This is a regular series of blogs focusing on creating balance through mindful activities.
Please read my first blog: Bringing Depression to the table, to provide more context.
The ‘M’ Word
Meditation has been such a big part of my work towards improved mental health, I wanted it to be the first table leg in this series.
“I can’t meditate: my mind’s too busy and I can never clear my thoughts.”
If that’s what you’re thinking, then great, because you’re not supposed to clear your thoughts.
“Hang on, what? But that’s been my excuse for years!”
Me too, but it turns out that the only time I have a totally blank mind is when I bump into someone I went to school with and have to remember their name; welcome to the infinite nothingness! But in normal, day-to-day life, there’s always something going on in there, so don’t worry about clearing your mind. You are there to observe; you are the one who watches…
When I started meditating, six years ago, the first benefit I noticed was that it slowed me down. I used to set my alarm for 06:30, shower, brush my teeth, get dressed, and sprint out the door by 07:00. When I look back now, I don’t even know what I was rushing for. I’d always be an hour early to work anyway. It was just a habit I’d created from when I was younger (and was late for everything), I guess. Giving myself just an extra ten minutes was a huge mental shift, and one that stopped me feeling so angsty on my commute. Eventually, I was even sneaking in breakfast. What a luxury.
After that came the gold. Meditation became imperative in my ability to notice a negative thought. A negative thought doesn’t make someone take their own life. It’s a negative thought that goes unchecked; it’s one that is allowed to grow and grow, until three days later, you’re lying on the bedroom floor with the lights off, waiting for the world to stop spinning.
When you’re practised at following your breath, letting thoughts come and go, observing what’s going on, and, crucially, noticing when your mind has wandered, you can become your own ‘thought guardian’.
Let’s say you’re in the shower – where all masters of the universe do their best thinking – and instead of singing the Spice Girls and admiring the reverb on your voice, your brain starts navigating towards that interview you just had. You start thinking how boring you must have come across; how bad you look in a suit and “Why did I talk about travelling for so long? They probably think I’m a right nob.”
12 hours later, you’re curled up in a ball thinking about that awkward sexual experience from 15 years ago and still blaming yourself for that level of performance (these are just made up examples by the way).
But what if you noticed straight away? What if, when you first thought, “God I was boring in that interview yesterday,” you thought, “Oh hang on, that’s super negative. Interesting! Actually, they were driving it with the questions they asked, so all I could do was answer what they wanted to know. Besides, if I don’t get it, maybe it’s because something bigger and better is just around the corner. Now, where was I?” *grabs shampoo* “If you wanna be my lover…”
Meditation is a wonderful teacher, perhaps because it shows that the answers are already within us; we just need to learn how to read the signs. I have (much wiser) friends who can communicate with their body in such a way, that they can meditate on a deep question or a tough choice and come out the other side absolutely convinced they now know which path to take. Imagine what might open up for you if you knew, in your deepest self, what you really wanted in your life! Who says superpowers don’t exist?
For those with little to no experience, guided meditations are a good place to start. There are plenty of classes you can join (online or in-person), and groups in every major city. If you’d prefer to start alone, I recommend using the Headspace app, which certainly paved the way for me. I’ve had close friends recommending Insight Timer, and Instagram sent me an advert informing me that Harry Styles can ‘read me to sleep’ on the calm app. I’ll leave you to work out how well-targeted that ad was, while I go and check if its downloaded.
If you do decide to give it a go, don’t beat yourself up if you struggle to keep focused at first, if your mind keeps wandering and you can’t seem even to count to ten. There’s a whole lot of history in that brain of yours that’s going to wonder why there’s so much quiet all of a sudden. It takes time and consistency and, just like with a martial art, the journey is never ‘complete’. So, don’t think you have to rush it, or compete with yourself.
Remember, the goal isn’t to reach a destination: it’s to embrace the journey. If you can learn to employ that sentiment in more than just meditation, being ‘alone with your thoughts’ becomes a much nicer place to be.