My 5 ways to make your meditation practice stick

meditation

I wrote in my last  post about my journey into meditation and mindfulness. My practice began with taught classes at a local Buddhist Centre and in many places, those classes are still available. Others are now accessing meditation tutorials through apps such as Headspace.

Like many things starting a meditative practice is one thing but continuing it is something else. Below are my 5 ways to make your meditation practice stick:

  1. Manage your expectations– Meditation is not an elixir or panacea. It is true that many people come to it because they want to improve their quality of life but ‘life’ unfolds pretty much the same way it always did even after you start meditating. You will still have days where life is hard, stressful, emotional, and tiring. If you want a transformative high, where you look like all the smiley pics of the Dalai Lama, you are also likely to be disappointed! Even he has had his bad days. If you come to practice with a simple expectation that meditation will be ‘of benefit’ and with an open mind as to how, you are more likely to keep at it.
  2. Do it– meditation is called a practice because we are committing to continually practising meditation. Whether it be for 3 minutes a day or 30, whether we choose to sit for all our practices or whether we approach some of our daily activities such as eating more mindfully we will  make progress if we commit to regular practice. We can be creative in the ways in which we build our practices up to support sticking with it. Something as simple as the mindful drinking of a cup of tea in the morning all adds to our immersion and appreciation of the value of meditation in our lives.
  3. Avoid Judgement and Labels– Meditation cannot be bad or poor or all those other words we are used to using when we talk about ourselves and our performance of activities. The merit of the experience continuing is beyond what we may see as a ‘bad session’. If we see meditation as one of the few experiences in life where we make progress every time we sit then we are more likely to continue even when we take a view that a session has not gone well
  4. Celebrate it– I approach this one carefully given 1 and 3 but whatever you discover or the awareness you gain as you meditate should be acknowledged and celebrated. These moments however fleeting should be accepted for what they are and seen as the true delight of meditation
  5. Benefit will come for you and others– We must be cautious about goals and objectives with meditation but this is what I would call a ‘universal promise’- there is a reason the practice of meditation has endured for over 2000 years and that is, it will have a positive impact on your life and others. It will not always be comfortable or predictable but after time as the experience unfolds you will acknowledge the positive impact it has had on your life and through your practice the life of others.

 

Mindfulness

A few months ago I had coffee with a friend and told her that I had started a blog. ‘What is it about?’ she asked? ‘Travel, life, journeys’ I told her. ‘OK she said as long as its not about that rubbish mindfulness, I’ll have a read’. I laughed out loud and admitted there probably would be some discussion of the subject.

Mindfulness is increasing in popularity among those interested in self and personal development. Organisations too are using it as part of their work to support employees. The benefits of increasing awareness of the present moment and its benefits on wellbeing are being written and talked about. Healthily, there are those who challenge the benefits of practice and wonderfully there are some very humorous takes on its meaning and impact, most notably the Ladybird Book On Mindfulness.

mindfulness

Ultimately though all the views and evidence have to sit alongside experience to understand how mindfulness might benefit us.

My experience of mindfulness started almost 20 years ago when I read my first Buddhist text and attended a Buddhist centre to learn meditation. Anyone expecting a ‘quick fix’ or indeed a ‘fix’ through meditation and mindfulness is probably in for some disappointment.  In the early days of sitting and being aware of the breath I felt like i would go crazy as the random thoughts entered my head…..last years holiday…agenda for next weeks meeting……why am I thinking of cheese and onion crisps now? .

But there is a reason why its called ‘practice’ and over time meditating daily started to bear fruit. The pace of my thoughts slowed, I felt less inclined  to ‘engage’ with them, to ruminate and act upon them. When I did act on my thoughts it was more ‘conscious’ and less harmful.

There was a spread of benefit from the periods of practice to life more generally.  The way I have described it to friends is that I became more meditative generally, my practice of meditation had evolved into a more expansive mindful practice. The ‘skill’ developed too, I was more generally ‘aware’ of my thoughts, and some very habitual thought patterns decreased significantly, I let them go.

With the ‘noise’ of my mind increasingly quietened I found my awareness and acceptance of the present moment increased. It is a misconception that mindful thinking means never thinking about the past or the future, but it does mean that being in the present is the most important thing of all. It is what is in front of us at this very moment that is truly the only ‘time’ we have.

Over the past few months I have realised even more the deep quality of that present moment, it is beyond the joy of the good times and the sadness of the bad it is the value of the equanimity  of our experience. It is the realisation of the opportunity we have in front of us in every second to live fully in whatever way we choose to do that.

 

 

A pause before Paros

Sometimes it is essential to pause, to take a break from something and continuing a journey sometimes takes longer than anticipated.  The journey to Paros from Naxos was not a long one, it has just taken longer to tell it. Paros is typical of many of the islands in the Cyclades, peppered with whitewashed buildings, blue domes and Taverna tables. It is one of the lesser known and comparatively  quieter islands but its hub at Parikia is a vibrant port, a key transportation route and fishing base for the island.

It was down the road from here, close to Livado beach,  that I stayed in a modest but beautiful boutique hotel, owned and managed by two brothers and their father who had fished the seas around Paros for over 30 years. He still dressed in the uniform of the seas and every morning as he served breakfast he looked like any minute he was off to captain a boat.

 

I should have known that with his experience and probably his sons too, their understanding of what might be regarded as choppy seas might be different from mine. I do not have good sea legs but I wanted to take the opportunity to see other islands. The short boat ride to Anti- Paros had probably lulled me into a false sense of security. But still I found myself  making my way to Naoussa for a ‘cruise’ to Delos and Mykonos.

The boat looked substantial which reassured me and as we sailed away from the harbour I took comfort from the gentle waters.  Inside the music played as we lounged in something reminiscent of the 1970s Loveboat. As we took to sea though, the calm changed as we crashed over the seas. Soon the sick bags were out and I was hoping for the destination to arrive quickly. It truly was a surreal moment as Zorba the Greek played through the boat and a Mr Bean film played on the TV.

Delos, the first stop for the boat was an island that felt like a living an evolving museum, a place of artefacts and emerging excavations. In its heyday, the houses would be filled, the markets full of traders, theatres packed during celebrations. Now it has no inhabitants, just a steady flow of archaeologists and the curious. If this was as an island of celebration of Apollo in years gone by,  its nearest neighbour Mykonos is now an island for present parties. It was a pleasant place for lunch and a few hours but I was glad that I had stayed on the more authentic Paros.

Telling Stories

Telling Stories is such a fundamental part of human communication, interaction and connection.  We remember the content of a good story but their power lies in the way they make us feel and the deeper more significant impact beyond the narrative.

Stories can connect us by experience. All of us have gone through a time of difficulty when we feel a hard period of our lives is never going to end. Stories of people who have gone through similar experiences can break the feeling of isolation, shining light in dark places. Sometimes stories show us that what we believed to be fixed about a situation is not, that life moves on and what we judged as wholly a bad experience can have, in retrospect, some positive benefits.

Stories can be a call to action. The telling of an injustice or an oppressive situation or a difficulty can not only connect us spiritually but unite us in collective action. They are a way of telling people why an issue is important to us and they can be the catalyst for changing a story or narrative in the future.

Stories can lead us to reflect, their potency in the effect they have on how we feel and what we do in the longer term. They can make us reframe something in our past or change our approach to something in the future. They can expose our fears, our vulnerabilities, our loves, revealing things about us hidden to others or even to ourselves.

What they do for us is as broad as the stories themselves. In the last week, I was given two great gifts, two stories told to me by people I met that made me think about two things, the nature of success and how in most people’s lives whatever they call ‘success’ is rarely a linear or straightforward story and secondly the nature of everyday courage through the beauty of hearing someone express a difficulty they faced and overcame, that many people would not admit to or share.

As the listener, I felt gratitude to those who told me their story and a deeper connection and affection for them. I was thinking about their stories many days later and reflecting on what they meant for me. It highlighted for me  the power we all have in sharing our own stories. They connect the ‘I’ to ‘US’, individual events becoming a shared experience of ‘life’.

If there is a power and beauty in listening to a story, there is an equal power and beauty in telling our own

Transformation

metamorphosis
Picture courtesy of the New York Times

Many years ago, I watched a production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis by the Royal Ballet.  The physicality of it was gripping. The principal dancer contorted and writhed with the pain of his ‘Transformation’, his shadow fluid on the stage.  The tension heightened by the sound of screeching music and the austere white background.

The story provokes questions. What is happening to this man internally, externally? It provokes observations, the reaction of those around is ambivalence, disgust, and some support.

For me we all are at some point in our lives or indeed always an evolving Gregor Samsa, the salesman In Kafka’s book who goes through a grotesque metamorphosis.

When we go through times of challenging transformation it has characteristics to it that is worthwhile being aware of so we are better able to navigate these periods of our lives.

Transformation can be both external and internal and the two are related. Internally transformation often involves us ‘thinking’ differently, ripping up neurological habits in favour of new ways of thinking. This can be some of the hardest transformation undertaken, as demonstrated by the challenge of addiction recovery but all thought change is difficult. External change is hard also and often linked to internal change, doing something differently being predicated by thinking about it differently and its success dependent on it. Consider how most of us have chased the ‘new me’ post new year only to be disappointed by our ‘failure’ some weeks or months later.

Transformation is painful. Whether it is an event external to us that is the catalyst for it or something we do independently, moving from how we are now to our ‘future selves’ is rarely easy. It is why when change comes without notice we find it difficult and when we instigate it ourselves we can struggle to commit to it. It requires us to let go of the familiar, to allow for uncertainty and not knowing and to start to think and act differently to in the past. It is the letting go and the stretching of who we are that is the most painful.

Transformation is hard to understand both for ourselves and others. It isn’t always clear what is emerging and the destination we set out to ourselves will not necessarily be the one we end up at. If letting go of the old us is hard for us sometimes it can be equally hard for those around us,  relationships often dependent on the old version of ourselves can change or be lost as we transform. Alternatively, those close to us can be a great support

In life, Tranformation is inevitable though and ‘we’ will emerge different from who we once were. We should seize the opportunity to be aware of the nature of Transformation and develop the confidence to navigate it. We should consider

Being prepared for and accepting of what arises

How we look after ourselves physically and mentally through periods of change

How we keep momentum but at a pace that is right for the change to be successful

How we are mindful of others and the support they can offer

How we Reward ourselves and express gratitude

At some point we all must transform. How traumatic it is is down to our awareness and skills for the process.

Certain Uncertainty

20160729_095855163_ios

The period of  travelling after leaving my job was only uncertain in that I wasn’t sure day to day where I might eat and end up drinking and how long I might choose to stay in a place before moving on.

In the background though was a context of greater uncertainty. I had left a job that I had worked in for many years and whilst I had prepared myself as much as I could for that leap it still was a leap into the unknown. In life when circumstance puts us in position of uncertainty it is inevitable that this will be uncomfortable and our natural desire will be to get out of that ‘state’ as quickly as possible (see my earlier blog post on being uncomfortable). However, if we are prepared to sit with periods of uncertainty it can give us a glimpse of what is certain in our lives:

  • The Value of Ourselves- when things that we have relied upon external to us like a job or a relationship changes or ends, there is an opportunity for us to reflect and acknowledge our inherent value, our character, our skills, our purpose, the precious life we have. In relation to work it is the skills we learn and develop in every job we do that we can then nurture and develop to move forward. It is the ability to learn new skills knowing that we have done it in the past. In terms of ourselves, it is the things that make us ‘unique’, who we are, it is the reason why people are drawn to us and the things that if we allow we can love about ourselves
  • The Value of Relationships- Friends may come and go. Family changes in shape and composition. We fall in love and that love may come to an end. In uncertainty, connections offer affirmation of the value of ourselves and something beyond ourselves at the same time.
  • The Power of Acceptance – if we accept the very nature of life as it is certainty becomes less of a long-term aspiration replaced with an acceptance of the nature of change and uncertainty and a willingness to be open, curious and flexible to change and experience life as it shifts
  • The Moment, the Present- perhaps the greatest constant of them all until we either significantly lose our health or die is the opportunity and beauty of a moment. If we can drop expectation based on the past, anticipation based on hope and experience it for what is we have potential.

Anxiety during times of uncertainty is very hard to counter but every time we meet it we have a chance to meditate and reflect on those things that are bigger, greater, deeper in our human experience.

 

 

 

Being Uncomfortable

 

20160801_194954209_ios

We all enjoy being comfortable. From the lie in in a warm bed, to the secure job, to a beautiful home we cling to the feeling of being comfortable.  We seek comfort in challenging times. I mentioned before the apple turnovers of youth, the warm, sugary flaky pastry of youth. Now it is the comfort of the fine wine as an older man. It is very hard for most of us to celebrate being ‘uncomfortable’.

In travel terms we have seen the evolution of categories of flying ….first, business, premium economy, club etc. etc.… all appealing to that need to avoid the feeling of discomfort.

Regardless of class I still hate flying. I’ve gone through periods of varying discomfort with it but fundamentally I’d choose most forms of transport over it. A summer of travelling by train and boat has reminded me of how much of a chore flying by air has become, weight limits, security, fast track, boarding passes, delays etc. Inflight plastic meals, more channels than we can consume and cabins that feel cold no matter where we are flying from and to. I will do it because it is a necessity to see the world but I don’t enjoy ‘it’, merely the sense that at any point I’m closer to where I want to be than where I started.

Even with the most ‘comfortable’ of travel experiences we are taking ourselves out of our comfort zone and that to me is a good thing about travel because when I return things are less uncomfortable. Most importantly for me:

The distance between where we leave comfortable, the journey through where we ‘are uncomfortable’ and coming out the other side is a soft space of growth and ultimately happiness.

Travel has always thrown me to places that are not comfortable. On a trip to Australia I landed miles off course after a balloon ride in Brisbane in a field with a basket full of screaming Korean women, in Thailand I rode the back of a bike that turned out to be the rubbish truck and was lucky not to lose a foot or leg, in Turkey I had a meltdown during the London Olympics opening ceremony, in Granada I stayed in the equivalent of a monk’s cell with no air conditioning in the middle of summer. Travel forces us out of our comfort zone and offers us a lesson more generally in dealing with those times we are uncomfortable. After all, life has a habit of rocking us out of our comfort zone in far greater ways than any temporary travel experiences. But life and travel has taught me the benefits of these uncomfortable places

  • I learn a lot about myself when things become uncomfortable. Things I was previously unaware of, things that irk me. With some reflection, it can lead to a knowledge of why that is, what the nature of the discomfort is, who I am as a person. The insight offered in a period of difficulty or being uncomfortable is often enlightening and a great starting place for personal growth. In short there is sometimes something to celebrate in the times we are uncomfortable.
  • Which is why we should sometimes just sit with being uncomfortable. It’s natural to moan about it, want to run from it or to find something to numb the pain…pass me another cocktail. Sometimes in doing the latter we create more problems than the original discomfort we have. Sitting and accepting the times we are uncomfortable offers us the opportunity to take something positive from the most challenging in experiences. In short it offers the opportunity to…
  • Grow– what was uncomfortable years ago is not so uncomfortable now, what we think we can’t cope with we do. Being uncomfortable is training for life, it is a chance to recognise strength far greater than we thought we had and to use it to prepare us for the challenges ahead