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Learning To Meditate

A Reluctant Beginner's Early Attempts

Today it seems a lot of well-known and successful people are either learning to meditate or sheepishly admitting to have been cultivating a habit for years and in some cases decades. Russell Brand, Sheryl Crow, Hugh Jackman, and Oprah are all converts to the gentle practice, with Clint Eastwood and Sir Paul McCartney both clocking up an impressive 40 years each of regular meditation.

In moments of madness, meditation has helped me find moments of serenity Sir Paul McCartney

Although meditation has been practised within the context of religion for thousands of years, it is only since the 1960s when it became westernised that it grew increasingly mainstream. There are now many user-friendly versions that promise to help me still my mind so I can rest peacefully between my thoughts. I knew it would be good for me, but….why was it so hard to begin? Reasons I couldn’t meditate For ten years I had a secret desire and forlorn hope that one day I would learn to meditate. I was overscheduled, over-committed, and too busy. I always seemed to be rushing from one place to another, one idea to another, one baby to another, one country to another. I was high on start-ability and low on stick-ability.

I had too much stuff in my life, my home, and in my head – and yet I was reluctant to let go of any of it. On the laundry bench were gatherings of smooth stones for mosaicking, potting mix and seed trays for my longed-for herb garden, adored baby clothes to make into a patchwork quilt, stacks of photos for framing, piles of kids’ letters and art waiting to be turned into scrapbooks, as well as maps and plans for upcoming trips. I loved deepening my self-awareness through new connections and new processes, but I tended to measure my success by how much I got done in a day rather than who I was as a person. I loved living a rich full life but trying to fit it all in often left me feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied as I tried to cram in more and more.

Science and Philosophy Offer Incentives

I had a secret suspicion that the practice of meditation might be rather boring. Plus, all that mindlessness and ‘do-less-ness’ would take up precious time resulting in even less sleep or more multi-tasking. And worse, I may feel compelled to stop drinking red wine and black coffee. Oh no!

I wanted the benefits of meditating without actually doing it. I needed a greater enticement than the vague promise of a better life. I turned first science, then to philosophy to find some specific incentives.

Physical Benefits of Regular Meditation

There are hundreds of well-researched studies proving that a regular habit of meditation is good for our physical and mental health. The general consensus is: increased immunity, reduced inflammation, lower blood pressure, and better sleep. There are even studies linking meditation to weight-loss….Hmmmm.....

Meditation increases brainwave coherence. One result is better cognitive and analytical functioning – the mind becomes clear and sharp like a laser beam — Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

The mental benefits of meditation seem unlimited; from helping athletes improve their performance, to reducing anxiety and depression in stressed out workaholics. It seems to be a universal panacea for just about every stress-related condition. Yet still I hadn’t begun. I thought my 'busy-mind' mental chatter was a natural by-product of a full and interesting life. If I needed clarity on an issue I would either pay a therapist to give me a wider perspective, or plan an exotic holiday escape. Meditation suggested that I could make better decisions and improve my critical thinking without constantly seeking outside of myself for answers.

Emotional Balance and Greater Calm

Using coffee to get me up in the morning, chocolate mid-afternoon to push through the post-lunch slump, or a glass of pinot to calm me down in the evening seemed a fine way to manage my emotional state. I didn’t want to function without my props. Yet the research was indicating a short simple practice would bring emotional balance and a greater calm to my see-sawing moods.

Spiritual Centring and Deepening Self-awareness

Our great spiritual teachers all point to the same observations; that meditation brings a sense of spirit into daily life while deepening one’s self-awareness. Their wisdom speaks of living in the present moment, and in a state of fulfilment regardless of life’s ebbs and flows.

Laser beam mind, greater calm, Buddha-like wisdom, physical ease, and deeper self-awareness? These benefits are definitely enough to spur an enthusiastic leap onto the nearest cushion for some cross-legged contemplation! So why was I still avoiding it? Was there another reason?

In the Beginning it Was Painful

Convinced of the benefits and now feeling guilty that I wasn’t already underway I forced a few doubtful attempts. Sitting still and trying to remain ‘empty’ was boring. My busy mind would run through endless to do lists, or start obsessing about how slowly time was passing.

My stress levels increased as valuable time ticked away without producing any positive results. I wasn’t feeling calmer, more intuitive or peaceful. My phone was off, the chanting track was gently playing, and clouds of meditation-enhancing incense swirled through the air. My lower back started to ache from sitting too straight, I needed to pee, a cloudy headache threatened in the distance, even the sound of my own breathing was distracting and annoying.

I started over, and this time with just one thing – a candle. The most beautiful one I could find. I lit the candle with a match - enjoying the scrape of the phosphorous against the box, the smell of gunpowder, the spark of light and heat, the deliciousness of playing with fire. I set a timer for two minutes and concentrated on the flame. The orange phantom danced across my perception, flickering back and forth with light. I let any thoughts that arose float by without following them, of if I did follow a thought for a moment I would catch myself, detach from it and return to the present moment.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few —Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki

To start with, that’s all I did. My mind was like an untrained puppy on a walk without a leash. It gazed all around, following a sniff trail in one direction, or an interesting sound in another; it rarely returned to the present moment of its own accord and in the early stages needed to be called to heel constantly. Soon the timer became an unwelcome intrusion and I replaced it with a short track of rhythmic chanting. I began to see the practise as a tiny island cut off from the mainland – a place I floated out to and returned from more rested and calmer than before.

A cup of green tea, a stick of fragrant incense; one by one I layered lovely things into my basic practise which helped disconnect my mind from the lists and busyness and bring my attention to the present moment. Because the ritual was organic and always evolving it held my attention.

Home Again

Rather than being an island I floated out to, my practice became a bridge between spirit and matter, integrating these two separate worlds into a richer multi-layered state of being. I was less focused on doing and more centred on being. As a result I got more of what mattered done in an increasingly effortless way. I was more creative and less attached to my ideas. I was more in flow with the natural rhythms within and around me. As I began to trust my intuition more, like a muscle strengthened with exercise, my inner knowings got stronger.

Once I had my own attention I found I was connected to a vast network of consciousness where ideas, solutions, and connections would download easily. The process was self-teaching and ever-deepening. I felt part of a whole system of energy; expansive, connected, peaceful and invigorated.

The answer lies within, do not seek it without unknown

How Did it Happen?

It took ten years of ignoring the practice, and another five years of actively resisting before I made a start. Yet once underway the benefits were almost immediate. Like many things that are difficult in the beginning or awkward to start, meditation took a little bit of practice to get over feeling self-conscious, and a little longer to tap into the joy within.

I began by meditating for just a few minutes each day, the ring of the timer a welcome signal that the ordeal was over. It wasn’t long before my self-enforced time limit felt too restrictive. Over the coming weeks and months I gradually increased the length of the background music until I was meditating for 30 minutes at a time. My practise gently grew just by nurturing it, no spread-sheet required.

Angelic singing or tracks with too much melody were distracting and kept me up in my head. I would start humming along with the music, plus it was too easy to measure time passing with the song. I gave myself permission to play and experimented with swirling chants, haunting hymns, and eastern instrumentals.

Guided meditations were also helpful in the early stages [there are many online]. Tricky as it was to stay awake with my eyes closed, following the guided imagery and body relaxation prompts helped me let go mentally and physically without falling asleep.

Meditation brings wisdom Buddha

In Closing

Seven years have passed since I began those grudging two-minute trips. I still meditate every day or two. A combination of didgeridoo tracks and soft drum-beats helps create a soothing cocoon for me, and a way to smoothly disconnect from the outer world and sink into the one within. Although I still love incense and candles, the props have become less important as the transition to my inner world has become smoother and easier.

Looking back I can see how practising meditation ‘little and often’ has delivered on every one of its promises and more. I still approach each inward journey like a beginner, though now I do so whole-heartedly.

Remember, there are no rules to follow and no end-point to get to. The practice itself is the beginning and the end.

Enjoy finding what works for you.

NOTES TO MYSELF - Ways to Keep Growing

- Keep a journal and jot down any insights, or sketch any symbols that come during the meditation

- Follow up on any ideas, inspiration, hints, and suggestions

- Don’t hesitate to strip away props, or add new ones to the practise. Things that have come and gone for me include crystals, candles, goddess/angel cards, homeopathic drops, and aura sprays—to name a few. Each was a lovely step in my journey and helpful along the way.

- Take it outside; sit in the bright light of a full moon, or on a sacred hilltop amongst the tussock.

- Journey to sacred sites and connect with their energy. Be still and listen for the whispers.

- Include other people, on girlie weekends, or in ceremonial retreats.

- Maintain a practice when travelling away from home. I shift into walking meditations, or photography-as-meditation.

- Plan an annual retreat with a wise teacher, or intuitive guide who deepens and expands your experience.



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