The Over-thinker's Guide to Meditation
Whenever I have to describe myself in a few words (say for instance, on my Tinder profile) my answer is always: “storm in a teacup.”
I like to think it implies that I’m spirited, if not a handful- cleverly disguised in this lanky, baby-faced body but what I really mean is that my brain is in a constant state of natural disaster.
It’s a hurricane of thoughts. A typhoon of worries. A cyclone of lists. And there is no eye of the storm. There is no “quiet” or “calm” in sight.
For those who have been playing along at home, you’d know that I’ve had an anxious mind since I was very little. “Carefree” has never been my thing. Instead I had Worry Dolls living under my pillow and dream catchers hanging above my bed in a hope to ward off the bad dreams and all-consuming “what if’s”.
Having older parents also meant I was brought up to believe in science and the wonderful world of traditional medicine rather than any alternative therapies or ideologies. Even psychologists were avoided- my father had the mentality that a stranger couldn’t possibly understand or be able to help, and that we’d eventually sort ourselves out on our own.
With this in mind, had you told me a few years ago that I would be currently attending a guided meditation classes two days a week, and even practicing on my own at home, I would have rolled my eyes and scoffed in your face.
However if 2016 was the year of finally taking care of my body physically, 2017 is going to be the year of finally taking care of my mind and soul and I figured giving meditation a go was as good a place to start as any!
My initial thoughts on meditation were probably similar to yours: I had imagined sitting in a room, maybe in some travelling pants made from hemp, crossed legged, humming and “omming” shoulder-to-shoulder with some colourful characters, at least one with dreadlocks.
I’d also read that meditation took a lot of practice, that you probably weren’t going to be ‘good’ at it right away. As someone who is quite quick to quit activities they’re not immediately good at- this didn’t sound promising.
Finally, there was that whole thing I mentioned before about how my bloody brain never shuts up and definitely doesn't sleep. There was no way she was going to suddenly start complying with me now.
But when a beautiful new “health and wellness studio”, Sum of Us, opened up right around the corner from my house, I took it as a sign. (Apparently I’m also big on “signs” now…)
Kasey Todd is the angel who takes guided meditation at 'Sum of Us' and her warm, friendly energy is infectious from the moment you step foot in the door.
A closet-hippy since birth, Kasey found herself drawn to meditation and it’s benefits after being in a car accident that left her with long-lasting injuries, preventing her from working as a P.E teacher.
Practicing for 8 years and teaching for 18 months, Kasey was quick to assure me I was not alone in my meditation misconceptions.
“So many people come in believing that meditation is all about sitting in a lotus pose, eyes closed with no thoughts. There are SO many more forms of meditation that aren't cross legged or breath focussed and it’s totally normal to not feel instantly relaxed,” Kasey explains, “meditation is about the journey not the destination. It's not uncommon for beginners to feel frustrated.”
That was handy to know, since frustration was the only feeling I was experiencing during my first class. I’ve always been a light sleeper and trying to meditate in a class of 7 other people for that first time felt like trying to go to sleep in an 8-bed mixed dorm room on a Contiki trip after a pub crawl.
Sensing I was probably going to need all the help I could get, I asked Kasey for her top 3 tips for people like me; beginners with over-anxious minds:
- “Thinking 'IS OK' - It's our brains job to think, that's what it does and what it's good at. The more we try and stop our thoughts, the more likely they will want to enter. So allow them to come, and go. Additionally there is, so much benefit in noticing thoughts, rather than resisting. When we learn to embrace our thoughts and allow them to just be, we allow ourselves to have a full meditative experience.”
- “Meditation is just like exercise, there is no one size fits all. I personally hate cardio, boxing and weights and would never attend or enjoy these classes, but I LOVE yoga, pilates and walking; they never feel like exercise or a chore. Meditation is exactly the same. You might find it really difficult to focus on your breath, or find a mantra distracting, but maybe focusing on the touch of your body to be natural and able to do so with ease. Whatever works for you, practice that and forget what you 'think you should or shouldn't do'. There are no rules in meditation! That's the beauty of it.”
- “Find a time that works for you. Forget what time your friend or teacher suggests, just do what works for you.”
Glad you mentioned that Kasey, as that’s something else I was concerned about. (Weird that I would be concerned about something unimportant, I know.)
It’s all well and good to come along to Kasey’s classes every week and have her guide me through a meditation but would I ever gain the skills to be able to do it at home on my own? Say for instance when I was having trouble sleeping, or feeling particularly anxious?
A quick Google or YouTube search and you’re bombarded with so many different options and weird waterfall graphics with some creepy voice over the top- it’s easy to get deterred.
“So many of us (including me, when I first started out) Google meditation and get a creepy YouTube voice and long winded unregulated version and get put off for life.” Agreed Kasey, “In fact, this is where many of the ideals and stereotypes around meditation come from.”
There are however a couple awesome apps you can download which are kind of like having your very own mini-Kasey right in your pocket when you need her.
Kasey gave me her top picks:
1. Insight Timer: “Rated as the top free meditation app. The best part about this app is that you can search topics or themes eg. meditation for 'sleep', 'confidence', 'anxiety' etc and with over 900 teachers listed there is a large range or diversity and something for all.”
2. “This is a really nice 4 minute meditation - a really lovely quick track by Dr Elise Bialylew (founder of Mindful in May). A nice one when you can't sleep or feeling tired in the afternoon.”
3. Smiling Mind: “Great for beginners, currently being used in schools and with elite athletes, user friendly and accessible.”
And for all you sceptics out there/my Dad, there are stacks of benefits of meditation. There's a reason why it's being taught in our schools, workplaces, retirement villages, hospitals and detention centres.
Kasey adds: “Think about the way you feel when you're overwhelmed or stressed and allow yourself to take a deep breath. How does that make you feel? Think about when you feel sad, or down and bring someone you love to mind. How does that make you feel?”
Of the 60,000 thoughts we have a day 85% are repetitious (ie. something about yesterday or a thought we've already before) or negative.
Every time we stop and feel the present or think of something we are grateful for, we stop a negative or repetitious thought-stream. Scientifically, we physically cannot have a positive and negative thought at the same time.
“Sure you might have it 1 second later, but every single time we switch to the present, to feel our feet in our shoes, follow our breath through the nose and into the lungs or think of something we are grateful for we stop the negative thought pattern, even just for a second,” explains Kasey.
“The more and more we practice this the more positive thoughts we have and the less repetitious thoughts and more present they become.”
On top of that, some of the other well-known benefits of meditation are:
- Blood pressure
- Immune function
- Overall happiness and outlook on life
- Connection with self
- Decision making
“The list goes on!”
Sounds like a no-brainer right? Well come my 3rd class with Kasey I was noticing a huge improvement. Using her “labelling” technique with any intrusive thoughts that decided to pop up, I was learning to simply label them as “dinner”, “work”, “sore back”, file them away and move on to clearing my mind and relaxing- rather then stopping to engage with them.
Something else I was noticing was that I was never actually as “relaxed” as I thought I was, or as relaxed as I could be.
At the end of Kasey’s classes she gets you to focus on individual body parts and “relax” them.
A few times now it’ll come to this part of the class and it’s not until Kasey reminds us to “let our bottom teeth fall away from the top” that I realise I’ve had my jaw clenched shut the entire class.
(That being said, the guy next to me had apparently fallen asleep and started snoring and I hadn’t let that affect my own meditation so there were clearly some small signs of improvement!)
My final question was about the world we live in. In today’s age, where we are glued to our phones, our laptops, our screens- I wondered how Kasey felt this affected our ability to meditate.
“Well yes, we live in a ever-changing and evolving world where we're encouraged to always be 'on', forward planning, forever stimulated by technology and accessibility so often our natural instinct is to question ' What do I get out of meditation? What comes next?”
She explains further, “Nothing happens next, everything happens now. When the time comes for the next thing to happen, it will happen now. Now is all there is.”
Pretty sure I need to get “Now is all there is” printed on a t-shirt or tattooed on the back of my hand as a permanent reminder.
Being present is tough. It’s especially tough in 2017. I myself am constantly wondering what is next. What do I have to do next? What’s my next Instagram post? When is my next meeting? What do I have on tomorrow?
I think we could all do with being a little more present. And if you need to book yourself into a class and block out 45 minutes of your day to make sure this happens then do it- your mind and body will love you for it.
My journey with meditation is far from over and I definitely have not mastered the art of it just yet but what I have learnt is this: the goal of meditation is meditation. Be that the experience during your meditation (guided in a class or at home by yourself) or the benefits there after; meditation is so much more than the “eyes closed experience”- it’s about learning to live when the eyes are back open.