequences of my ad-hoc impulsive decisions I didn’t have any time for sitting still.

Plus, my father had once said I was a meditative person anyway, so did I really need meditation.

My skin and mouth continued getting worse. Stupidly, I fought on.

Things changed though when my mother started using the Headspace app

Which she has now used daily for years and years. And at some point I cottoned on to the fact that she was changing in front of my eyes. My loving but imperfect father would say things, spiky things, designed to taunt her. My sister and I would tense at the dinner table, waiting for a sharp retort, and that sharp retort just didn’t come.

My sister and I would exchange a confused glance. My father would try again but his comment would not stick.

It seemed like overnight, although in reality it was a process of years, my mother who had been almost as emotionally explosive as me had become grounded. The more stress was poured on her, the taller she seemed to stand.

She started aging backwards

I want to just make this really clear. My mother, version a, the one I grew up with, was like a bullet train. Then the meditation thing started, and well… she’s become aware of the journey she’s taking. She’s still clock orientated, but the seconds tick by slower. Instead of snapping back at things, she’s making astute observations about how other people might feel.

By this point I’d dabbled again in meditation

I didn’t have a regular daily practice. I would start and stop. I read about meditation, tried different methods and frequently decided I was too busy or tired to bother sitting.

As with many of my activities, I would meditate intensely and then stop. I did ten days in a silent retreat and then didn’t sit again for a month. The mother meanwhile incorporated meditation into her daily routine and made it a steady daily practice.

And I was envious

Because my mother was changing before my eyes, proving that complaining and whining and emotional tantrums were unnecessary if only I practiced daily. I was buying books on meditation and she was finishing them and applying them before I’d got through the introduction.

What’s more she was doing yoga every morning. And if meditation is hard to quantify, yoga really is not. When I’m next to her on the mat and my hips don’t bend but her head’s on the floor it’s obvious that her little and often approach is so much better than mine.
Little and often also has other benefits.

There is a saying in sports, ‘too much, too soon’

In my experience, most sport injuries can be put down to people trying to change their routines too quickly. Amusingly I understood this concept easily when it came to something like running. I’m perfectly happy to spend a few weeks doing short slow runs, getting used to the terrain, to my shoes, building up the muscles in my legs, and therefore I have relatively few injuries. I know I can run 15km over the moors, because I have done, but when I first go out I aim for three and avoid the hills.

Applying the same knowledge to writing, or meditation just seemed silly.

My biggest excuse for all the things that I haven’t been practicing daily was that I was the sort of person who does bursts of intense focus

I also used to say that I wasn’t a runner. I didn’t run between the age of 13 and 23, which I though proved my point. But when I did start running (and I only initially ran to prove I couldn’t) I realised that I was wrong

For years I used to not be able to touch my toes. Today I can.

Yesterday I recognised I was getting defensive, and I stopped myself, paused and made sure my next word was ‘sorry’.

Mañana… tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. It’s so easy to put off things because it’s not who we are…

But we become the sort of person we practice being today

So today, when I woke up I proceeded through my daily practices: Spanish flashcards, photography video, yoga, writing… and the last thing before I go to bed tonight I will, as I have done all year now, meditate.

And now to quickly wrap this all up, because I’ve babbled on enough:

My mother tried to persuade me to meditate, but practicing herself is what really got me paying attention.

If bullet-train mother can slow down and find ten minutes a day to meditate then surely I can find ten minutes of my day to do the same. Even if it doesn’t feel like it’s in my nature.

We can learn the concept of ‘too much, too soon’ from sport and apply it into our daily life to balance our enthusiasm and focus instead on a regular training plan.

Nowadays, I feel ever so guilty when I feel like complaining about my skin or mouth ulcers. And when I hear others complain although I am initially frustrated, I know I need to breathe and find some compassion. There are many excuses we tell ourselves for not practicing the things we want to be good at, but in the long term you will be the person you practice being on a day-to-day basis. Not the character you take on once in a blue moon.

I might not have continued meditating from my encounter with the book on becoming a witch, and I haven’t learnt to levitate either, but I have continued the habit I set up back then of obsessively reading. It is through this incredible practice of reading that I realise I can now write the things I write.

And that obsessive reading, I guess I also picked that up from my mother…

If you haven’t tried meditating, or have once tried my CD and it gave you nightmares, I suggest experimenting a bit, there might be a meditation out there that suits your needs.

My mother highly recommends the Headspace App and Andy Puddicombe’s voice. If an app is not for you, he’s also written a book and done a TED Talk.

North Yorkshire: A Yoga Retreat with The Mother (part 2)

North York Moors, North Yorkshire
The stunning beauty of the North York Moors.

One of the challenges with yoga (other than the obvious physical challenge) is that it sometimes comes a bit too close to sounding like nonsense. It’s mostly the terminology that is used. Sometimes it’s not very western, and it’s not that of a scientific nature and so I become a little bit unnerved. I do have my reputation as a physics graduate consider. I am, I guess, sceptical of a lot of the phrases used, although I feel that this has as much to do with my lack of biology knowledge as much as my lack of Buddhist or Hindi terminology. I had to ask the mother where my kidneys were, and had no idea what a session of activating my kidney meridians was supposed to achieve. I still don’t.

Anyway, I was contemplating this as I sat on the sofa arm, balancing in that self-assured way that one does after hours of yoga, reading the peculiar titles of the books on the bookshelf. At this point I was wearing my third-eye chakra infused oil between my eyebrows because I’d been gifted it and had no idea what else I was supposed to do with it. I’ve got a multitude of chakras apparently, although I’ve no idea what or why they are. How the oil helps them, or me, I’ve no idea either. It smells like the upstairs of my nanna and grandad’s house did when I was a child.

Most of the rest of the group, there were sixteen of us participants, slowly made their way into the living room, placed themselves three to a sofa, found a beanbag, stood propped against the wall, or sat with upright-spines, cross-legged on the carpet. By this point everyone was hungry waiting for breakfast and in a cheerful chatty mood. The awkward silences of the first day had been replaced with an eagerness to speak and be heard.

The conversation paid a moment’s attention to the retreat owner, Edward. I hadn’t seen him and imagined him to be an older chap, small and bendy who looked like he’d live forever. The fifty-something year old women therefore surprised me with their enthusiasm for learning everything about him, little was known other than he would be willing to deal with spiders as 3am if anyone had a problem. Someone claimed to have a magazine article in their bedroom about him, and everyone wanted to see it. They also wanted to know more about the place itself, how it had come to be a sought-after retreat location, and what else went on there.

Our yoga teacher suggested Edward was a very dedicated man, going so far as to even leading silent retreats. Julie can still give you a massage, but she does so silently as not to break the practice. And then of course, all these women were discussing what would be difficult about a silent retreat and asking how silent exactly silent was. At this point, the chap (remember there were fifteen of us women and one chap) launched into sharing his knowledge. He’d shared a room once with someone who’d completed a ten-day silent meditation retreat somewhere down south. You can imagine the voices of the women, still wearing their patterned leggings and all in bare feet or socks, because shoes weren’t allowed in the house, trying to advertise themselves as the least capable of staying silent for ten days.

What is it with people saying that they can’t do things they’ve never actively tried?

Anyway, I turned around from the bookshelf. The Mother looked at me from across the room with one of those all-knowing looks and I looked back at her. I waited for a sensible pause in the conversation feeling that sitting smugly knowing the answers to their questions but not saying anything, especially when they were so curious, would not be fair.

“I’ve done it,” I said.

Cows in North Yorkshire.
Cows. To break up the monotany of the text.

The chap wanted to check that my silent retreat was the same super serious silent retreat that he was talking about. Initially I think he was sceptical. It was. How exactly, everyone seemed to want to know, do you stay silent? Can you write notes?

“You can’t write,” I said. “Or read.”

Their faces looked pained. I tried to explain that the peer pressure of being with so many other non-talking people really did help make the silence easy. Plus, you went in having agreed to the silence, including silence of eye contact.

“But,” I said, “The silence is easy, compared to sitting still.”

Luckily, a few minutes later, the gong sounded, summoning us to breakfast. We didn’t need much summoning. Gracefully and graciously everyone was on their feet and racing towards the dining-room. I was left worrying that everyone was now going to think of me as the weird one, wearing potpourri-scented third-eye chakra oil and doing strange, gender-segregated, vegan-eating, silent retreat.

Just before lunch I finally laid my eyes on the mysterious Edward. He came to give us a gong bath. Don’t worry, we were all fully dressed and most of us were wrapped in blankets too. I realised that he couldn’t have spent 20 years in Indian monasteries and couldn’t have spent time in a cave in Nepal, because he simply was not old enough.

And I suddenly realised why exactly the fifty-something year old women were so enamoured with him. In his shorts and t-shirt, I heard him described as ‘a bit of alright’.


Our teacher was Elizabeth from Lemon Tree Yoga and the retreat was held at The Tree.

North Yorkshire: A Yoga Retreat with The Mother

North York Moors
Up in the wonders of the North York Moors.

I ache.

I had this grand illusion that on returning from a yoga retreat I would feel all relaxed and at ease. I don’t. I feel like I’ve been to the gym, except for that the muscles that ache seem to be super deep inside of me. Maybe it wasn’t the yoga at all, maybe it was the wonderful Julie and her wonderful hands massaging my body. I don’t know.

It was the Mother’s idea, this yoga retreat experience. She, unlike me, can just drop down to the ground and touch her toes (without bending her legs) at 7 o’clock in the morning. Which was a good thing for her as pre-breakfast yoga started at half seven, in the chapel. The chapel, with its bright white walls and spacious arched windows being the yoga studio for The Tree relaxation centre in the North Yorkshire Moors where we happened to be. Whilst it’s cupboards might now be stacked with yoga mats, meditation poofs and big comfy cushions – do not use if you’re trying to maintain a sense of awareness – it still does play a role within the Methodist community. They borrow it back occasionally for events like their harvest festival.

Due to the Mother, I was awake at half seven and in the chapel. She’d done her first session of yoga, that’s yoga even before the pre-breakfast yoga, in our twin bedroom whilst I slept. When I awoke and pulled back the curtains I was met with a view across the green valley and up to the delicate colours of the moors.

Ten minutes early to the chapel, we were the last to arrive. I tried to look awake and feel as energised and ready to go as my floral legging might have suggested, but their bright colours blended in with everyone else. My yoga companions were eager looking women who looked like half-seven was, for them, a lie in. We did a little breathing and for a moment I imagined I might be able to semi-sleep through the yoga – a bit like I sometimes do with the mother’s ‘over 50s DVD’, but it soon became apparent that this was not going to be the case. We were on a mission to warm up and build an appetite before breakfast.

After breakfast – porridge, fruit, toast – was, as you might guess from a yoga retreat, more yoga. This was followed by a much-needed deep relaxation. It was one of those relaxations where you start by relaxing the crown of your head, your forehead, your face, your neck, shoulders and then fall asleep, waking up just in time for ankles and toes. I blame the big comfy cushion. If I snored, I wasn’t the only one.

Yoga Retreat
Read and be wise!

Lunch followed – soup, salads and cheese and biscuits – and another round of camomile tea, decaf green tea, decaf coffee, caffeinated coffee, decaf tea, caffeinated tea, etc. etc. Then there came the afternoon. It started with a short walk for the Mother and me. Then followed the dip in the hot tub, which was in a little cabin, with wide windows overlooking the moors, fairy lights twinkling in the ceiling. The clock on the wall which instead of numbers simply said ‘now’. As you might expect the retreat centre was one of those places with cute lines about happiness being more than just a destination, or there only being the present moment, hanging off nails and scribbled across walls in abundance.

Cake awaited us back inside the house. Homemade blueberry scones and a super light lemon cake which I may have had a second slice of (yes, we’ve picked up the recipe). I asked for a fork for my cake because it was one of those places where you felt comfortable sticking your head in through the kitchen door and speaking to one of the super friendly, highly talented chefs. Also, cake should be eaten with a fork. It’s proper.

Then came my appointment to visit Julie. She put me at ease within seconds, making me feel totally comfortable as I quickly briefed her on my tendency to have a panic attack if I’m uncomfortable with a touch, but she knew exactly what she was doing and made me feel safe. Quite a skill.

The next couple of hours I spent in an excessively relaxed daze, reading a few pages of my book and testing out the variety of herbal teas. Then it was dinner time. The kitchen produced a hearty vegetarian shepherd’s pie (we have the recipe for this too). I concentrated on staying upright and awake. The rest of the table chattered along merrily, comparing notes about their professions (either teaching or nursing) and, if they had them, their children. The children mentioned all appeared to be aged twenty-seven. Nurses and teachers, mothers of twenty-seven-year-old children obviously were the retreat’s target audience. I was the only twenty-seven-year-old daughter. There was one chap, but he knew a thing or two about yoga and was obviously used to going on retreats dominated by women.

These jolly ladies, peacefully stretched and thoroughly massaged, debated the merits of 80’s fashion and food and tried to convince me that I had missed out. I pointed out that there was something beneficial about not having to record your music off the radio onto a cassette tape, but they shook their heads and smiled. They bounced into discussing the wonders of angel delight. I stared at them in horror.

The evening finished with candle gazing. This involved us returning to the chapel, sitting on our mats and staring at a tealight whilst trying not to blink too much. Your eyes are supposed to water lots. The teacher had tissues at the ready. Theoretically, it’s supposed to be good for calming hay fever, but I couldn’t really say as I spent most of my time failing not to blink and therefore my eyes barely watered at all.

We walked back from chapel to retreat house, staring up at the stars that hung brightly above the open moors, before climbing into bed.

And all that was only Saturday.

Our teacher was Elizabeth from Lemon Tree Yoga and the retreat was held at The Tree.

What happens when you play with silence

I’ve been thinking about silence.

It comes from practicing silence. Closing doors as quietly as possible. Tip-toeing around in socks. Lifting your chair rather than just giving it a shove when you want to tuck it under the table. Stirring your milk into your tea without the spoon touching the sides of the mug. And not speaking.

I spent just under 10 days in such a silence as I learnt to meditate.

Silence of Thought

Whilst meditating, my thoughts were supposed to be silent too. My mind was supposed to be focused. But silencing your thoughts is hard. It’s a process of disengagement rather than shutting them up and it’s not something that comes naturally.

Hence, whilst feeling the subtle effects of my breath, my mind also reflected on the experience of silence.

Silence of Technology

As well as not speaking, I sent no messages through any electronic device. I had no access to a computer and my phone was in a locker in a locked locker room that was out of bounds. I wonder if I have had been away from a phone or computer for such a duration since my age reached double digits. I rather doubt it. Maybe on a long scout camp, but even then I imagine I had my mobile.

Despite only being in Hereford, I was more isolated from my family and friends than I’d been a few months previously when I’d been in Egypt.

Silence of Reading

‘Course boundary’, ‘Female course boundary’ and the signs telling you how to exit the buildings in case of a fire, were the only words I read. I didn’t write either. I had no pen and so was forced to remember what I wanted to write about on my escape.

Not writing was an interesting challenge because on a daily basis I write lots. I write for professional reasons, but I also write to organise my thoughts and my emotions. I do much of my reasoning on paper. Not writing meant that my thoughts hung around longer and kept running in repeating loops around my head.

The Power of Silence

After the silence had broken, a group of us gathered around a couple of tables, drank tea and reflected on the experience. One woman bravely leant back in her chair and said boldly, “Well I found that I’m much funnier than I thought.”

Eyes connected, and an acknowledgement of ‘me too’ went around the table. We all laughed at ourselves.

The woman who had spoken up had spent days of the course in floods of tears, but reflecting on the experience as a whole was much moved by the resilience of her mind. Now, cheerful and loud, she seemed far removed from an emotional breakdown.

I get the impression people expect silence to be boring or perhaps intimidating. Dare to give all those deeply hidden thoughts room to manoeuvre and perhaps they’ll take over. Of course thoughts surface. Faces and unkind or thoughtless comments from years ago battle for attention. Worries, to do lists and regrets are loud thoughts, dominating thoughts. We’re well practiced in giving them priority and forgetting our minds are actually creative, amusing and fun.