How being crap at meditation is beside the point

By Posted on Location: 9 min read

A chap messaged me recently because he’d read what I’d said about my ‘bullet train’ mother, and he wanted to know more.

And since I am not an expert at meditation and all that, (although yes, I do it daily), I asked my mother, who happened to be visiting me in Spain. I created a mega mind-map, and this has resulted from that conversation. I wrote it, the mother edited it, and here it is.

From a walk with the Mother over the easter holidays. Spain, April 2019.

Travelling means bumping into other travellers

This week there’s a woman staying in the house with me, another Brit, another fed up soul who decided that the office didn’t suit her. She’s on her journey and I’m on mine, and for a week or two our paths run parallel.

The inevitable exchange of stories took place. Not where and who and what – although we dropped some place names and mentioned some activities and described some memorable characters – but the story about how we each became who we are, and how we’re going to become the people that we will be.

And it’s these people, running parallel, sometimes for a long time, sometimes a short time, who feed us with stories, who open our minds, who influence where we go.

And this woman, a yoga teacher, is one of the many who have reaffirmed that my journey involves meditation.

In this article, I’m going to talk about how meditation fits within my life:

  1. I’m going to talk about what I do on a bad day
  2. Then I’m going to talk about having a formal foundation
  3. Finally, I’m going to speak about how being crap at meditation is beside the point

To begin, I want you to imagine I’m having a bad day

My head is whirring. I’m thinking all the thoughts I shouldn’t. I feel small and vulnerable and helpless, yet at the same time as if I must act now. I crave the reassurance of busyness and chocolate cake. No… give me chocolate cake on the move. And yet, if I had chocolate cake, I would be bewildered by it, and were I to move, I’d end up going in circles.

On occasion I seem to lose all my marbles and I have no idea who I am or what I am doing. It’s possible I’m not the only person who does this, maybe there are other people as dramatic as me out there.

So feeling terrible, I lay down. On the floor. And I breath. First out, then in, but slow, gentle, soothing breaths. Like the air is caressing my insides. And I don’t bother moving. I want to, but I know it would only make things worse. It would fuel the need for more movement which, in turn, would make me more likely to break things or upset people. Plus, when I’m overwhelmed, my body has an awkward habit of giving in anyway, I become dysfunctional.

So instead of moving, I focus on breathing

Exhalation follows inhalation, one after another. I let the manic thoughts dance through my brain, kicking their legs up in a conga line until my mind begins to quieten down.

I stay there, lying on the floor, until I have felt calmness in my mind, a period of tranquillity, and then I lie there a bit longer. Now though, I begin to let myself plan what I will do when I stand up. More Cuban dancing starts up, and I let that die down, breathe, and then return to my planning.

I wait until I have a solid plan

That means I know where I’m going to move, how I’m going to move and why I’m moving. Only then do I let myself sit up. I take my pulse, check it’s normal, and breathe-in, breathe-out, repeat a few times. The pulse checking is an oddity that came about from the PTSD, but it does make me more aware of how my stress affects my body. Once I’m happy that I have a sensible heart rate, a plan and steady breathing, I stand up.

If you aren’t as bananas as me, maybe your mind doesn’t flake out with such drama. Maybe you can continue (or at least sustain yourself) through the overwhelm? But what with my amygdala having a trauma shaped dent in it, my brutal truth is, I can’t.

There’s no point pretending otherwise

If necessary, I would lay down on the floor multiple times a day, building up space within my mind. Much of what trauma taught me is wrapped up in this idea of getting myself lined up for what I want to do next. Now I can generally calm my mind much quicker. Now I am better prepared to go after bigger goals.

But I get the fundamentals back in place first. Yes, it sounds odd, but when I was fighting trauma, and things were particularly rough going, I did need to fight for the fundamentals. I don’t think people place high enough value on them.

Which is why having a system for emergencies is all well and good

But it’s not enough. You want car insurance before you drive into the lamp-post. As you want a foundation in meditation before life has a hiccup or big, unanswerable question starts to grow in your mind.

I believe that regular formal meditation helps

After much reading, I’m convinced that it strengthens my mind in such a way that I can be less reactionary and more deliberate in my actions. My mother has a wonderful formal meditation practice, whereas mine is less disciplined. I tend to, but not always, meditate before bed, seated, with a straight back, bum raised on a cushion, on my bed. I can meditate for hours if I have people around me, for example on a retreat, but in my own bedroom, with distractions abound, I sometimes find ten minutes to be hard work.

What though do those ten minutes look like?

Once comfortable, I either set a timer, or start an audio track, or load up a video. Then I stay there, fidgeting as little as possible, until the timer goes off or the media ends. If, when I sit down, I know I’m going to have a hard time concentrating, I make sure that I either have a guided meditation playing, or a sing-a-long meditation. My sing-along meditation involves repetitive finger movements. These stop me fidgeting. And the instructions in guided meditations (such as Headspace) were particularly useful when I first started.

When it’s me and the egg-timer (and yes I might peek at it every now and again if I’m bored) I sit and observe my breath. Every breath in, every breath out.

It’s easy, isn’t it

Sit down, observe yourself breathing for a while, done.

Or maybe not. You’ve found a cushion, sat down, noticed your breathing and then, you find yourself thinking. Your mind is sabotaging your efforts. Which brings me to my final point…

Being crap at meditation is irrelevant

Sometimes, we run around because we’re scared of what might happen when we stop. The more scared we get, the faster we run.

When we stop thoughts explode in our minds, we realise that we’re feeling things that moments before we were oblivious to. Our organised life loses clarity. Uncertainty builds. Are we doing this right? Is this what happens for other people?

These thoughts are discomforting, and to ease discomfort, if you’re anything like me, you desire action. You want results!

(Exclamation mark there belongs to the Mother.)

You need to do something. Anything. Now.

And feeling this urge and letting it pass ain’t easy. Perhaps we feel it should be, because we’re not doing anything. Yet it’s not.

Our brains like things to be at an equilibrium

They spend much of their energy making sure that when we’re hungry, we eat; when we’re tired, we sleep; when we’re cold, we put on a jumper. Whatever our norm, our brains and bodies try to maintain it. However, when you start a meditation practice, you begin a journey of change. Your defence goes to full alert. Sirens sound. Your brain is going to fight hard to make sure that its equilibrium is kept.

Even if your equilibrium happens to be sending you to an early grave.

Maybe you practice for some time and then your brain says no

It doesn’t want to right now. It’s too busy. It feels like you have no choice. You tell yourself that if only you had time, you’d do it, but you’re very busy, too busy. There are other, more important things to do than meditate. There’s no time. Wait… is that the truth? There’s not ten minutes in the day where you can sit still? No, maybe that one’s a lie. Maybe, you can’t face the idea of sitting down, still, doing nothing. Not a nice truth, but better than a lie. Anyway, you don’t want to. So you don’t.

Your brain is so used to being full that it’s become comfortable that way. It wants to maintain that fullness, it isn’t happy about having space in there, let alone awareness. Your brain’s doing very well at keeping you safe by hiding you from all that awareness of what you feel.

So you struggle.

 ‘Cause you’re normal

And you signed up to becoming a tranquil person. You wanted your stress-reduced in a proven-by-scientists method. The free health supplement. You didn’t think about how this would mean living, for months and months, years perhaps, on the edge of your comfort zone, in a place of change.

You thought it was sitting and breathing

Inhale, exhale.

You thought it was something you did

It’s not. It’s something that happens to you, in you, whilst you’re building the space for it to take place.

You thought it was private

And it’s not. Because whilst you may sit cross-legged in a locked room, the fact that you are changing is going to affect everyone around you. Sooner or later, you’re going to stop being quite as predictable in your reactions as you once were. You’re going to have a little more space between the BAM of an event and your RARH of a reaction, and this may make some of the people around you uneasy. They’re expecting an instant RARH.

But as you progress with meditation you start to realise that things don’t stay the same, they are always changing.

Meanwhile, you may still sit down and, by accident, find yourself planning a holiday

Or writing a complaint, imagining an argument with the neighbour, sobbing, fidgeting, trying to roll your rr instead of singing the mantra, slumping against the wall, cheating yourself out of the last thirty seconds, starting the timer before you’ve settled, or whatever.

That’s the embarrassing truth of meditation. Sometimes your brain is like a monkey. However, and of course there’s a huge ‘however’ here, if you stick at it regardless of what happens, you do change.

And one day, when you’re least expecting it, someone will say something that makes you stop. Something sweet, like they wish they could live more in the moment, aware of what goes on around them, more like you.

So in summary (because as I said, we’re practicing writing articles here):

  1. On a bad day, I lay down until I have a solid plan.
  2. But meditation isn’t a quick fix, you need to build a solid foundation.
  3. And building that foundation can be a strange and uncomfortable process. Change always feels a bit weird.

But it’s worth it

You remember how, at the beginning, I said that the traveller passing though my life this week and I exchanged stories: the stories about how we each became who we are, and how we’re going to become the people that we will be. Meditation has been part of these stories, and it’s clear, when we listen to each other, that the change it has brought has helped us craft the lives we want.

And keeps on doing so.

As for the chap who wrote to me, what I say is this, get your bum on a chair, or on the floor, and start practicing.

Start today.