One Minute Meditation Pt1

At last all my university exams are over for the year, and I have one more year to complete before getting my BA in Japanese. But now I can enjoy a bit of a break and share some more chats with you.

Basically, the one-minute meditation is like checking your vital signs. It is an awareness exercise through which you scan your mind and body in a particular way from top to toe and then finish by taking three deep breaths. It is very simple once you understand how it works. But before going through the meditation in detail, I want to explain why this is such an effective meditation, even though it is less than a minute.

As I’ve said before, in my experience, most people are too busy to commit themselves to the longterm discipline of lengthy meditation practices such as 30 minutes a day, every day, at the same time, same place, with samurai dogged determination. I do admire those people, but it seems just too unrealistic for us mere mortals. Also, in my experience, there are people who are natural meditators, in just the same way that someone is a natural athlete or artist. And I think that my teacher in my home temple in Japan is an Olympian Gold Medallist! But, in the same way that you don’t need to be an elite sportsperson to enjoy playing tennis or going for a walk, you can enjoy meditating and benefit from meditation very quickly. The trick with one-minute meditation is to simply remember to do it, and to do it whenever you remember. But more about those tips later. Let’s just look first at why it is so effective.

Okay, when we’re going through our day, we all have these tapes running in our heads – familiar favourite mind-tunes that we are largely unaware of, but which determine so much about how we respond to the events of the day as we encounter every moment. These mind tapes are what cause us to feel stressed out and tired, but it’s hard to keep tabs on it because it’s happening in such a familiar and automatic way. It’s just like breathing, which is going on all the time but we are largely unaware of each breath coming in and going out, unless we’re out of breath from too much strenuous exercise (rarely, in my case!) It’s the same with our minds – just tootling along without being aware of it. However, every thought that you have does have an immediate impact on your body.

For example, say your sitting at the table having a quiet cuppa, grabbing a moment of respite by yourself and you’re just chilling, letting your thoughts wander. But what if you had an argument with your partner the night before – sure enough, while sitting there sipping your tea, thoughts about that argument will pop into your head and you’ll start going through it all over again, usually with a sense of indulgent self-righteousness – after all, you were in the right, right? What you’re probably unaware of, though, is that when you think about the argument and how angry you felt, your body will be responding as if it is really happening all over again. So in that moment, when you think that you are relaxing with a cup of tea, your body is actually responding as if you are in the middle of an argument and experiencing a stressful adrenalin rush, which in turn puts a great deal of unnecessary stress on your nervous system.

Try this exercise… next time you go over an event in your mind, whether it’s about an argument or a sad movie you watched or the excitement of a first kiss, take a moment to bring your awareness into your body and feel that emotion physically. What is interesting about this exercise is to realise that although you are not actually in the reality of that situation – after all, it is a memory of something that happened in the past and is not really happening right now – your body is responding not to what is happening in the present moment but instead responds to the memory of something that is no longer happening. Give this exercise a go and let me know what you find. Next time I’ll look at just how this mind-body connection works through your autonomic nervous system (sounds scientific, but actually the basics of meditation really are just working with these kinds of scientific processes – there isn’t anything particularly spiritual or otherworldly or metaphysical about it… that comes later!)

The C word

No, not that one! I’m talking about “Cancer” (complete with the requisite capital letter to give it the gravity it deserves!) I remember reading a bumper sticker once that said “Cancer is a word, not a sentence” but when that word is spoken to you by a doctor, platitudes like this are utterly meaningless. I was living in Japan when I was told I had cancer and, as was the custom there at that time (still is as far as I know), it is not ┬áthe patient who is first told. This is because there is a belief that if a person knows they have a terminal illness, then they just give up and lose the will to live. So it was my husband who was told first and then he and the doctor discussed whether it was the right thing to tell me or not. Happily for me, because I was a foreigner they agreed to tell me.

I remember the moment so well because I suddenly felt like I was in a TV soapie. I mean, it was so cliched – the doctor in hospital whites keeping his face a suitable blend of concern and neutrality as he announced my “sentence”, while my white-faced husband looked at the floor and nervously twisted his wedding ring round and round, for once, lost for words. An awkward silence followed as if someone had just farted and we were all trying to pretend no-one heard it. I’m not being flippant, but it really felt so much like a stage set that I almost started to giggle while I waited anxiously for the punchline.

The prognosis, however, was very good, and with surgery and radiotherapy I was told that I should be okay, but it was difficult to know until after the operation. When we left the doctor’s surgery my husband thought it would be a good idea to take my mind off the bad news (and his I suspect). So we went to see a movie at a nearby cinema. I was feeling numb and didn’t care what movie we saw – my husband chose Batman Forever. When I look back now, I think it was a hilariously inappropriate choice but perhaps he needed the noise and fast-paced action to drown out the voices that might rise up inside him. For a person who was always in control, it was a great shock for him and he felt utterly helpless. I think a lot of men are like him. As for me, I couldn’t stop the tape that just kept going round and round…”I’ve got cancer, I’ve got cancer…” trying to make it real somehow by chanting this over and over like a mantra. After some time I suddenly realised that, just as The Riddler was laughing maniacally in the midst of mental breakdown, I was saying this mantra out aloud but because the movie sound was so deafeningly loud no one could hear me. I remember so clearly how everything – the crazy Riddler, Batman in his mask, the scarred, damaged Two Face…and me – all seemed like a surreal dream. And it seemed to stay surreal right through the hospital and recovery time, until the day when I got the all-clear and I felt utterly overwhelmed with gratitude just for the blessing of being alive…and truly knowing it.

That’s when I first started to learn about meditation, which was what I was going to share with you before I got sidetracked with the background story! Sorry about that – I will share more about actually learning to meditate soon. But I just want to add, I feel really committed to sharing with you about how to meditate because I know that it can be a tremendously helpful tool in times of personal crisis. If I had known how to meditate when I went through my treatment and recovery for cancer I would have had more energy to focus on healing. However, I used a lot of energy trying to stay calm but not knowing how, trying to stop the tapes that kept whirring around my mind but not knowing how to, trying to suppress my anxiety and fear but not knowing how to. Yet now, many years down the track, life still throws the odd curve-ball but having spent time meditating (and I’m not talking about hours set aside every day – really just several minutes a day is enough) I know that I have so much more energy to focus on getting through the tough times without being so distracted by energy-draining negative thoughts. I’ll explain more about what I mean by this next time…