Just let your mind go blank…Yeah, right!

When I was first interested in learning meditation, I enthusiastically went to several different local community classes, which, although well-meaning, ended up putting me off meditation for many years thereafter.

The first one I went to was the twisted-up-like-a-pretzel variety: The young and very fit-looking teacher, with buns like steel, worked very hard to force my resisting limbs into pretzel shape, then moved on to torture other attendees, before returning to the front and, assuming a perfect full lotus position, gently encouraged us all to “just let your mind go blank.” Well, actually, that wasn’t too difficult because my mind was focussed on the single sensation of every fibre in my body simultaneously releasing an unvoiced scream of agony! But I was new to the class and I didn’t want to look like a total loser, so I stayed like that – for how many lifetimes? – until well after the meditation session had finished. Beyond speech, it took some time for the teacher to realise that my stationary posture and contorted facial expression wasn’t due to being in an ecstatic state of rapture, but that I was stuck and needed her help to slowly and carefully, avoiding potential breakages, to unfold me. I smiled weakly, she responded with a puzzled frown, and I was too embarrassed to go back.

The next class I went tried was much more my cup of tea – I got to sleep! I was a young mum with two little kids, working part-time and studying part-time. I was constantly exhausted, and for an hour each week my husband took care of the kids while I went to meditation. In this class, the teacher got us to focus on counting our breaths from one to ten and then over again from one to ten. This is the classic Zen meditation that I now believe to be one of the most effective methods. However, in this class, the teacher said it was okay to lie down on the carpeted floor of the community centre if we felt more comfortable that way. This was great! I started to count my breaths from one to ten and by the time I got to about three I was out like a light! Now this would have continued to be a great source of rest for me – albeit useless as a meditation practice for gaining any kind of insight – had it not been for my propensity for snoring loudly after only a few minutes of the twenty minute meditation sessions. The teacher would lightly tap my foot and disturb my rest… again and again. Until, after a few sessions, the teacher suggested that I come to a morning session instead of the evening session because she was getting complaints from the other meditators. Again, I slunk away in embarrassment and didn’t return.

Before giving up on meditation for another decade, I tried a group that practiced with guided visualisation meditation. I didn’t find it easy to follow the instructions as I was guided through fields of flowers and forest pathways and streams and clouds of light, accompanied by saccharine New Age synthesiser music – it was all too sugar-coated sweet for my taste. And when I was guided to a gate, I was asked to imagine the place I would love to see through that gate: This was the goal of the meditation, but by then the place I wanted to be was in bed! In the feedback afterwards, people spoke rapturously of the heavenly places they had visited with auras of the purple light of the highest states of consciousness and I felt disappointed that I wasn’t able to do the same. Although it had been relaxing, it was unsustainable and as soon as I got home it was as if I had never been to the class and I didn’t continue, preferring instead to sleep!

Later, when teaching meditation I realised that visualisation meditation is actually a very advanced practice and needs to be gradually built up as a practice. This kind of walking-though-the-meadows type of meditation is not very helpful in developing a practice that produces long-term benefits. I call it fast-food meditation: it might satisfy your immediate hunger for a moment of respite but it doesn’t help you to deal with the everyday stresses of life because it is empty calories. So, I gave up on meditation for about a decade but came back to it when I got cancer… More about this next time…

Sitting twisted like a pretzel, humming OM

For many people, meditation is something that half-naked gurus do while sitting twisted up like a pretzel, humming OM, and it all seems just too hard. I have had lots of fellow pilgrims say to me that they tried meditation but “it didn’t work” or that they just couldn’t find the time in their busy lives to take a half an hour out of the day to sit and “do nothing.” Well, this one sentence reveals just so many common misunderstandings about meditation that it’ll take a lot of blog entries to address them all! Over the coming weeks I’d like to look at just a few of them and see how we go from there.

For a start, in our Western society we are very goal-oriented and have a very outcomes-based way of thinking; that is, we set a goal and we have a clear idea of how to go about achieving that goal and how we will recognise it once we’ve achieved it. So let’s say we set out to “do meditation”, what does that suggest to you? For many, it means finding half an hour a day to sit in full lotus position, forcing your mind to “think of nothing,” and you’ll know that you’ve succeeded when your mind goes completely blank and you can still get up and walk after half an hour in pretzel mode. Well I suppose if you did yoga for hours every day and you lived in a remote cave where you wouldn’t ever be disturbed and you practiced like that for about twenty years… then, yes, I guess it’s possible.

But what about the rest of us who have tendons like piano wires and spend our waking hours rushing from home into the car to work and home again and grabbing kids and meals on the way before crashing in front of the TV exhausted? What about Mums who have the 24/7 job of taking care of the kids? Sure, I could say to you, “You must nurture yourself… take half an hour every day that is just time for you… just tell the kids, ‘Mummy’s going to take some time out’, and close the bedroom door, light a scented candle and sit quietly for 30 minutes practicing meditation.” In your dreams! No sooner will you have lit the candle and you’ll hear a knocking on the door, “Mum…. Mum….. MUUUUUUMMM!!!” It’s so unrealistic! So does that mean that meditation really is just for single yoga freaks and mung beans?

Of course not! I can’t even sit cross-legged on the floor for five minutes without the pain becoming the dominant sensation (and I don’t believe pain is necessary for any spiritual practice – more on that later). And although I have managed over the years to build up the time I can sit quietly in meditation, I am basically a Type A person and this path has been very challenging for me. So over the years, the way I teach meditation has changed as well, and now I believe that you can get just as much benefit from a one-minute meditation as you can from half an hour. And it is this one-minute meditation that I’ll be sharing with you over the next few blogs.

However, in the meantime, I do have a thirty-minute guided meditation with beautiful shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) accompaniment that I recorded in a studio some years ago, which I am happy to send you via an email attachment. It is a big file though – 26MB – so please ensure that your email can receive it. You can learn more about this deep relaxation meditation on the Guided Meditation page.